Why the Humanities Matter in STEM

Photo credit: Prateek Katyal, 2023.

A 2017 article in the Washington Post discussed how now, in the age of big data and STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics), liberal arts and humanities degrees are perceived as far less valuable in the marketplace. I saw the same opinion held strong at both universities where I taught English. Many, many students believed wholeheartedly that the only thing they could do with a degree in English is teach.

I was hard-pressed to convince them otherwise since I was, in fact, teaching.

The Post article goes on to argue, however, for abundant evidence that humanities and liberal arts degrees are far from useless.

When I started graduate school in 2007 at university that beautifully balances the arts and sciences (shout out to you, Carnegie Mellon!), my advisor recommended I take “the Rhetoric of Science.” I meekly informed her that I wasn’t really into science. I thought it would be a bad fit, that I would not fare well and my resulting grade would reveal my lack of interest. She pressed, saying there was a great deal to learn in the class and that it wasn’t “scienc-ey.”

She was absolutely right. I was fascinated from the start. The course focused on science as argument, science as rebuttal, but most of all science as persuasive tool. Or, at least the persuasiveness came from how we talk and write about science. My seminar paper, one of which I remain proud, was titled: “The Slut Shot. Girls, Gardasil, and Godliness.” I got an A in the class, but more importantly I learned the fortified connection between language and science.

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine urges a return to a broader conception of how to prepare students for a career in STEM. Arguing that the hyper-focus on specialization in college curricula is doing more harm than good, they argue that broad-based knowledge and examination of the humanities leads to better scientist. There is certainly the goal among academics to make students more employable upon graduation, and yet there is consensus that exposure to humanities is a net benefit.

The challenge is that there’s no data. Or, limited data anyway. The value of an Art History course or a Poetry Workshop at university is hard to measure against the quantifiable exam scores often produced in a Chemistry or Statistics class.

In a weak economy, it’s easy to point to certifications and licenses over the emotional intelligence gained by reading Fitzgerald or Dickinson. We find, though, that students (and later employees) who rely wholly on the confidence that science and technology provide answers, viewing it with an uncritical belief that solutions to all things lie in the technology – well, those beliefs are coming up short. Adherence to the power of science as the ultimate truth provides little guidance in the realm of real-world experiences.

In short, not all problems are tidy ones.

After all, being able to communicate scientific findings is the icing on the cake. We don’t get very far if we have results but do not know how to evangelize them.

In American universities right now, fewer than 5% of students major in the humanities. We’ve told them that’s no way to get a job. The more we learn about Sophocles, Plato, Kant, Freud, Welty, and others, the more prepared we are to take on life’s (and work’s) greatest challenges. It is precisely because the humanities are subversive that we need to keep them at the heart of the curriculum. Philosophical, literary, and even spiritual works are what pick at the underpinnings of every political, technological, and scientific belief.

While science clarifies and distills and teaches us a great deal about ourselves, the humanities remind us how easily we are fooled by science. The humanities remind us that although we are all humans, humans are each unique. Humans are unpredictable. Science is about answers and the humanities are about questions. Science is the what and the humanities are the why.

If we do our jobs well in the humanities, we will have generations to come of thinkers who question science, technology, engineering, and math.

And that is as it should be.

I welcome discussion about this or any other topic. I am happy to engage via comment or reply. Thanks for reading.


Med-Tech, Fin-Tech, and MarCom – Oh My!

Photo by Nick Fletcher.

The whole field of technical writing, or professional writing, seems to have expanded like a giant infinite balloon in the last decade. Where previously it was a specialty, now it’s an entire field complete with sub-specializations.

How cool is that?!

I told the story just the other day that when I graduated from high school, I knew I was off to college to major in English. It had always been my best subject, I love reading but I love writing more, and it was just the obvious choice. Except…I also asked for money instead of gifts because I was determined to buy my own computer. Other than some desktop publishing, I couldn’t envision what the two had in common, but I was connecting them somehow.

Had I only known then that I would spend my career as a technical writer, I probably would have gotten a much earlier start. I focused on essays and creative nonfiction, which I later taught until I discovered what I solidly believe is the best professional writing graduate program anywhere – at Carnegie Mellon. Indeed, the robotics and engineering monolith hosts an impressive writing program for students looking at Literary and Cultural Studies, Professional & Technical Writing, and Rhetoric. I opted for the last of the three and am happy with my choice, even though I landed a career in Prof & Tech.

Evangelizing this field is easy for me, even as it becomes more complicated. I can see clearly now that taking an Apple IIGS to college was the harbinger that I would eventually be a software writer. I work now for a major software company and love what I do.

But wait – there’s more. (Please say that in an infomercial voice. You won’t be sorry.)

I wrote proposals for federal-level contracts for a while. I taught Human-Computer Interaction. I edited science articles. The breadth of writing is not unique to me, and it was very helpful.

Because the company I work for delivers software solutions for medical clinical trials. Eureka! Again, that college freshman had zero idea that she could combine a love of writing, and interest in computers, and a genuine interest in science. Back then, the marriage of all three seemed impossible.

And yet…

As a technical writer starting out, it’s perhaps not so important to “find focus” in a given industry. However, once you decide you indeed want to produce professional documentation, specializing in an interest is helpful. There are so many areas to choose from that it’s nearly impossible to NOT find one that is interesting as well as challenging. I would not, for example, find deep satisfaction in writing installation manuals for gas pipelines. But someone does. Someone enjoys that very much. I participated in a review panel for a writing competition and my assigned document was an infant incubator (baby warmer) user manual to be read by nurses. I found the content to be expertly delivered, and yet I had no actual interest in what the device does or how to use it. Give me something about gene therapy research and predictive modeling? I am IN!

Some writers find that they are fascinated by banking, taxes, estate planning and so on – welcome to tech writing for loads and loads of financial applications from Turbo Tax to Betterment. The field is growing so rapidly that every investment tool, firm, and product needs a skilled writer. For those who find dollars and cents and amortization and net worth interesting it’s a huge category, and you can specialize in all sorts of ways. Someone who digs marketing but doesn’t want to be a marketer will find a spot in a real estate app, a travel tool, or even music software like iTunes. They all need documentation. Every. Single. One.

What about the folks who say the documentation is superfluous? While it may be true that an app like iTunes or Netflix is so intuitive that it doesn’t need user doc, the moment a user is stymied and needs an answer, that documentation is one thousand percent necessary.

I often talked with my students about the wide variety of uses for their writing skills, many of which would leave plenty of time for creating poetry, fiction, and the like. Heck, even I write memoir in my spare time.

But it’s Sci-tech, Med-tech, and Bio-tech that butter my bread. If you find any area that interests you, I can guarantee there’s a technical document somewhere for you to write and edit, and it’s all about that field.