Humanities vs Science: is writing a dying art?


Science and humanities are often segregated in education and professional development. Even as a personal interest, the two disciplines are usually considered incompatible. In reality, they are complementary. Imagine if all science degrees included core humanities subjects in the first year? How would scientists, and science, benefit from a basic humanities perspective? This series looks for answers in some of the most common humanities disciplines.

Mentioning the word ‘humanities’ in a room full of scientists is pretty risky. For some scientists, there is a stigma attached to the study of ‘arty’ subjects. The process of research and inquiry in classics, history, literature and anthropology is very different to the scientific method. Yet neither approach is wrong, both are equally creative, and both have the ultimate goal of discovering and sharing knowledge. Having studied and worked in both disciplines, I can’t see any way that one is more rigorous than the other. But there is a huge difference in the way that most students are educated in each discipline. Humanities courses, in particular, are often better at teaching students how to write.

Science is about generating and sharing knowledge to build our collective wisdom. So communicating the results of scientific research is a core responsibility of a scientist…something that has become a bit of a topical issue. Experts of various disciplines have been sharing great ideas through blogs, popular science media and academic journals on how scientists can communicate more effectively. However, the majority of these pieces focus on communication as a practising scientist, i.e. after graduation. Far less attention is given to how communication skills can be enhanced prior to starting a science career by top-down initiatives at the education level.

The value of studying humanities subjects has been recognised for medical degrees (e.g. here, here, here), but has yet to filter down to other sciences. Although, some ecologists do recognise that interdisciplinary understanding of cultural, historical and social nuances of the study system can add a valuable dimension to many research projects.

This is the first in a series on how studying humanities can be useful to scientists. As I was writing this post, the dynamic ecologist, Jeremy Fox, posted this blog on the death throes of ecology bloggers. Thought-provoking, and definitely worth a read if you write or read ecology blogs. So I’ve delayed my first instalment to discuss his post instead, as it gives a great introduction to the theme.

A number of interesting hypotheses for ecology-blog-death were mentioned in Fox’s post, the comments on his post and this response blog from science communication PhD candidate Paige Brown Jarreau. Some of the hypotheses are probably valid. However, most of them considered the ‘present’ for ecology bloggers – why they do or don’t blog, what they blog about, who they blog to, how they fit into the blogging scene etc. None of the hypotheses considered the ‘past’ – the educational context of the discipline that inspires blogging. Many non-scientific academic disciplines have a very active blogging culture – Jeremy names economics as one; but literarians, historians, antiquities/classics researchers, sociologists and archaeologists are all over the blogosphere too.

So what makes ecologists different? Maybe they don’t blog as much as academics in other disciplines because writing is simply not the focus of an ecologist’s training?

I looked at course structures for Bachelor of Arts (General history) and Bachelor of Science (Ecology) from the University of Queensland, University of New South Wales and Australian National University. Caveat for data-lovers: this sample is not indicative of the whole world. But I’m confident you will find similar results if you repeated this analysis with more humanities/sciences comparisons and more universities. I chose these universities because they are in the top 5 ranked Australian universities* and they all had course outlines (including assessment details) posted online. I collected a total of 99 history courses and 88 ecology courses and I specifically looked at the number of longform written assessments per course (from now on just ‘essays’, but this includes essays, journal papers, and structured reports based on critical arguments) and the total contribution of essays to the student’s final mark. See below** if you want details of the methods I used to collect and analyse the data.

Overall, average number of essays per course was higher in history courses (1.9) than ecology courses (0.78). The average total contribution of essays to the final course mark was also higher in history (60.1%) than ecology courses (20%).

total

When I broke the courses down into compulsory and elective courses, the average number of essay assessments in compulsory history courses was 2.6 and their average contribution to the final mark was 78.6%. In compulsory ecology courses, the average number of essays was 0.4 and their average contribution to the final mark was 12.2%.

