By Younger Oliver
In 2021, the Axinn Center for the Humanities at Middlebury College received a grant from the Davis Educational Foundation to launch their Public Humanities Lab (PHL) initiative. Led by Axinn Center co-directors Febe Armanios and Marion Wells, the initiative offers courses that integrate humanities skills, content, and expertise into public facing projects, often done in partnership with a Vermont-based community organization. The National Humanities Alliance partnered with the Axinn Center to document the impact of these courses through surveys of students taking the courses and the faculty who taught them.
We have now conducted surveys across 15 courses taught in three semesters—Fall 2021, January term 2022, and Spring 2022. To meet the PHL goal of integrating the humanities into public-facing projects that address issues of cultural, social, and intellectual importance, faculty designed courses that incorporated a variety of topics and methods, including oral history, digital humanities, medical humanities, archival work, and more. Popular courses include Art and Protest, Blackness and the Arab Imaginary, Ethics in Health Care, Gender, Technology, & Future, and Science and Society. Some of these courses included assignments where students developed a project to introduce course content to a broader public, whether through developing a board game or building a website. Others partnered directly with local community organizations, like the Rokeby Museum, throughout the semester. For example, the course ARBC 241: Blackness and the Arab Imaginary partnered with the Somali Bantu Association of Vermont and worked closely with the organization to help them apply for grants, create public programs, and develop resources for ESL training. While the organization gained practical, much-needed assistance, the students gained grant-writing skills, learned how to design resources and events for the public, and experienced firsthand how an institution can connect with its surrounding community. Through assignments and partnerships such as these, PHL courses encourage students to consider the broad applicability of humanities knowledge and skills and how they can make a difference in their communities while they’re in college and far beyond.
Over the three semesters, we have received survey responses from 184 students and 11 faculty members. Across these surveys, the data reveal three patterns that speak to the value of the PHL initiative. First, the impacts of PHL courses extend far beyond their individual classrooms as students made connections between course content and their workplaces, other courses, and personal lives; second, the courses helped non-humanities students appreciate the value of integrating the humanities into their course of study; and third, PHL faculty learned new ways to bring the public humanities to their other students. These are patterns that help us broadly understand how integrating public humanities work into undergraduate classrooms can be an essential tool for bolstering interest in the humanities, enhancing pedagogy on the college campus, and engaging community in mutually beneficial ways.
The impacts of PHL courses extend far beyond the classroom
PHL courses, by design, include experiential learning opportunities and the creation of public-facing work. While this looked different across courses and disciplines, survey responses revealed that these were innovative projects that helped students understand the broad value of their work and to connect their learning with their regular lives outside the classroom. Eighty-one percent of student respondents agreed* that their PHL class made them think about their role in their community in new ways, and a first-generation humanities student wrote: “I liked creating a website for this class for other people to use because it forced me to consider how to make information more accessible to people beyond Middlebury.” An undeclared student shared, “The real world applications we learned in the class can be applied right away or we can use the concepts we learned in the class to help tackle modern issues that can affect all of us.”
We asked the students if the content of their PHL course had translated to their lives outside the classroom. We received 179 qualitative responses, 158 of which—or 88 percent—included specific ways they had applied the content from their PHL course to other parts of their lives. Many students shared that they had had conversations with peers, coworkers, or family members about the content of their course or had used what they learned in the course to inform those conversations. Other students saw immediate connections between what they were learning in their PHL course and their other courses, particularly their STEM courses. A selection of these qualitative responses showcases the broad ways students applied the content of their PHL course outside the classroom.
- “I find myself using the language and principles discussed in this course to formulate arguments pertaining to the ‘hard science’ I engage with more frequently in my STEM coursework.” – non-humanities student in RELI 293: Ethics in Health Care
- “I think I really brought the work done in my class into discussions with friends and family. I also think this class was really beneficial in my computer science class as I was able to clearly understand the ethical implications of algorithms.” – non-humanities student in GSFS 308: Gender, Technology & Future
- “I definitely think it has helped with my own personal self-care, as well as my outlook on college as a whole. As someone who was not fully satisfied with my experience it was nice to see how this dissatisfaction was actually valuable and didn’t mean I was failing.” – humanities student in GSFS 290: Feminist Joy
These survey results show that in addition to learning specific content-based knowledge in their PHL courses, students also learned new ways to engage others in conversation, critical thinking skills, and how to translate their academic learning to the outside world. In fact, 88 percent of the surveyed students agreed that their PHL class contributed to their ability to have their views challenged by others, and 96 percent agreed that their class contributed to their ability to have a conversation about controversial issues with someone whose background or views are different from their own. In the words of one non-humanities student, “I gained a lot of confidence in articulating my convictions, and similarly, I gained confidence in admitting when I am wrong.” These tangible skills are imperative as students navigate their academic journey and their lives as citizens of a diverse society.
