The Myth of Humanities and the Concept Of Usefulness.

Photo by author, Nic Hartman.

Photo by author, Nic Hartmann.

Many of our readers are cultural workers with some background in the humanities. If that describes you, chances are you’ve spent a great deal of time fielding questions of the “what exactly do you expect to do with that degree?” variety.

So, yeah, what do you expect to do with it? Those of us with a background in cultural studies know that a great foundation in the Humanities can help us think creatively, pose big picture questions, and offer various versions of culural critique.  So the bigger question becomes, what does it look like when we channel these questions into building stronger local economies and more land and human centered work?

How do we rethink, as Nic Hartmann argues, “the concept of usefulness?” 


For the last five years, I have been a graduate student in the discipline of folklore, a field usually associated with the liberal arts or the humanities. Over the years, I’ve received every kind of reaction imaginable, from “Sorry, I think I misunderstood you…did you say folklore?” to “Oh, that’s nice…and what will you do with that?” Some places, including my current province of residence, are kinder, yet there definitely exists a focus on “practical education,” some of which comes from commerce programs, or science departments, or even vocational schools. The lack of certainty in regards to economic security sometimes scares people away from these fields, even pushing some people to major in something without putting their heart into it.. But this isn’t always possible for some people; in fact, doing so has the potential to really ruin a respectable passion and talent towards a certain area.

These thoughts are certainly on my own mind, as I slowly work towards completing my Ph.D. thesis. In balancing writing with a part-time assistantship, university committee work, and a search for a full-time job, it can be stressful looking at qualifications for a job that is neither a faculty position nor a humanities-specific position. Many jobs simply ask for a bachelor’s or master’s degree of some kind and the humanities is not exempt from being a related field for an administrative or support position. I have met folklorists who are academic advisors, career counselors, and independent consultants; in addition, people from my own department have such diverse careers as being specialty birth doulas, owning guesthouses, and working as product marketing writers. These are not people with only a general Bachelor of Arts, but with master’s and doctoral degrees. To assume we have little to offer is both demeaning to those who work hard and to the faculty and staff, who work incredibly hard to ensure the success of their students and aid them in nurturing their talents.

Hearing the backlash in the media surrounding the humanities should not serve as a discouraging force to prevent people from doing that which brings them into a personally, as well as intellectually, fulfilling livelihood. Instead, it should serve as a catalyst for those of us in the field to stay motivated and get creative.  In many cases, the professional skills one develops from graduate programs are actually a part of coursework, and this is not exclusive to applied/public sector tracks of certain programs. A example that I found to be one of the most moving was in two courses that I took on fieldwork and American traditional music during my master’s years; while I learned about the history and genres of traditional music, I was balancing such knowledge with lessons on how to introduce artists on stage, how to provide hospitality for guests, and how to navigate large musical events such as bluegrass festivals.

The projects we were required to do encouraged to engage in tasks such as creating liner notes for an imaginary roots album, writing radio scripts, or writing festival notes for both a public and academic audience. It was far from just a course that built musical knowledge; it was also a course on how to also put that musical knowledge to use for the public.   As graduate students we are not necessarily holed away in a library stacks, reading theoretical books, writing papers, and drinking large amounts of coffee. But for the majority of students, a lot of time is spent working, not just on academic pursuits, but also engaging in either part-time or full-time employment. This is often done to either earn a living stipend, or to supplement one, and for many students, it is impossible to go through graduate school without doing such work on top of one’s studies.   What often happens is that one greatly affects the other; the attention to detail developed through studies can make its way into the part-time work, and the development of navigating a specific work environment can play an important factor in one’s studies. Combined with having to balance course times, studies, and work, the ability to multi-task is a skill that is quickly learned and continuously fine-tuned, and the majority of professional positions list the requirement: “Ability to multi-task effectively.”

What drives many humanities students is not only a belief in the worth of the work they are doing, but also natural curiosity. But the pursuit of such curiosity requires a lot of self-motivation and drive. Many of us are involved in our communities on top of things, whether in serving on university committees, local social justice movements or academic societies. Such work does not take away from our studies, but, in fact, complements them in the same way as any job would do. In my own experience in working with academic committees for our Faculty of Arts, the act of researching, discussing, and working together with a quite different group of individuals- some at the staff level, some at the faculty level, and some even at the administrative level- is one of the most important skills for any job because it allows you to be exposed to many different worldviews and forces you to need to adapt to the reality that things will not always go according to plan. But to gain these skills, a person must proactively work to get themselves involved.

The solution, however, does not lie in simply joining what one thinks might help them, but in involving themselves in something where they feel like they can make the best contribution.   Between the drive for pushing the importance of humanities, engaging in coursework, working supplement jobs and involving one’s self in the community, there are a lot of things that humanities graduate students do that are not any different from work in any other field. But because of the stigma surrounding the humanities, we often have to push harder to show people that what we are doing is, in fact, relevant.

Professors are increasingly quick to say that a university degree- especially a graduate degree- is not a job-finder in itself, but the skills learned, both in coursework and in those things that help make it happen, are. A fellow folklorist, Sarah Schmitt-who works for the Kentucky Arts Council as the director of a program designed to bring arts opportunities to underserved communities-put it best when they said this about the humanities:   “…liberal arts are the art of being free or being useful in a free society…The work begins at graduation. The degree doesn’t open any doors for you, the experience and character-building makes you a machine for democracy.”   With this is mind, we don’t need to be changing our majors for the sake of usefulness. We, are, and need to continue, to work to help change the notion of usefulness.

nic (1)Nic Hartmann spent most of his life in Southern Indiana, but for the last three years, has been based in Canada, where is he currently working on a Ph.D. in folklore at Memorial University of Newfoundland. He has worked as a university instructor and as a students’ union official, and currently serves as web editor for the folklore journal Culture & Tradition. He lives in St. John’s, Newfoundland with his wife, Jen, and daughter, Mari, and is an avid dancer, baker and novice gardener.