In history courses, the number and grade contribution of essays didn’t differ between introductory or advanced courses. But for ecology courses, students did more writing, and were expected to produce better quality of writing, in advanced courses…despite the fact that they had developed hardly any longform, critical writing skills in their first year.

advanced

A content analysis would reveal more clues here. For example, out of the science courses, I noticed that the courses that contained more essays were generally more aligned with humanities contexts, like environmental management and scientific philosophy. Also, humanities course lists tended to include more interdisciplinary courses (e.g. environmental humanities, or big history) than the science course lists.

Blogging is one of many forms of popular science communication. But at the end of the day, it is also a written genre. So what disciplines are best at teaching the contexts around written genres?

© Manu Saunders 2015

*Disclaimer: I also did both my undergraduate degrees at UQ.

**Data from each course outline were obtained on: (i) if the course was compulsory or elective; (ii) if the course was a foundational (first year) subject or an advanced subject; (iii) how many pieces of individual longform written assessment (LWA) were included in the course; and (iv) the total percentage contribution of all LWA to the student’s final mark for that course. LWA was defined as essays, papers, articles or reports greater than 500 words that required literature research, critical analysis, discussion, and construction of a complex argument. Short answer quizzes, group assignments, practical components, field reports and laboratory reports that entailed simple documentation or analysis of data without in-depth discussions were not included. Field-based courses were not included. Differences in means were determined with t tests.

8 thoughts on “Humanities vs Science: is writing a dying art?

  1. The Snail of Happiness March 12, 2015 / 2:13 AM

    As one with degrees in both humanities and science and a job that combines science and writing, I feel that both disciplines have something to learn from the other.
    When I did my first degree (a BSc), much of the assessment took the form of essays, but in those days, classes were so much smaller. By the time I came to teach ecology to undergraduates, my first year class contained 250 students and the prospect of marking that many essays filled me with dread and was considered unfeasible… we ended up examining them by means of electronically marked multiple choice questions along with some short answer questions. Sadly, this meant that they did not need to learn how to craft a longer piece of writing.
    When I started to study humanities (for my MEd), I was appalled by the quality of data collection and the use of anecdotal evidence presented as representative data, but really enjoyed reading well-written papers and writing them myself too.
    I have to say, much of the research/popular writing I read these days in humanities and science leaves something to be desired and many authors are very waffly. I’m not convinced that youngsters come to university with well-developed writing skills and, in science, there is often no opportunity to work on them.
    What’s the answer? I guess all scientists should learn about science communication… just as all humanities students should learn about robust data collection! Perhaps they should do some of it together!!

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    • manuelinor March 12, 2015 / 10:32 AM

      Thanks for the comment! You’ve raised some more interesting points. Yes, there are different styles of humanities, just as there are different styles of science. I think the differences in the data collection aspect is the main bugbear for some people, but it is a matter of context. I’m not familiar with education research approaches as my humanities experience was with literature/classics/history – ‘data’ were words, texts and meanings instead of plants or insects and the text had to be interpreted as a whole system. Kind of similar, but hard to compare at the same time!
      And I agree with you there should be more collaboration between the two disciplines!

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  2. onebendintheriver March 12, 2015 / 9:30 AM

    In the US, it’s normal to require a substantial number of breadth subjects even for a science major. That means writing, drama, history, anthropology, for example, and also cooking classes or how to make a surfboard. It essentially adds a year to the degree (four instead of three). I agree that in Australia the class sizes have meant that really meaningful assessments have often been abandoned in favour of just keeping up with the workload. It really wouldn’t be that difficult to have breadth requirements, though.

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    • manuelinor March 12, 2015 / 10:39 AM

      Thanks for raising that – yes, other countries have very different education systems. Some European countries have more interdisciplinary education styles too. I understand the point about class sizes (and having to read 250 essays, as mentioned above!!) but I think there are ways around it. Many of the history classes I looked at, and some of my humanities classes did this too, had a staggered choice system – where students were required to submit 1 or 2 essays over the course, but there would be a different tutorial topic every week and students could choose which of the topics they wanted to write on…so the lecturer isn’t marking the whole class at once.

