Measuring the impact of humanities on STEM-focused education

MIT Integrated Learning Initiative grantees research how STEM and humanities complement each other.

MIT Open Learning
MIT Open Learning

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A small robot on top of two open books.
Photo: Olesia Kononenko, Canva

By MITili

Wiebke Denecke (魏樸和) is professor of East Asian Literatures. She was trained in sinology, Japanology, Korean studies, philosophy, and medicine in her native Germany, in Hungary, Norway, Dalian, Taipei, Tokyo, Seoul, and Boston. She received her BA and MA from the University of Göttingen and her PhD from Harvard University. Her research and teaching encompass the classical literatures and philosophical traditions of China, Japan, and Korea, comparative studies of East Asia and the premodern world, world literature, and the politics of cultural heritage and memory.

Tristan G. Brown is a historian of late imperial (“early modern”) China. His research focuses on the ways in which law, science, environment, and religion interacted in China from the sixteenth to nineteenth centuries. His first book, “Laws of the Land: Fengshui and the State in Qing Dynasty China” (Princeton University Press, 2023), examines Qing (1644–1912) judicial archives to investigate the uses of cosmology in Chinese law during an era of great economic and environmental change. He is preparing a second book that employs Chinese, Arabic, and Persian sources to examine the history of Islam in the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644), when many Muslim communities integrated into Chinese society.

Denecke and Brown are recent recipients of a grant from the MIT Integrated Learning Initiative (MITili) — part of MIT Open Learning — to research educational effectiveness. Their project, “Measuring the Impact of Humanities Learning in an Age of STEM”, looks to examine the reason humanities studies are in decline and what impact humanities studies may have on a STEM focused education.

Your studies and work span an impressive global array of countries and regions, how does that help you in being an effective educator?

Denecke: There is the obvious. If you studied and worked in many different places, you lived in alternative realities and can teach from multiple perspectives, in terms of local knowledge, cultural appreciation, and even teaching methodology — which varies widely across the world. Our “active learning” style is certainly news to instructor-centered East Asian education systems!

Then there is the more subtle, in the classroom. When you teach students with family heritage or international students from the regions where you lived it makes a world of difference to know the languages, values, places, and lore. It makes these students feel “at home” and even the other students in the class pick up on that vibe of familiarity and get hungry for global experiences in their studies and work — we want that!

And then there is the less obvious effect on my teaching, something I want to sensitize students to. “Humanities” appear in many different shapes in different parts of the world, but most of the debates regarding humanities education and the proverbial “humanities crisis” and budget cuts are driven by the situation in the US or Europe. Too little students know that there is a “humanities boom” in other parts of the world, most notably mainland China, where classical (especially Confucian) studies are promoted as the official party line and new programs that offer the study of “Chinese Classics” in competitive juxtaposition with the Western canon have recently emerged. It’s an investment in ideological nation branding of a certain kind. I always paint the varied picture of the humanities across the world for my students and urge them to stand up for their embattled humanities education. If they realize that our “crisis humanities” in Western democracies could be outvoiced someday by “humanities booms” elsewhere that are mobilized for divisive nation branding, they are more likely to care about that crisis and speak out.

Brown: It is remarkable how many of my students tell me that they never have had the chance to take a course on Chinese history before. Some of them have heard about the Three Kingdoms era (220–280 CE) or the Great Wall — but that’s often about it. It’s exhilarating to introduce MIT students to the calligraphy of Su Shi (1037–1101 CE) and the paintings of Zhao Mengfu (1254–1322 CE) for the first time. But perhaps due to my background in Arabic and Islamic studies, I’m also always thinking about what was happening in other parts of the world at the same time. Balancing a plethora of views from the local to the global allows for some dramatic cross-cultural reveals over the course of the semester: the appearance of pseudo-Phagspa script (the official writing system of the Mongol Yuan Empire) in late medieval Western Art or Arabic and Persian inscriptions rendered onto Ming (1368–1644) porcelain. Those are the moments that help make an undergraduate education.

In your research work with MITili, you’ll be measuring the impact of the humanities on learning during a time when so many are focusing on technology and in particular AI. How important is it, in your mind, to maintain a balance in the curriculum these days?

Denecke: Yes, indeed. The “AI boom” or also “AI doom boom” makes a great mass of smart people exercise their minds on current technological developments, applications, and futuristic scenarios. This is all very important and we’ll see what emerges when the dust settles. We do want to engage students as early and honestly as possible about their uses of AI. In the new fifth edition of the Norton Anthology of World Literature, which I am co-editing, we included an AI-generated translation of the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke’s poignantly personal “Archaic Torso of Apollo,” alongside with “human” English translations in a “Translation Lab” feature for comparison. It’s not that bad actually!

AI has certainly huge implications for the mass-administered humanities-class essays. That might make oral exams, and more unique and less template-applicable syllabi and essay designs more popular in the future. MIT has an unusually strong humanities requirement and I believe it should continue to go strong on things that hardly require any technology but are central to the business of the humanities: practicing critical thinking, highlighting human agency and responsibility for the world we are shaping, savoring the complexity of values and human societies past and present, being touched by a good line of poetry…and how all of this will actively blend with their STEM education and their work in our STEM-driven world.

