The Interdisciplinary Humanities: A Platform for Experiential Learning of Workplace Skills

Yuen-Gen Liang and Touba Ghadessi, April 2013

In their article "No More Plan B" (Perspectives on History, October 2011), Anthony Grafton and James Grossman called upon history graduate programs to encourage their students to envision and acquire skills applicable to employment outside the academy. Students of history have long trekked down nonacademic career paths; indeed, they are the overwhelming majority of the undergraduates in our classrooms. In order to highlight the skills that the teaching and learning of history can impart, it is worth reflecting upon the experiences we offer undergraduates and how they connect to future employment.

In the collaborative offices where many students will eventually work, there is a demand for people who can showcase their talents by taking actions that are supported by evidence, while navigating the diverse and oftentimes conflicting perspectives of co-workers and clients. The study of history and other humanistic fields helps prepare students to undertake these tasks in a number of ways. History students advance arguments after researching, absorbing, and analyzing information that is at times copious and other times scarce. In addition, they learn to articulate their points of view through written, oral, and/or visual presentations that put their positions to the test among experts and peers. A liberal arts education, in particular, encourages students to acquire and process information from a variety of fields—an ability that will help them adapt to new types of jobs in an ever-changing, innovation-based economy.

It was with these issues in mind that we created concrete opportunities for students to learn and practice these skills within the study of history and the humanities. We provided these opportunities by organizing the 2011 New England Renaissance Conference (NERC), curating a related exhibition, and teaching two "connected" courses: Renaissance and Reformation and Ruling Families of the Renaissance.

Each year, faculty at a participating New England campus organize and host the NERC based on themes and activities of their choosing. For 2011, we held a conference on "Expanding Relations: Families in the Renaissance" at Wheaton College in Massachusetts. At the same time, we presented an exhibition, "The Art of Intellectual Community: Early Modern Objects and Pedagogy," that displayed 38 early modern objects from Wheaton's permanent collection, including paintings, sculpture, prints, a tapestry, a manuscript, printed books, textiles, metalwork, woodwork, tiles, and stained glass.

Keeping in mind that this was an opportunity to develop a wide range of skills, we deliberately included student participation on many levels. The conference proceedings had to be accessible to undergraduates, so we asked that presenters direct their papers to a broader public—not just to history majors and academics. We adjusted the curricula in the courses we taught concurrent to the conference and exhibition to help prepare students to follow the presentations and participate in discussions. Liang's Renaissance and Reformation class began by offering students a general overview of early modern Europe and then examined a variety of individuals and the multivalent and ambivalent roles they played in different types of communities. Ghadessi's course, Ruling Families of the Renaissance, explored how biologically and socially constituted families asserted and maintained power and the visual evidence that was created out of these processes.

The courses also taught students how to gather and process information and then marshal and deploy it effectively and professionally. As part of this instruction, Liang trained the students in public speaking. Each student gave two seven-minute speeches, followed by an oral critique by Liang, assessing historical substance, articulation of a main point, and effectiveness of delivery. By becoming more aware of the intricacies of public speaking, students became more cognizant of how and why professionals, including researchers at the conference, convey information to an audience. Ghadessi's art history students researched each object displayed at the exhibition. Studying their provenance, historical context, and visual relevance, students transformed multifaceted information into extensive wall texts and an exhibition catalog accessible to a broader audience. By performing primary research, synthesizing information, and communicating it with a public in mind, they developed highly transferable skills applicable to the nonacademic workplace.

Wheaton College's Connections curriculum links sets of two or three classes that enable students to study a given topic through two or more disciplinary lenses. In this case, our history and art history courses were "connected" around a common theme: how individuals created communities in the Renaissance. Students also modeled professional conduct, sharing research and collaborating through our connected courses. Art history students presented final papers on how objects illustrate the processes of community formation to the history students. History students relied on the exhibition objects and wall texts that had been researched and composed by art history students in the final papers that they subsequently presented at a student-organized conference. To do so, history students wrote and submitted 300-word abstracts that the art history students arranged into panels based on themes they had developed and synthesized. The art history students also served as chairs and discussants on panels they had planned. In both cases, students presented themselves and their work to an audience of peers, and in doing so, they modeled their conference planning and conduct on our organization of the New England Renaissance Conference.

Our pedagogical experiments made an impact on the two courses we taught, and they also led to long-term positive consequences. Along with the 19 students in our two courses, 50 more attended the conference. Students asked visiting scholars questions during sessions, spoke to them during breaks and lunch, and formed reactions to presentations that they incorporated into their final papers. The skills they practiced at the NERC were applied to the student-led conference.

In two reflective essays assigned after the conference and at the end of the semester, students independently corroborated the pedagogical goals that we had designed through this integrated project. Laura Richardson, a mathematics major, recognized that knowledge can be tested and advanced through presentations: "[NERC participants] weren't afraid to share their work with us and open it up to questions or criticisms. The whole goal of a conference, after all, is to learn and to receive feedback in order to gain different perspectives on topics." Ian Crowther, an international relations major, realized that honing narrative techniques is crucial for reaching an audience: "[the keynote speaker] came across as a storyteller whose message was understandable by historians and non-historians alike." Collaboration was also emphasized by Richardson, who particularly appreciated how it could have benefits outside of academic research: "it made me realize just how strong common interests can be in uniting people … it is important to me to feel as if I am part of a community, both in and outside of class." Ultimately, Richardson recognized the experience "caused me to approach the way I present myself differently."

Bringing together scholarship, teaching, student learning, and professionalization allowed our collaboration to achieve synergies that we will make permanent through the establishment of the Wheaton Institute for the Interdisciplinary Humanities (WIIH). According to the Consortium of Humanities Centers and Institutes, Wheaton is only one of 12 colleges in the United States to have a humanities center. Each year, two faculty co-directors from different disciplines will collaborate to design a theme, organize activities, bring in distinguished guests, and integrate them with coursework. Exemplifying the professional ethos they developed, students from our Renaissance courses mobilized to help found the WIIH. Unusual among humanities institutes, they now serve on the WIIH's advisory board, taking responsibility for conducting outreach to current and prospective students and for fundraising among student organizations. Future WIIH alums will be eligible to serve on the board, and they will also be available to network with current students. The inauguration of the WIIH in April 2013 is based around the theme of "The Humanities Give Back: The Role of the Humanities in Professional Fields," and will feature professionals in business, engineering, law, medicine, science, and technology who integrate the humanities into their practice.

Demonstrating and explaining how history, the humanities, and the liberal arts prepare students for a professional world are imperative. Humanities courses convey important disciplinary content. They also train students to absorb and process information from multiple perspectives and to then marshal evidence to advance arguments. Persuasion—the advocacy of a particular position in a group setting—requires just such skills, and the art of persuasion is critical in today's collaborative workplace environments. A humanities education can provide students with precisely these abilities.

Yuen-Gen Liang is associate professor of history at Wheaton College, Massachusetts. He is the author of Family and Empire: The Fernández de Córdoba and the Spanish Realm and founder of the Spain-North Africa Project.

Touba Ghadessi is assistant professor of art history at Wheaton College, Massachusetts. She is the author of Courting Monstrosity: The Spectacular Body in Early Modern Portraiture, currently under review.

The authors would like to thank John Bezís-Selfa for his helpful editorial suggestions.