The Vital Humanities
A DISCUSSION OFHumanizing Science and Engineering for the Twenty-First Century
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The humanities bring a range of important perspectives to bear on the scientific and technological issues with which institutions such as Georgia Tech wrestle, as Kaye Husbands Fealing, Aubrey Deveny Incorvaia, and Richard Utz note in “Humanizing Science and Engineering for the Twenty-First Century” (Issues, Fall 2022). I want to start from that general argument in favor of interdisciplinarity and make a slightly different case, however.
First, it’s important to note that the humanities are not the arts. Humanists are trained in analysis and interpretation; they are not trained in aesthetic production. Thus, when the article cites case studies from a Georgia Tech publication called Humanistic Perspectives in a Technological World that turn out to be about technical writing, music composition, and theater production, I worry. None of those fields center analysis—they all focus on production.
Collapsing the arts into the heading “humanities” is not uncommon. When I went to the Washington, DC, launch of the report cited in this article, The Integration of the Humanities and Arts with Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine in Higher Education: Branches from the Same Tree, I was struck by the poster presentations, which included projects that featured dance, music, art, and poetry. But not a single one of them included the humanities. Nothing analytical, critical, or interpretive. When “arts and humanities” is the framework being used, the humanities tend to disappear. It’s easier to talk about the arts: everyone knows what music or poetry is. It’s harder to be concrete in talking about philosophy or literary criticism. But what philosophers and literary critics do is just as essential as what musicians or poets do: they enable us to interpret the world around us and to posit a better one.
So what I want to point out is the specific value of integrating humanities into science and engineering by recognizing the expertise of humanities practitioners. That expertise is in visual analysis (art history), ethics and problem-solving (philosophy), close reading and analysis (literary criticism), and interpretation of the past (history). The doctor who likes reading novels is probably not the right person to be teaching the narrative medicine course when you have experts in narrative theory on your campus. The article notes that Florida International University’s Herbert Wertheim College of Medicine “uses art analysis during museum tours as a practice analogous to detailed patient diagnosis.” I hope the art analysis is done by trained art historians.
Interpretation and analysis are important skills for practitioners in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) to learn, certainly. But the humanities are valuable for more than “equipping STEM practitioners with a humanistic lens.” STEM researchers achieve the best interdisciplinary work not when they apply a humanistic lens themselves but when they partner with those trained in humanities disciplines. I think of Jay Clayton, for example, whose team of humanists at Vanderbilt University’s Center for Genetic Privacy and Identity in Community Settings, or GetPreCiSe, analyzes cultural treatments of the topic of genetics. How do novels, films, stories, and other cultural expressions address the moral and ethical consequences of developments in genetics, and what do those cultural texts tell us about our society’s changing sense of itself? How do such texts shape social attitudes? These are humanities questions calling for humanities methodologies and humanities expertise.
Paula M. Krebs
Modern Language Association
As an educator and researcher concerned with equity, I’m tasked with looking for and identifying useful connections between science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (the STEM fields) and the arts, a collective span otherwise known as STEAM. My work amplifies the contributions of artists and cultural practitioners who are often left out of the discourse in STEM areas. For example, popular comics and movies give us Shuri in Black Panther, who uses her knowledge of science, culture, and the natural resources around her to design and build things. As an artist who uses artificial intelligence, I combine my knowledge of color theory, culture, literature, creative writing, and image editing to create unique art that captures the spirit of the present moment.
While reading the essay by Kaye Husbands Fealing, Aubrey Deveny Incorvaia, and Richard Utz, I thought about Albert Einstein, who used thought experiments as a way to understand and illustrate physics concepts. Einstein considered creative practice as essential to problem-solving. He took music breaks and engaged in combinatory play, which involved taking seemingly unrelated things outside the realms of science (e.g., music and art) and combining them to come up with new ideas. These interludes helped him “connect the dots” of his experiments at opportune moments when he played the violin. Einstein’s ideas influenced musicians such as John Coltrane, who used theoretical physics to inform his understanding of jazz composition.
