Pace Magazine

The Future of Humanities at Pace

July 10, 2024
Pace student and teacher at south street seaport printing press

“An investment in knowledge pays the best interest.”

The above quote is not in fact from an algorithm-chasing social media influencer; but rather from one of the original influencers of the United States of America: Benjamin Franklin.

In many respects, the concept of higher education has long been about this simple premise. Picture the first-year student who has had their world entirely rocked by a new political idea. Or a group of budding friends staying up late into the night, fiercely debating the concept of free will. Young minds, completely electrified by an environment of intellectual curiosity, where knowledge is pursued for knowledge’s sake with the general understanding that it will pay off later.

For many reasons, this idyllic notion of college life does not necessarily reflect the higher education experience of today. For one, this type of education was largely only ever available to a privileged segment of society. And between rising costs, the ever-changing economy, and the competitive nature of the marketplace, this type of mindset may simply be impractical and outdated; there can only be so much leisurely intellectual exploration when employers are demanding, well, everything from today’s new grads.

Yet in a perpetually changing world, this essence of a college education—which can be broadly defined as well-rounded education in the humanities—may be more important than ever. Because in a world where technology is evolving by the nanosecond and our interconnected global world is yielding dilemmas more complex than ever, there is one skill that will always stand out amidst the ever-growing minefield of rising disinformation, distraction, and future unknown obstacles: The ability to think.

Students and Faculty gathering for a Future of Humanities event held at Pace on March 4, 2024
In March 2024, Pace hosted a special conversation on the future of the humanities featuring, Shelly Lowe (Navajo), chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities and Tony Marx, president and CEO of the New York Public Library.

Humanities at Pace: The Experiential Way

“We are a leader nationally in building what we call experiential humanities–where we empower students to learn by doing. This is a shift away from the historical model of universities of a one-way flow of information.”

These are the words of Kelley Kreitz, PhD, director of Experiential Learning at Pace and associate professor of English within the Dyson College of Arts and Sciences. Kreitz has been instrumental in bringing humanities education into today’s classrooms in a way that is both relevant and engaging. She’s been working diligently with University faculty and with large organizations such as the National Endowment for the Humanities to bridge innovative learning concepts with the funding to make them happen.

This February, for example, Pace was one of only 30 Universities in the nation to be awarded $350,000 from the National Endowment for the Humanities through two grants to fund the creation of new curriculum, teaching spaces, and projects that highlight the stories of marginalized people in the historical record through a series of public projects. The first of these grants, led by Kreitz along with Assistant Provost for Research Maria Iacullo-Bird and Professor Sid Ray, will fund an initiative titled The Ground Beneath Our Feet: Centering Place-Based Humanities in the Curriculum, which recognizes the location of our New York City Campus on unceded Lenape land near the African Burial Ground–at the convergence of Chinatown, Civic Center, Financial District, and the Seaport. The project will support courses specifically dedicated to advance experiential learning in humanities courses in partnership with a Lower Manhattan Humanities Consortium of cultural and service organizations in Pace’s backyard.

“We are a leader nationally in building what we call experiential humanities–where we empower students to learn by doing. This is a shift away from the historical model of universities of a one-way flow of information.”

The Ground Beneath Our Feet project presents an opportunity on an unprecedented scale through LMHC partnerships to excavate the layered, intersecting, and often conflicting histories of Lower Manhattan,” said Assistant Provost Iacullo-Bird, who is also the President of the national Council on Undergraduate Research (CUR). “Undergraduate research will be embedded throughout the project in developing new interactive, research-infused, and immersive experiential learning.”

