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In my opinion

We need literary theorists

Let's confront misperceptions about our graduates.


In the February issue of University Affairs, Rosanna Tamburri wrote a provocative article (“Give us the dirt on jobs”) about what universities are doing, or not doing, to prepare graduate students for the likelihood that they will be working in non-academic careers after graduation. This question is particularly relevant for the social sciences and humanities in the globally engaged and digitally connected 21st century.

The notion that successful pathways for  undergraduate students in fields such as literature and political science lead only to graduate programs and then to research careers has been wrong for decades. About half of our fellowship-winning graduates pursue research careers. The other half go on to contribute across the private, public and non-profit sectors. Happily, both expectations and curricula are changing, with the realization that Canada needs more graduates with postsecondary education at all levels; only some of them will occupy research positions. Today’s rapidly changing economy, society and culture make it increasingly important that we confront these misperceptions and continue to update the curricula to embrace the diversity of ways that advanced education connects to subsequent experience.

Does Canada need students studying fields such as literary theory? More than ever, if we can judge by the example of scholars like Ian Lancashire, an English professor from the University of Toronto, and his colleague Graeme Hirst, a computational linguist, who topped the New York Times annual list of the best ideas of 2009. Their idea was to analyze Agatha Christie’s novels based on the knowledge that written vocabulary changes subtly but perceptively with the onset of dementia. Their textual analysis demonstrated for the first time that the prolific Christie did, in fact, write her last novels while suffering from Alzheimer’s. Moreover, their work suggests new diagnostic tools for identifying the initial onset of dementia which, in turn, make possible new preventive treatments.

Today’s knowledge economy builds on the rise of the service economy. In the 1960s, most workers were employed in occupations directly or indirectly connected to the land. Today, over two-thirds are employed in finance, real estate, marketing, education and other service industries whose leaders have characteristically graduated from the social sciences and humanities.

Across all sectors, understanding how ideas and behaviour work now drives successful innovation. The new ambitions are to be customer-driven in the marketplace, employee-empowered in workplaces, citizen-engaged in politics, student-centered in schools and patient-focused in health. All of these are concepts derived from research in the humanities and social sciences.

This new model of innovation integrates technological invention and social context and thereby increases the need for, and value of, research about individuals, groups and societies. Not surprisingly, the intrinsic importance of such research is providing a foundation for key contributions to firms and organizations beyond the campus.

A 2009 study by the Quebec firm Science-Metrix indicated that two-thirds of the findings of social sciences and humanities research projects are used in non-academic organizations. Such use is highest in three key activities:

  1. Private sector innovation through research in fields such as economics, business administration, industrial relations and law;
  2. Government response to public policy issues through political science and public administration, criminology, health studies, education, communications and similar research fields; and
  3. Delivery of public services through social work, sociology, urban studies and career counselling, among other research areas.

The increasing need to develop talented people who contribute across campuses and communities combined with the increasing use of research insights about people in all sectors of society help explain why the social sciences and humanities are so central to today’s integrated model of innovation.

Canada’s world-class achievements in the social sciences and humanities represent a major advantage for our students in their subsequent experience as graduates across the private, public and non-profit sectors. The recent recognition by the New York Times illustrates the special strength of new fields such as digital humanities. But a great deal of work remains to be done to renew structures, attitudes, policies and practices framed around an economy and culture that have changed significantly in recent years.

Chad Gaffield is president of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.

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  1. Dr.Doinglittle / April 17, 2010 at 01:53

    While I agree that degrees in the social sciences and the humanities foster important critical skills, this article really stretches the truth about the marketability of such degrees. The reality is that only some degrees (mostly select social sciences) lead to jobs that directly relate to area of study. A lot of arts degrees have zero intrinsic marketability. Moreover, it does students a great disservice to suggest anything otherwise.

    If I went to an interview for a non-university job touting my pioneering work on Agatha Christie novels as qualification, I’d get laughed out of the room.

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