Scientists who embrace the arts use cognitive tools that the biologist and historian of science Robert Root-Bernstein identifies as observing, imaging, recognizing patterns, modeling, playing, and more to provide “a clever, detailed, and demanding fitness program for the creative mind” across scientific and artistic disciplines. A study led by Root-Bernstein considered the value of the arts for scientists. He and his collaborators found that scientists often commented on the usefulness of artistic practices in their work. They suggested that their findings could have important implications in public policy and education. Conducted over a decade ago, this research has not yet led to a marked shift in science policies and the development of STEM and STEAM curricula. Science, the arts, and the humanities are still siloed in most US institutions.
Many scientists and musicians never realize the links between physics and the polyrhythmic structures in music. K–12+ physics teachers don’t teach their students about the connections between theoretical physics and jazz. Music students never consider physics when learning to play Coltrane’s “Giant Steps,” and I think this is a missed opportunity for interdisciplinary learning. Scholars such as the multidisciplinary Ethan Zuckerman argue for the combining of technical and creative innovation through the use of artificial intelligence, which has a potential for composing music, visualizing ideas, and understanding literature. The gaps or frictions in the sciences, the arts, and the humanities belie the fact that all these disciplines or fields are charged with investigating what it means to be human and how we might improve our states of wellness and well-being. To create a more inclusive future inside and across disciplines, it’s up to all of us to make these connections more apparent, and our engagements with inclusion more intentional.
Assistant Director, Lesley STEAM Learning Lab
Kaye Husbands Fealing, Aubrey Deveny Incorvaia, and Richard Utz trace the historical development of the argument that science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) and the humanities, arts, and social sciences (HASS) should be integrated. In the first century BCE—far further back than Vannevar Bush’s landmark report or the Branches from the Same Tree and The Fundamental Role of Arts and Humanities in Medical Education (FRAHME) reports that Husbands Fealing et al. foreground—the Roman architect and engineer Vitruvius wrote that architecture should meet three criteria: firmness, fitness, and delight. Buildings should exhibit structural integrity but also meet the needs of their occupants and be pleasant spaces for them. Or in an example from today’s world, smartphones should not only work; they should also seamlessly fit into their owners’ daily lives and contribute to their self-identity.
Translated into Vitruvian terms, an overemphasis on STEM addresses firmness but neglects fitness and delight, which are where HASS can help. Critical analysis from the humanities and social scientific investigations play an essential role in assessing, predicting, and designing for fitness. And delight is the domain of the arts. (“Delight” is meant in a broad sense of aesthetic engagement, and may include provocative discomfiture if that is what is intended.)
Framed in this way, the authors correctly state that considering fitness and delight too late is bound to lead to a narrow conception of whatever problem is being addressed. By treating complex problems as STEM problems at their core, with HASS contributions as mere “add-ons,” we risk solving the wrong problems or only the narrow subproblems that are tractable using STEM methods. Computing professionals in my experience often consider user interfaces to be window dressing—something to be considered after the core functionality is nailed down. In contrast, the Human-Centered Computing PhD program at Georgia Tech—the authors’ own institution and formerly my own—takes the perspective that a human-centered computing solution to any problem has an intertwined Vitruvian structure. Students learn to conceive of technology as part of a broader social web. But they do more than study technology from the sidelines; they design and advocate, much as the FRAHME report’s “Prism Model” encourages medical students to do.
So far, so good, but there’s an elephant in the room. At STEM-focused universities, STEM and HASS are not just separate: they have different statuses. It is no accident that at Stanford University, the STEM and HASS students label themselves as “techies” and “fuzzies,” respectively. STEM professionals may magnanimously acknowledge that HASS contributions can help them, but that is not the same as treating STEM and HASS as co-equal contributors to sociotechnical challenges. My experience of the computational media program that Husbands Fealing et al. cite as an example of successful integration included conversations with colleagues and students who referred to it as “Computer Science Lite.” The valorization of technical rigor—or the mislabeling of epistemic rigidity as rigor—is a badge of masculinized self-identity in many STEM environments, and overcoming that will be a HASS problem in its own right.
Provost and Executive Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs
Professor, Computer Science
Missouri University of Science and Technology
While science will benefit from greater integration with the humanities, arts, and social sciences (HASS), so too will the HASS fields benefit from greater knowledge of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). What better place to do this than the undergraduate bachelors programs across the country, as demonstrated by many colleges and universities offering a liberal education with curricular requirements of all majors to take courses across the disciplines. Many institutions moved away from such requirements in the 1960s and ’70s, and it is time to bring them back, for the reasons that Kaye Husbands Fealing, Aubrey Deveny Incorvaia, and Richard Utz articulate.