One aspect of this initiative is the upcoming launch of the specialized digital mapping platform, The Ground Beneath Our Feet, which will house classroom-based initiatives ranging from an exploration into New York City’s 19th-Century Spanish-Language Press, taught by Kreitz, an oral history and archival project surrounding the impact of Super Storm Sandy in Lower Manhattan taught by Professor Erica Johnson, an investigation of mutual aid networks in New York City taught by Professor Meghana Nayak, and an exploration of arts and cultural organizations of the Hudson Valley taught by Lecturer Alysa Hantgan. Through these semester-long studies, students will be able to leverage today’s technology, engage in real-life learning in spaces of historical significance, interact with local communities, and partake in more traditional classroom elements such as close analysis of texts to, as Kreitz notes, “put our past in conversation with the present.”

The Ground Beneath Our Feet is just one of many experiential learning programs happening at Pace. Over the next few years, the University is dedicated to expanding this classroom-based model, and a considerable number of classes in topics ranging from "African Burial Ground and Slavery in NYC," currently under development by Adjunct Professor Tamara Kelly, to a course centered around Chinatowns in the Americas, developed by Associate Professor Stephanie Hsu, will empower students to engage heavily with historic locations right in our community. Recently, the National Humanities Alliance, featured the University’s Writing for Diversity and Equity in Theater and Media program in a report on diversity in the humanities for the program’s combination of humanities and theater courses, as well as hands-on professional development experiences with working professionals through master classes and field trips.

Student and Professor conversing at a poster presentation
At Pace, a humanities education extends well beyond the classroom.

In addition, a new Makerspace and Humanities Lab funded through a second NEH grant, led by Kreitz; professors Luke Cantarella and Charlotte Becket; and Vice President for Development and Alumni Relations Gary Laermer ‘80, and Director of Campus Planning Wayne Chen, will support courses in our humanities majors and our experiential liberal arts core that invite students to explore and present their ideas through critical making practices, such as bookmaking and other forms of fabrication. The new space will also provide students with access to historical small-press and DIY publications from New York City through our Pace Zine Library collection, co-founded and co-directed by Instructional Services Librarian Susan Thomas and Clinical Assistant Professor Derek Stroup. These and other initiatives show that when it comes to giving the Humanities a modern makeover, we’re just getting started.

A Research-Based Approach

A humanities education can propel innovation and advancement that drives today’s knowledge economy. In Pace’s experiential model, traditional humanities skills such as close and contextual reading come together with research projects that employ digital and public humanities methods, including visualizing communities represented by archival materials, making visible absences in the archival record, and engaging academics, students, and the public in contemplating history and its relationship to present challenges.

For example, students in a recent civic engagement section of a core curriculum course called Modern Latin America, taught by University associate professor and Project Pericles Fellow Michelle Chase, students are partnering with a local nonprofit, the North American Congress on Latin America (NACLA), an organization dedicated to advocating for social justice throughout the Americas, focusing specifically on Latin American migration to the United States, and U.S. foreign policy toward Latin America. Students in the course combine the academic portion—studying recent history of Latin America—with civic engagement, exploring significant events in Latin America through NACLA’s archives, located in Washington Square, which include photos of Fidel Castro speaking at a rally in Cuba, protests in Puerto Rico, and agricultural projects in Mexico.

Through Pace’s experiential learning ethos and emphasis on the digital humanities, we’re placing those timeless principles of a traditional humanities education within the boundary-pushing, future-forward potential of 21st century classrooms. This is a model with relevance for humanities majors, as well as for students who encounter humanities courses through our experiential liberal arts core.

A Competitive Advantage for All Students

A strong humanities education is not just for the English or Art History majors at Dyson. Rather, it’s a throughline across all of Pace’s schools and departments.

“The humanities play a key role in education, especially for those of us teaching students to solve problems using technology,” says Seidenberg Clinical Professor of Information Technology Andreea Cotaranu, PhD. “They provide essential context and understanding of the human condition, fostering critical thinking, empathy, and ethical considerations.”

