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Humanities Feel the Grind


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BY MIKAYLA MROCHEK | October 28th, 2016                                                     PHOTO BY YASIR ALHUMAIDEN

Edgewood boasts of an award-winning student newspaper, theatre program, and music program—the latter two recently earned third place in the 2016 Best of Madison competition. So, it may come as a surprise that these departments are finding themselves in a bit of a grind these days.

For the humanities in particular, the problem stems from lower enrollment in recent years, less public relations attention, and perhaps less attention overall from the “higher ups.” Humanities students, which include majors and minors in English, Philosophy, Religious Studies, and History, are noticing a dip in class sizes as well as an increase in class cancellations.

Shelby Loock, a junior and an English major, experienced the cancellation of “Intro to Literary Studies,” a required course for all English majors and minors. “It was frustrating to have to rework my schedule according to a required class that I wasn’t able to take on time,” says Loock. “It limited the literature class I could take going forward. Honestly, it could have set back my graduation, but fortunately it was soon enough in my academic career that it didn’t affect anything.” She is not the only student who has come across this problem.

So how important are the humanities to a college like Edgewood?

“We describe ourselves as a small, liberal arts college,” says Jack Vitek, associate professor of English. “But we don’t behave like one.”

John Fields, dean of Arts and Sciences and a philosophy professor, takes a similar but more practical approach. “Strictly speaking, we are not a liberal arts college. We just aren’t. If you compare us to colleges like Beloit or Lawrence, that isn’t what we have.”

So what, exactly, is Edgewood? Prospective students who search “Edgewood College, Madison” on the internet would immediately find, other than sports statistics and bookstore advertisements, the words “liberal arts college.” Lauren Lacey, another associate professor in the English Department and director of the Women’s and Gender Studies Program, clarifies: “We call Edgewood a college in the liberal arts tradition. We do not specifically meet the requirements of a liberal arts college because we have professional schools and because of our curriculum.”

The importance of the liberal arts, which includes the humanities, has often been the source of controversy beyond Edgewood. In fact, the issue may stem far beyond the college. “There are a lot of countervailing influences and prejudices about what we are doing,” says Fields regarding the liberal arts. Fields referred to the presidential primaries earlier this year, and to various government officials who have downplayed the importance of the liberal arts in favor of “job-ready” professions.

“You might think of it in terms of citizenship,” says Fields. “How can people make judgements about important issues if they don’t have a knowledge base to draw from or communicate what they are saying. This is the promise of the liberal arts education.”

Of the humanities and the English Department in particular, Lacey says other factors have affected them at Edgewood, such as the all-but disappearance of the English teaching major and the axing of the “X-tag.” Departments like History, Philosophy, Religious Studies, and English must also compete with professional schools like Nursing and Business, which contain larger numbers.

“When I first came here, there was a sort of hierarchy that happened, the way people perceive things and understand things,” says Lacey. “It puts value in different places for students.” However, according to Lacey, that doesn’t mean the interest level isn’t there. The matter becomes how the interest can best be served.

Fields offered ways to combat these sorts of issues, suggesting a need for more outreach and campus visibility at the department level. “I think our college president and vice president have very strong commitments to liberal arts,” says Fields. “However, can you do it in a way that is sustainable over time? We need to have increased demand. We need to do something to make sure there are more people who have an interest in this. I’m fearful that if we don’t get organized on this, it will be a self-fulfilling prophecy. I am an advocate. Part of my strategy is to make sure we always think of the arts and science school as a unit. Treat it as a unit; you can see our successful programs. One will pay for the other.”

In this vein, Lacey advises the creation of a “humanities council,” modeled after the collaboration between the Music, Art, and Theatre Departments, whom Fields notes as being particularly successful in their outreach. With the revamping of the college newspaper, On the Edge, and the recent creation of “Poetry Pop-Up” nights by the English Association, the gears are beginning to turn.

Over all, ideas and support do not seem to be in short supply. Needed now are enthusiasm, organization, and collaboration to propel the humanities forward.

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