UVA, the humanities, and what self-interested mathematicians should do

Some belated congratulations are due to the students and faculty at the University of Virginia: after the bizarre firing of the popular university president, their protests resulted in the Board of Rectors unanimously reversing itself and reinstating her.  The whole episode is difficult to make sense of because the reasons for the initial firing were never clearly articulated, but at least some evidence suggests that President Sullivan was sacked for a relative unwillingness to gut the humanities at UVA.  (“Relative” here because it’s not completely clear that she’s unwilling to oversee the eventual gutting of anything; it is only clear that she’s not stupid enough to try to go about it in the idiotic sort of way the Rectors went about firing her.)

Of course, the gutting of the humanities is nothing new — their status in public discourse has been quite low relative to the STEM fields (more on this acronym in a minute) and professional fields of study for as long as I’ve been paying attention to this sort of thing.  (It is part of a family of trends that have been transforming academia in my adult lifetime (and presumably before); others include the privatization of public universities, the rise of for-profit colleges, the adjunctification of the academic workforce, and the rise of online education.)  And this lower status seems frequently tied to defunding, either explicit (e.g., the closing of departments) or implicit.  The implicit defunding often takes the form of major commitments of money, space and other resources to the sciences, engineering, and professional schools, frequently accompanied by rhetoric emphasizing the importance of STEM fields.

What are STEM fields?  The acronym stands for “science, technology, engineering and mathematics”.  Let us not dwell too long on the broader incoherentness of this phrase (like the fact that it groups together one method of knowledge-acquisition, one class of made objects, one profession and one academic discipline) and instead cut to the point relevant to mathematicians: we stick out from the other STEM fields like a sore thumb.  We don’t do experiments.  We don’t have laboratories or use fancy equipment.  Upon being hired as a professor, we don’t suddenly stop doing research and start writing grants full-time.  No one expects us to come into the office on weekends, nor looks at us askance if we go home early.  Our published work does not purport to solve pressing problems of the public welfare.  Etc.  In fact, we behave much more like professors in the humanities: our research tends to consist of reading, thinking, and writing, and little else.  Our funding comes primarily in exchange for teaching service classes to large numbers of non-majors.  Our main demands for space are for classrooms and offices.  And so on.

Here comes the closest thing this post has to a thesis statement: that we mathematicians look more like humanists and less like scientists (or engineers, or technologists(?!)) is not just superficial, but is the true nature of things.  We really are more like humanists than like scientists, and our inclusion in the acronym “STEM” is a mistake.  Indeed, I can even pinpoint exactly how this mistake in the rhetoric of the edu-bureaucracy was made: there’s an “M” in “STEM” because engineers need to pass calculus 2 to get their bachelor’s degrees.  No one (as far as I know) is trying to shut down mathematics departments along with German departments to make way for science labs (or online education recording studios, or business schools, or what have you) because mathematicians are involved in the education of scientists and engineers.

Note that this categorization error has nothing whatsoever to do with our research; indeed, the people who go around talking about STEM are for the most part completely ignorant1 of the nature or state of mathematical research.  But this state of affairs needn’t go on for ever: eventually, it may become widely known (e.g., by politicians) that the NSF and public universities are paying people to sit around and do what mathematicians do all day.  (In fact, some people, even complete morons, do notice this from time to time.)  And once this becomes known, mathematics as a research area may be doomed to the same treatment as the humanities.  After all, teaching calculus to engineering students can be done much more cheaply by abused adjuncts with master’s degrees on short-term contracts than by tenured professors.  This is true regardless of how compelling mathematicians find the story of mathematics as the pious search for pure knowledge; at least, these sorts of stories seem not to have helped humanities departments much.

So, what should a self-interested mathematician do?  Well, some things are obvious regardless of whether you agree with me about STEM and the humanities, such as supporting the re-funding of public education and opposing the adjunctification of the academic workforce.  But I think that we could use a good dose of solidarity with humanists.  The next time a university tries to shut down or defund humanities departments, I hope to see the mathematicians standing proudly in defense of our colleagues at the other end of campus.

fn1. I don’t think this ignorance is a shameful thing, i.e., I don’t blame edu-bureaucrats and politicians for not knowing anything about the multivariate arithmetic Tutte polynomial.

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