Non-humanities students recognized the value of PHL courses
Humanities departments and disciplines are often challenged with convincing students and their loved ones that the humanities are valuable not only as disciplines to major in, but also as complementary areas of study for students in STEM and pre-professional majors. PHL courses at Middlebury are often interdisciplinary, bringing a non-humanities discipline to a course taught in a humanities department (for example, Ethics in Health Care is taught out of the religion department but incorporates themes and topics related to health care that can apply to many other areas of study). This interdisciplinary nature of many of the PHL courses means that a significant portion of the enrollees were non-humanities students. Out of 176 survey respondents who voluntarily shared their major and minor information with us, 30 percent (n=52) were non-humanities students. Through their quantitative and qualitative survey responses, these students shared how their PHL courses changed how they saw the value and applicability of the humanities. For example:
- 73% agreed that their class made them want to take more classes in the humanities
- 81% agreed that their class helped them understand how the humanities can help them in their career
- 96% agreed that their class helped them understand how humanities knowledge and skills can be applied outside the university
- 98% agreed that their class helped them see how knowledge and skills gained through the humanities help them to better serve their communities
Students also expressed these changing perceptions in their qualitative responses. When asked if the course affected their career or educational goals, one non-humanities student in Ethics in Health Care shared, “No, but as someone who was already interested in a career in biomedical research it certainly taught me a lot about relevant ethical debates in that area.” Another non-humanities student who took Home: The Why Behind the Way We Live wrote, “As an architectural student, this class has clarified my long-term career. Learning more about the way we live in the U.S. has inspired me to continue to learn more about housing development and identify that architecture has significant ties with social change.” These responses are two of many from non-humanities students who highlighted how the content of their PHL course will directly apply to their STEM or otherwise non-humanities career field.
PHL faculty learned new ways to bring the public humanities to their other students
In addition to surveying the students taking PHL courses, we also surveyed the faculty who taught them. Across the board, these faculty expressed that teaching a PHL course helped them think about their research and pedagogy, as well as better understand the value of experiential learning to their students. One hundred percent of the respondents agreed that teaching their class informed their own scholarly research. One faculty member shared, “Being a part of the Humanities Lab introduced a completely new way of thinking about course assignments and projects, including a webinar with … a local non-profit organization and a webinar on how to make a podcast.” While some faculty learned new ways of engaging their students, others found ways to build upon their previous efforts. A faculty member wrote, “I have been using ‘translation’ assignments in my classes for a few years. But being a part of the Public Humanities Labs gave me new language with which to frame these assignments.”
The student survey data showed that the students also understood the value of the public-facing and experiential learning components of their PHL courses, which was not lost on the faculty. A faculty member shared that the students in their PHL course taught them a lot about the value of these kinds of assignments and projects:
“I learned (or was overwhelmingly confirmed in knowing that) that students absolutely love hands-on work. They love doing research when it has wider applications and teaches them skills they can use in every day life (in my course’s case, improved listening and conversational skills). They also love when their research serves a larger purpose, particularly if that purpose involves deepening relationships with their peers and people in their extended community. … I already do a certain amount of this but the experience has made me even more committed to doing it.”
While these faculty may have already been predisposed to this kind of research or pedagogy (contributing to their reasons for teaching a PHL course), the experience reinforced the importance of experiential learning opportunities for students. When asked:
- 100% agreed that they learned new ways to help their students appreciate how the humanities help them contribute to their communities
- 100% agreed that they learned new ways to help their students consider the relationship between the humanities and social justice
- 100% agreed that they learned new ways to help their students consider the relationship between the humanities and civic engagement
These are skills that faculty can bring to their other courses and students, further spreading the goals and methods of the PHL initiative to other areas of campus. One hundred percent of the responding faculty agreed that they feel confident articulating the value of the project to their department. Even if these faculty only teach one PHL course (although 100 percent of the respondents said they would teach another PHL course), it is clear that they each had an impactful experience that they can bring back to their disciplines and peers.
We are extremely grateful to the Axinn Center, and particularly Febe Armanios, for partnering with us and conducting much of the “on the ground” work to get the surveys out to PHL students and faculty. The quantitative and qualitative responses we have collected situate data behind what many in the public humanities already know: that initiatives like PHL have impacts that reach far beyond the individual classroom. These courses helped students connect with their communities, better understand current events, and see the broad value of studying the humanities, whether through majoring in a humanities discipline or supplementing their non-humanities major with humanities classes.
*Percentage of respondents who selected “agree” or “strongly agree.” Survey questions were given on a Likert scale with four options: strongly disagree, disagree, agree, and strongly agree.
Posted on: August 2, 2022
Thumbnail image: Students in Professor Will Nash’s class on Reading Slavery and Abolition, part of the Public Humanities Labs Initiative (Fall 2021). The class engaged with critical documents at the Rokeby Museum in Ferrisburgh, VT and partnered with museum staff to help evaluate their permanent exhibit on the Underground Railroad. They also worked on designing its 2022 season exhibit, tentatively titled “Dissent, Abolition, and Advocacy in Print.” Photo courtesy of Middlebury College, by Brett Simison.