Brown: Echoing what Wiebke says here, I feel that, in many ways, AI is a welcome challenge for humanities education. Essay-based evaluations for humanities have become increasingly common over the past few decades, which makes the arrival of ChatGPT disconcerting in many ways. But students cannot use ChatGPT on in-class examinations, which may see a renaissance of sorts in the years to come. I offer classes that employ both essays and exams, and I have noticed that putting a midterm on a course syllabus tends not to scare MIT students away. In fact, many of them like to know where they precisely stand grade-wise in the middle of the term. For instances where essays are assigned, MIT’s humanities faculty are also finding ways to integrate AI technologies — for instance, by permitting its limited use if cited properly. Our departments are clearly places to watch to see the implementations of these new experimental kinds of pedagogy.

Most people don’t associate MIT with the humanities and art. What “hidden secrets” would you like our audience to know about the breadth of humanities and art available at MIT?

Denecke: There are many and I wouldn’t want to pick. Instead, I want to emphasize the one blatant secret that is underappreciated when the humanities are typically perceived as marginalized at MIT. Students can breathe and thrive in our subjects because our curriculum is less focused on their professional interests. They often talk about how it helps them “shift gears” both mentally and emotionally. What we want to make sure, though, is to not train students with a “split brain,” where their STEM work lives separately from the kind of critical ethical and sociopolitical reasoning or emotional maturity, they are honing in their humanities courses.

Brown: Two things come to mind. I think one “hidden secret” is that humanities classes at MIT serve a very practical function in an undergraduate’s education: humanities instructors often get to know their students on a deeper level than those of other kinds of classes. Of course, there are always exceptions. But in talking to colleagues, I’ve often wondered why so many undergraduates ask for letters of recommendation for a class on environmental history or East Asian literature when they’re applying to medical school or a finance internship. I gradually realized that many students felt we had something meaningful to say about their development here at the Institute.

The second secret I think lies is a recognition — which many students may only develop with time — of the level of accomplishment of MIT’s humanities faculty. My colleagues take students on trips overseas during IAP, testify before Congress, pen editorials on current events, and write multiple books. Students know MIT humanities faculty are “smart,” but they often don’t know what we do besides teach their classes. I encourage them to ask!

What do you hope your students gain from having meaningful dialogue with other students who are engaging in humanities studies?

Denecke: Eavesdropping on students who walk in or out of the classroom discussing their take on the topics of the day is a pleasure for me as an educator. I overheard a Chinese heritage student say to her friend: “You know what’s truly helpful about the class: we read the Confucian Analects, whose values are still more or less engrained in East Asian societies, and I can finally “get” and psychoanalyze my parents.” I do what I can to get students talking to each other and have them take their conversations outside the classroom.

Last spring, we did a “Global Classroom” experience where students in Seoul collaborated with MIT students on writing a civil service examination essay on an 18th century exam question about the Analects. Passing that exam got you a job in the extensive royal bureaucracy and was thus crucial to social success back then. My students were amazed to hear debates about how the Confucian tradition is alive and challenged in their Korean partners’ family lives — a controversial topic across the generations in contemporary Korea. With their peers, students venture into much more personal cross-application to their own lives and experience how other students create yet other forms of meaning. “Humanities studies” are academic subjects, and overly personal “opinions” are frowned upon. But students should be inspired to make the rich store of issues, stories, divergent perspectives and ambiguities they encounter in class their very own. That trickle-down-effect of students’ cross-application of their humanities education to their own lives and in particular to how it matters to them as STEM majors is one thing we want to measure. We are not just interested in “tech-ed-up” humanities subjects that have direct applicability to STEM subjects. But in the kind of cross-applied “learning for life” that will make our graduates into responsible, culturally and globally sensitive citizens, communicators, and mediators. How is it happening? — Is it happening? How can we enhance it? We want to look into this.

Brown: To expand on what Wiebke has said, I would say that course reputations spread by word of mouth. When I ask students why they enrolled in one of my classes, they often reply that they heard about it from a roommate or a friend. I’m thrilled to hear this response, because it means they had a conversation outside of class about Chinese history. I often tell my students in the fall that their humanities classes are the ones that they’ll go home and talk to their families about over the winter holiday. The classes we teach, the conversation we foster, and the lessons we offer are the ones that never get old. Accordingly, I think the humanities have a potentially big role to play in alumni relations — that is, helping alumni maintain ties to the Institute long after they have graduated.

What is your favorite thing about being a part of MIT?

Denecke: The students, the colleagues, the conversations, infinite … the dome!

Brown: I agree with Wiebke and I especially cherish my incredibly supportive colleagues. I would also add that no MIT student has ever told me that a class discussion or assignment was ever too difficult or too complex. They’re there for the challenge, which means I’m never bored.

Originally published at https://mitili.mit.edu/.

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