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  3. Zain September 4, 2015 / 12:41 AM

    Sorry Manu, it looks like you and I have a serious disagreement here. Firstly, the 3 papers you link to re the value of humanities to the practice of medicine are not science at all. The first paper is an opinion price written by a doctor, perhaps in the later stages of his career. This is a characteristic I have noted in many technical people. When they are young and still building their careers they do not care about art of humanities, other than as a source of entertainment. It’s only when they have secured their careers and achieved a level of seniority, which affords them them the luxury of being retrospective, do they develop this sort of thinking whereby they look at other aspects of life. It is only natural that they try to link these other aspects ton their own fields. Then other two papers are only marginally more scientific. None of these can be used as being scientific proof.

    Also the problem with the first paper is that it is blind to the failings of humanists. The paper starts out by mentioning how Nazi doctors were lacking in humanity. What the author fails to see is that in Nazi society it was not just doctors, scientists, and engineers who failed humanity, but so did the humanists! One could even say that when they were most needed, humanists, with their supposed monopoly on understanding what it means to be human, failed miserably! Their failing is beyond redemption! At least scientists and engineers redeem their professions by coming up with inventions that help humanity. And as humanists are constantly berating technologists, we have no understanding of what it means to be human. So at least techies have that excuse to fall back on when they fail humanity. When humanists fail they have no excuse!

    Next, we must ask what do we want from our doctors and what do doctors owe society. A medical education is a huge investment of time and money. A person who makes this kind of commitment, deserves the best possible education. Society places immense trust and faith in these individuals and the education they committed too. A doctors job is to diagnose and treat. That is what their education should be about. The field is rapidly evolving and just keeping up with the latest developments and fitting them in a medical curriculum is hard enough. The only way humanities courses can be added is either by extending the time (and hence increasing the cost) to accommodate the add-on humanities courses, or replacing some medical courses with humanities courses. Would you rather have a cold, detached doctor, who is at the top of his game because he took as many medical courses as possible, or a warm, empathetic doctor who decided to take fewer medicine courses to take some humanities?

    Empathy can be the kiss of death for a doctors career. Unfortunately doctors, must remain cold and detached from their patients. Can you imagine the mental toll on doctors who empathize with all their patients? How can doctors empathize with all the pain and suffering they see on a daily basis and not go mad? In a way being cold and detached is a form or a self-defence mechanism for doctors, and you want them to give that up? Paediatric oncologists and ICU nurses have high burnout rates simply because they cannot stand to witness pain and suffering, it’s easy to become emotionally invested in your patient when that patient happens to be a child. Now picture having to tell parents that their child will not survive or will live an abbreviated pain filled life?

    In an age of specialization, the extinction of the renaissance man is inevitable, but hardly something to be mourned. As times change, societies evolve, and people adapt. It’s easy to forget that the Renaissance man was a product of a time when such luxuries were affordable and even possible because of the nature of knowledge and its acquisition at the time. Today we live in a different world, in a time to specialization. Universities have evolved to meet challenges of the changing. And engineering curriculum from 1915, would be wholly inadequate for the world of 2015. Over time, out of sheer necessarily, technical curricula have had to remove more and more humanities courses to make way for technical material, simply to keep the technical degree relevant and valuable.

    For centuries the world hardly changed, in that time a classical education was sufficient for those who could afford it. We have come to expect technological miracles, in every field of human endeavour, from the latest gadgets to the newest cures for hitherto lethal and incurable diseases. The price humanity has paid for the creation and maintenance of the modern world is the extinction of the Renaissance man, the surrender of the classical education, the decreasing value placed on humanities. I believe what we have received and achieved in return makes the price paid seem trivial.

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