Gilmer Post 1: “Applied” Humanities

While reading C.P. Snow’s “The Two Cultures” (1959), I found myself laughing along: as someone who eschews Kindles to paperbound books, I certainly qualify as one of Snow’s “natural Luddites” (23). I also winced when he identified the source of disgruntlement felt by humanities scholars: “young scientists know […] they’ll get a comfortable job, while their contemporaries and counterparts in English and History will be lucky to earn 60 per cent as much.” Ouch! Snow’s got me pinned. I thought back to a recent conversation I’d had with my friend, Davis, a medical engineering graduate student at CU. Davis laughs when I talk about maintaining a 4.0, claiming that he “scrapes by with a B average.” Imagine my feeling of insult when he graduated last winter, landing a high-paying job in his field within days.

At some point, I mentioned to a (non-grad) friend that this disparity was extremely unfair. Why should a B-average scientist earn more/have more job security than a humanities scholar with a near perfect record? The response was quick and defeating: “Well, Jill, Davis designs artificial heart valves. You read books.” Ahh, yes. I’d heard this before. The old debate, and one that Snow also identifies: applied versus pure science. What, after all, do the humanities produce? The sciences are members of the machine, active participants in capitalist production, but the humanities hold themselves staunchly apart: “We [literary scholars] prided ourselves that the science we were doing could not […] have any practical use. The more firmly one could make that claim, the more superior one felt” (34). Snow has, in my opinion, recognized the noose strangling literary scholarship. Our feeling of preserving Art for Art’s Sake, our determination to rage against the Machine, has prevented our field from progressing effectively into the modern world.

I’m sure we’re all familiar with articles like these, which warn incoming college students that English degrees are entirely useless: “As a major, this is the road more traveled by, with not nearly enough writing, teaching, publishing or journalism jobs for all the students who graduate with a yen for the written word. It doesn’t help that many media fields have been upended by the digital revolution.” There it is! Instead of embracing the digital revolution, we have been “upended,” thrown totally for a loop. We’re thought of as a “yen” field, and herein lies the crux of the problem: notions of artistic purity only suffocate an already struggling academic study. To keep this field alive and breathing, we must find a way to bridge the digital gulf and supercede assumptions about our outdated intellectualism.


Newman, Rick. “The 10 Worst Majors for Finding a Good Job.” Yahoo Finance. Yahoo!, 18 June 2013. Web. 30 Aug. 2015.

Snow, C. P. The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution. Print.


2 thoughts on “Gilmer Post 1: “Applied” Humanities

  1. cdeagon says:

    Jill, I enjoyed your post and I felt your frustrations myself–I’m sure we all have. I think your allusion to having to justify our field directly correlates with Melissa’s discussion of dropping the “digital” in digital humanities. She’s right that much of the work scholars do in the humanities is already digital by necessity. However, I think calling our work digital humanities is a way to justify it; a way to say, “Look! What we do is important because we use computers just like all you STEM people.” Consequently, I think scholars in our fields will be reluctant to let go of the “D” even as it becomes more and more necessary for our everyday work.


  2. mringraham says:

    I just came across a passage from Heidegger’s “The Thing” that serves as a concise reminder of the subjective limitations of soi-disant authoritative scientific knowledge: “Science always encounters only what its [italicized] kind of representation had admitted beforehand as an object possible for science.” This also seems to speak to Unsworth’s piece insofar as he wants to question the very assumptions that undergird scientific experimentation (i.e. “humanities computing”).


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