In 2010, four Vassar College students produced a film, Still Here, for a class on documentary film. The film chronicled the life of Randy Baron, from New York City, who lived with HIV for 30 years. He survived for decades because of a rare genetic mutation, while he watched almost all his friends die from the disease. The film, and the four students who produced it, demonstrates the value of a liberal education and exposure to a variety of disciplines. The film was powerful because it integrated the history of the 1980s, the public’s response to the HIV epidemic, and the politics involved, including the Reagan administration’s slow response, the psychology and trauma of grief, and of course the science of the disease. Without the integration of the history, politics, science, and art, this film wouldn’t have won the Cannes prize that it did for best student documentary.
The student director, Alex Camilleri, commented that to be an effective filmmaker, film had to be secondary in one’s life, behind first being human. This applies to all STEM-HASS majors. While expertise and depth of knowledge are of course important to all disciplines, bringing understanding of the context of your work in the world, as well as the variety of methodologies used by various disciplines, allows for greater creativity and the advancement of knowledge important to improving the human condition. The slow response to the AIDS epidemic and the development of antivirals in the 1980s and the ’90s has clearly informed the world’s response to COVID-19, saving lives across the globe. It is to be hoped that historians, scientists, politicians, and storytellers of all types will study the COVID-19 episode to improve future responses to pandemics.
Some observers worry that requiring students to take courses that they wouldn’t otherwise choose will not be productive. But the point is in fact to expose students to ideas and disciplines that they are not familiar with and wouldn’t necessarily choose to pursue. If STEM and HASS faculty believe in the benefits of more interdisciplinary exposure for their majors, it can easily become part of the culture and understood to be an important part of the education that will benefit their work in the future, not take away from it.
Catharine B. Hill
Managing Director, Ithaka S + R
President Emerita, Vassar College
Kaye Husbands Fealing, Aubrey Deveny Incorvaia, and Richard Utz effectively address the critical importance of “intercultural” dialogue between science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (the STEM fields) and the humanities, arts, and social sciences to restore a holistic educational model that leverages diverse perspectives. It is indeed time to come together across sectors and disciplines to organize a cohesive response to the intractable problems that plague humankind, such as novel viruses, racism, radicalization, hunger, and damage to the earth.
The network I direct, a2ru, is devoted to not only integrating the arts in STEM and other disciplines, but also providing demonstrable examples of integrated research to help communicate the promise of these collaborations to policymakers and the public. A2ru’s Ground Works, a peer-reviewed platform of arts-integrated projects, features many examples of research that integrates art and the humanities in STEM.
For example, “Just-in-Time Ecology of Interdisciplinarity: Working with Viral Imaginations in Pandemic Times” is a fascinating example of where and how this transdisciplinary can exist in the research culture—in this case, calibrated as a coordinated response to a real-time, real-world problem. Other projects demonstrate close and innovative collaborations. “Greenlight SONATA,” a collaboration between a composer, ethnomusicologist, and civil engineer, tested the hypothesis that translating simulated traffic information into music could lead to musical resolution of persistent traffic congestion. “Unfolding the Genome,” a collaboration between scientists and artists, explored how the human genome, the DNA contained in every cell of the body, folds in 3D. A recent special collection on the platform, “Vibrant Ecologies of Research,” looks beyond the project level to the systems level. As its guest editor, Aaron D. Knochel, explains, “The project work and commentaries explore vibrant ecologies of research deepening our understanding of the institutional, social, and epistemological systems that effectively weave arts-based inquiry into the scholarly fabric of research.”
The a2ru network is seeing a subtle yet consistent and accelerating shift in STEM programs finding pathways for their students to benefit from arts and humanities studies, to better prepare them for a changing workforce but also to improve their individual wellness and ability to contribute to society within their chosen profession. There is a critical need to bridge a siloed disciplinary culture in higher education (and other sectors). We need networks such as a2ru in place to effectively build those bridges.
As the authors note, Branches from the Same Tree, a 2018 report by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, focused on integrating curricula within these various fields. A second phase of this work is surfacing examples of integrated research in not only higher education, but in the industry and civic spheres as well. Allied networks such as a2ru, designed and determined to work across differences, can lead us there.