The Value of Humanities

There has been much discussion recently about value for money in higher education and, in particular, the value of Humanities degrees in the current economic climate. In a recent article entitled ‘Humanities as Vocation’ on the popular higher education blog WonkHE, Dr Jon Wilson, Vice-Dean Education in Arts and Humanities at KCL, noted the importance for Humanities degrees in making a clear connection to real-world employment:

As many humanities scholars are doing, we should also build our subjects’ practical connection with the real world into our teaching…..Those links are being made in different ways in universities now. They might involve creating communities of practice, where alumni in related fields discuss and help shape the curriculum and career choices of current students.[1]

This point strikes me as being ever-more important and working with alumni is an increasing focus for Humanities at Exeter. A quick look at the College’s Alumni Profiles gives an indication of the huge variety of different careers Humanities’ graduates hold and increasing numbers are willing to share the benefits of their experience with current students. Students can access valuable knowledge for a variety of different careers through engagement with willing alumni, who often give up their time to act both as advisors to current students and also to get more directly involved in the delivery of the curriculum.

One such example of a course that embeds learning into the curriculum is the Liberal Arts ‘Think Tank’ module. Think Tank asks students to work in small groups to tackle a key social, political, business or economic challenge. Challenges are posed by Humanities’ alumni who have gone on to work in variety of different careers. The skills that students develop through their degree – in-depth research, creative thinking, and professional presentation to name just a few – are utilised to come up with solutions that the students present back to their alumni mentor, lecturers, and peers at the end of the module. Students get the benefit of working directly with these industry experts throughout the project whilst simultaneously learning how former Exeter students have used their degrees in their future careers.

I graduated from the Exeter’s Classics and Ancient History Department in 2013 and volunteered to set a Think Tank challenge for the first time in 2017. Having worked in a number of different Higher Education roles, I’ve spent the past two years working in the Exeter’s own Global Partnerships Team as a Business Partner focused on Humanities and Social Sciences. Global Partnerships is responsible for Exeter’s engagement with other universities all over the world, forging new connections with international partners that will enhance our education and research. It’s a role I find fast-paced, challenging, and (usually) very rewarding.

I was eager to take part in Think Tank for a number of reasons, not least because I was intrigued to see what solutions the students might propose to some of the challenges the UK higher education sector is currently facing. I therefore asked the students to devise a strategy for how a UK university like Exeter should work on the international stage to meet the challenges facing the higher education sector over the next 10 years. They had to think about some of the big questions facing higher education at the moment – how do we prepare for the changes that Brexit will bring? What new opportunities for research funding are out there and how can we make the most of them? How can we continue to attract the best international students from around the world? Other alumni gave students the opportunity to work on challenges as diverse as responding to the divisions laid bare by the Grenfell Fire tragedy or devising new campaigns for the RNLI.

I was pleasantly surprised when eight students chose to work on the challenge I had set and when they presented their findings after eight weeks of work, I was struck by the depth of their research and the originality of aspects of their thinking. So impressed was I, that I pointed my students in the direction of a paid internship opportunity some of my colleagues were advertising to support the delivery of a major international conference. The experiences gleaned through ‘Think Tank’ helped one of the students get the job, despite a very competitive field.

Exeter can make a strong argument that Humanities degrees offer students great preparation for a wide variety of careers; in addition to glancing through our alumni profiles, recent information from the Destinations of Leavers of Higher Education (DHLE) survey and Longitudinal Educational Outcomes (LEO) data suggests that Exeter’s Humanities’ graduates tend to perform well after they leave the College. My experiences have convinced me that alumni engagement has a key part to play in this picture; not only is it good for the students, but it’s great for alumni to be able to harness the enthusiasm and skills of the students they work with.

[1] https://wonkhe.com/blogs/humanities-as-vocation/

Written Dr James Smith, Assistant Head of Global Partnerships, University of Exeter, Streatham Campus

Exeter alumnus, Jonathan Holloway, recalls fond memories of his time at university

Jonathan Holloway is an artistic director and writer. Following his recent appointment to the role of Artistic Director of the Melbourne Festival (from 2016 onwards), he recalls fond memories of his time at the University of Exeter.

Jonathan Holloway

Jonathan Holloway cr. Frances Andrijich

I’ve had the extraordinary good fortune to do some amazing things over the past two decades, but I would still say that my years as an undergraduate at Exeter University were a life highlight.

I read Drama from 1988 – 1991, which my peers and I think of as “the great years” in Exeter – although I’m guessing that others, before and since, may just say the same thing. I say I “read” Drama, but it wasn’t all reading. The course was very practical, and its content has had a direct and ongoing influence on my work.

From Brecht to Butoh, each five-week unit was totally immersive and focused, each one approaching a subject from every angle.  We were regularly encouraged to dive into something new and confront it, learn it, and become confident in it. As soon as we felt comfortable, the content would change completely – who knew what would be next?

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Royal de Luxe in Perth

The course began with basic anthropological questions about the arts: why do we sing, or dance, or tell stories?  Over 25 years later, these questions still form the basis of my approach to festival direction. Now that I work in Australia, this context is particularly important, as ancient traditions live on through the Aboriginal custodians of the land and their stories.

Some of my greatest memories come from extra-curricular activities: the beautiful walk between the Thornlea Studio and the Guild offices; working on promotions and security every weekend at the Lemon Grove; and trips to Dawlish Warren with friends who would go on to be rockstars, radio presenters and academics.

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Royal de Luxe in Perth cr. Scott Weir

Drama at Exeter is rightly hailed as one of the great theoretical and action-based training grounds for practical theatre makers in the UK and beyond. I found that the course produced world-aware and highly communicative people, all with cultivated skills, beliefs and intellectual stand-points.

After graduation, I spent several years as a director, writer and curator of arts programmes, culminating in co-writing and directing Robin Hood at the National Theatre in London (under my stage name Jack Holloway), and establishing and directing the National Theatre’s “Watch This Space” Festival. Festivals are unique in their ability to unite and uplift a city, and so the invitation to come to Melbourne was irresistible: the cultural capital of Australia, with the Melbourne Festival at its creative centre.

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Studio Cirque ‘Place des Anges’, cr. Toni Wilkinson

For a number of weeks a year, a festival can transform a city, turn it on its head, and in so doing can change the perceptions of the city from both inside and far away.Festivals have the ability to curate extraordinary experiences and stories, to explore what really defines and challenges a city and its communities. I believe that the role of the arts is changing as rapidly as the world around it, and festivals have a pivotal role to play in helping people to navigate and re-map the modern world.  The arts need to occupy all platforms, from the digital and virtual to the purpose built and the unexpectedly occupied found space.

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Studio Cirque ‘Place des Anges’, cr. Toni Wilkinson

Now, I find myself reflecting on the University of Exeter, and how it helped me to develop resilience, knowledge, curiosity and confidence; as well as the set of principles by which I live my life. The skills and approaches I learned at Exeter were useful throughout my work in Bracknell, London, Norwich and Perth. Now I’m in Melbourne – who knows where I’ll be next?


 

For more information on the Melbourne Festival, please visit the Melbourne Festival website.