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‘It’s about building identity’: New First Year Experience aims to introduce new students to humanities

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Humanities First

The breadth of the humanities and the variety of ideas it traverses can make it difficult to provide a single definition. For incoming first-year students that are interested in the humanities, it’s important for them to understand what this division of the College of Arts & Sciences entails. 

To better introduce students to the humanities, divisional dean Brian Reed and classics professor Sarah Stroup set out to create a first-year experience that would provide students with an understanding of the humanities and its role in the world today.  

The “Humanities First” First Year Experience is a full-year program consisting of one course per quarter team-taught by three faculty members from different departments within the humanities division. Funded by a $700,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the program will begin Fall 2020. 

“It’s about building identity and conveying that identity to incoming students,” Stroup said. “[It will] get the students who are really interested in humanities into campus and help them learn what the humanities are.”

There are four divisions in the College of Arts & Sciences: the natural sciences, the social sciences, the arts, and the humanities. These different divisions all examine, in different ways, human existence. For those studying the humanities, language is used to ask questions of human systems and culture through text. 

“A lot of students have these broad interests when they come in but they don’t know what they can do with it,” Stroup said. “At the UW, we’ve seen increased interest in the humanities from our incoming students, so we’re trying to get a little bit better at articulating to students all the things humanists do.” 

The program will be taught by professor Chris Hamm from the department of Asian languages and literature, assistant teaching professor Lauren Poyer from the department of Scandinavian studies, and Stroup from the department of classics, providing a variety of backgrounds and perspectives to give students a sense of both the differences and commonalities within humanities research. 

This coming year, the program will be centered on the concept of the journey, each faculty member providing a different perspective on the idea. Stroup, for example, will explore the journey by reading Homer’s “The Odyssey” in tandem with the modern text “Thank You for Your Service” by David Finkel, which follows stories of returning veterans.

Through this better understanding of what the humanities are, the program aims to also provide students with a greater understanding of the overall value of a humanities education. 

“The ability to write well, and to argue well, and to research rapidly; this is never going to hurt you. Ever,” Stroup said. “Every single field is benefited by communicating well and clearly. And quite frankly, that’s the humanities.” 

Stroup pointed out that employers and companies see a humanities education as something incredibly valuable. She mentioned that it has been seen for a long time that while other degrees in STEM fields are very employable, those with liberal arts degrees who can communicate clearly are often the ones who advance in the company. 

The “Humanities First” program will allow students to see where the humanities fit within their community and future professional careers. By learning about how the humanities influence public space and connecting with those in the field, students will be provided a set of tools to communicate between academic scholarship and research communities and the public at large. 

“With a typical or traditional model of what humanities does, we don’t have these opportunities for working in teams and getting out and doing all of these sorts of hands-on things,” Stroup said. “When humanists go out and get jobs, however, this is what they’re doing.”  

Not only are the humanities an employable educational background, but they also provide an education that gives us a better understanding of the world in which we live. 

“Studying the humanities can give you both synchronically a broader sense of the world that you live in and where your particular specialization fits into that world,” Hamm said. “But it also gives you a historic sense … to understand that the ways things work, the way things fit together, the way we do things now is part of a historical evolving process.” 

For Hamm, he sees the humanities as important now as ever. With a world that has begun to see education as a means to acquire a career, it’s important to remember these other aspects education offers. 

“I think the importance of this program now … is precisely because, in some ways, our world and our education world is becoming more constricted and more utilitarian,” Hamm said. “I think that it’s especially important now as we focus on those ways to also keep a foot in, to keep grounded in this more fundamental educational mode.” 

Reach writer Andrew Ronstadt at Twitter: @AndrewRonstadt 

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