Modern humanities teaching: brought on by the chicken or the egg?

Do changes to degree courses reflect a more pluralistic society or are they driven by a desire for more radical approaches?

March 31, 2016
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Vehicles of change: ‘we’ve gone from asking the big philosophical questions to a problem-oriented, activist view’

It is 1916. You are an undergraduate at the University of Oxford studying theology in the hope that the ministry will be a good career choice. Your timetable says that you will be studying doctrine, biblical studies, the history of Christianity and Hebrew. In year three there is a single module given over to “other religions”.

Skip forward more than half a century and you are at King’s College London, sitting your English literature finals in the 1970s. You stare at the first line of your compulsory translation – “Ond þā ongeat se cyning þæt, ond hē on þā duru ēode” – and wish you had revised that old Anglo-Saxon better.

Now look at this 2015 exam question. “Do African and Asian subcultures in Britain represent a ‘radical space of possibility’? Discuss with reference to music and/or carnival.”

These three examples illustrate how the humanities have changed in their course content in 100 years. Faculties across the country now accept the anthropology of cyberspace, Stephen King’s novels or fieldwork on the Scouse accent as legitimate areas of study.

But are these changes simply reflective of religious and cultural diversification in the UK, or has academia itself – through the approach of subjects such as sociology and anthropology – led the way in bringing courses up to date?

Reasons given for changes – about to be made – to one of the oldest courses in the country, theology at Oxford, would appear to suggest that it is the former. After seven years of consultation, a new course will be arriving in September 2017 under the name “theology and religion” for the first time.

Johannes Zachhuber, professor of historical and systematic theology and the theology faculty’s board chairman, said that the name change “was the moment we chose to recognise things really have become different”. While options to study “other” religions are certainly not new, compulsory Christianity papers will be gone by the second year so students can avoid studying the religion altogether and take papers such as “feminist approaches to theology and religion”, or “Buddhism in space and time”, should they so wish.

Professor Zachhuber said that the changes have been instigated by students and lecturers. “We recognise that the people who come to study at Oxford come from a variety of different backgrounds and have legitimately different interests,” he said. “They come from the respected communities of Britain.”

The teaching faculty has changed too. A “massive generational turnover” of lecturers saw one-third of posts filled by often younger staff who have their own research interests.

“If you have a very rigid curriculum, there will be an increasing mismatch between what lecturers are doing in their research time and what they’re having to teach,” explained Professor Zachhuber.

Benjamin Thompson, associate professor of medieval history and co-ordinator of undergraduate history at Oxford, said that he had seen similar changes in content in history in recent years. “These changes are what students want, because a bigger world is affecting them,” said Dr Thompson. “The most obvious example is the rise of militant Islam, or how well the Chinese economy is doing.”

Shifting attitudes

Such a shift is also timely, given a newly politicised student body, he said. “With the Cecil Rhodes statue debate, this ‘decolonisation’ of the curriculum is now quite interesting,” said Dr Thompson.

But how much are these changes of approach linked to the shifting attitudes of students, staff and society? Have scholarly approaches themselves not had a role to play?

Dr Thompson pointed out that nowadays, to study a medieval knight, “we might look at his uniform and trace its origins to the silk roads in the Far East”.

It could be argued that mapping the social ties of an object in such a way is an anthropological method, rooted in a seminal book by anthropologist Arjun Appadurai, The Social Life of Things.

Edward Simpson, professor in social anthropology at Soas, University of London, suggested that the idea of an interconnected world has validated social anthropology from the start.

“Globalisation is our starting point these days, not our conclusion,” he said, pointing out that funding streams for research are more interested in themes such as development or infrastructure than a particular place. “There has been a shift from geography to theme,” he said.

The same can be seen at Oxford, where there is now a paper called “theme” on the history course. Students might look at masculinity or global disease through the ages, disregarding the constraints of time and space to focus on a phenomenon.

This rise in themes seems to go hand in hand with a reduced focus on the “greats” of history or of literature and an increased interest in the ordinary people who illustrate those themes. Lucy Munro, reader in early modern English literature at King’s College London, said the idea of the “nation” had been dethroned to make way for the subaltern – the oppressed and forgotten. “We do still teach the big canonical texts, but alongside that we’ve become interested in how they relate to alternative voices,” said Dr Munro.

Indeed, the “English” in English literature no longer refers to a nation but to the language of English, no matter the nationality of the author. Critics themselves may be native American and African academics. And just as the Bible is no longer the heritage of theology, so is Anglo-Saxon no longer the basis of English literature. “It wasn’t very accessible to most students,” remembered Dr Munro, adding that they can now choose whether or not to study the old language.

Giving voice to the under-represented and overlooked in a humanities subject is now the name of the game. This has overtaken the big questions of the 1960s such as the relation between the individual and society, said Professor Simpson.

 “We’ve gone from asking the big philosophical questions to a problem-oriented, activist view,” said Professor Simpson.

The ordinary and the alternative have emerged as academia’s most fashionable “themes”. They transcend boundaries of hierarchy, place and period. All this suggests that scholarly approaches to research could be at the root of changes to undergraduate teaching more widely in the humanities.

“It’s not that anthropology has spilled into other subjects. Rather, subjects have converged,” said Professor Simpson. “Theory itself has become more fleet-footed.”

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