Seidenberg students at Cyber Range
Pace students and Seidenberg Professor Joe Acampora at Pace's new Cyber Range facility on the Westchester Campus

For example, consider the soon-to-be-launched Humanities, Art, and Computing minor, housed both in Seidenberg and Dyson. Specifically designed to merge the digital humanities with equity-centered design thinking, the program will employ the use of new technology, advanced computing, and public engagement to investigate and analyze questions in the humanities.

Says Kreitz, “My position has always been that the traditional and digital humanities have to work in tandem with each other. There’s no world in which I can make sense of what I’m able to access through a digital map, for example, without the type of close and contextual reading—and discussion-based learning—that’s always been part of the humanities.”

“It’s not a replacement,” she adds. “But it’s a rethinking.”

At Pace, this “rethinking” of humanities is popping up everywhere. Consider our School of Education, where classroom content is often reverberated into the classrooms of the future.

“At schools and universities we tend to divide the human experience into math, science, language arts, but that’s very artificial because our life experience, everything is integrated.” says School of Education Professor Peter McDermott, PhD.

McDermott, alongside School of Education Professor Sharon Medow, MSEd conceived the course Teaching 212: Understanding the Potential of the Humanities and Creative Arts in Children’s Education and Development. This course, which includes an experiential learning element related to the many museums and cultural centers of New York City, examines how the arts can provide children opportunities for using culturally-based sign systems for composing meaning, interpreting, and analyzing their worlds.

In many respects, its aim is simply to help children understand the world and their place in it.

“The humanities have tentacles in so many different disciplines; they give us so many wonderful opportunities to think about ourselves and our place in the world, but also to learn about others,” says Medow. “I think we need the tech tools, but there’s nothing more important than the human experience. And there’s richness to that.”

The Humanities for Career Outcomes

As per a New Yorker article in 2023, the study of English and history at the collegiate level has fallen precipitously over the past decade, dropping by approximately one-third. While this is not the case at Pace University—in fact, we’re seeing a significant year-over-year increase in English majors, up 47% over the past few years to more than 200 majors—the trend nationwide is difficult to ignore. Universities are increasingly moving away from foreign language programs, realigning humanities departments entirely, and simply not devoting resources to the humanities, despite its long-standing status as a crucial pillar of academia.

Is this a mistake?

According to a 2020–2021 study by the Association of American Colleges and Universities, 95% of employers prioritize hiring candidates with the intellectual and interpersonal skills that will help them contribute to innovation in the workplace. ​A further 93% of employers indicated that candidates’ capacity to think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems is more important than their specific undergraduate major. ​

In other words: to win over employers upon graduation, a strong grounding in the humanities is arguably more important than ever.

This sentiment has been echoed by Pace’s Career Services, which partners with the comprehensive career management tool Handshake to attain market insight and connect students to its 750,000+ employer network. In a recent joint study with Handshake and the Society of Human Resources Management that investigated how employers evaluate emerging talent, soft skills topped the charts.

Phyllis Mooney, Pace's AVP and Executive Director of Career Services and Employer Relations noted in reference to the study, "Among the top 6 skills employers seek in college students entering the workforce, 81% cited communication skills and 77% critical thinking. This mandate is what we hear time and time again from employers."

Two Pace students sitting at table conversing with instructor
The humanities as a competitive advantage? Pace's Career Services understands that soft skills are instrumental in helping students land and succeed in their future careers. 

"There is no job, not even the most technical, that cannot be improved by the position holder having excellent communication and critical thinking skills," she added. "That is why at Pace, we provide a strong liberal arts foundation for all our majors, even ones outside of the Dyson College of Arts and Sciences."

While the technical skills to excel at a job are certainly important in getting your resume noticed, perhaps the best return on investment is an education that offers more than just the hard skills. At Pace, we’re also equipping our grads with the soft skills they need to help them thrive in their careers.

“A liberal arts education provides our students with a competitive advantage,” says Kreitz. “Being able to demonstrate skills in writing, communication, collaboration—these are all skills that we know help students get higher salaries on average when they graduate from college. Importantly, these are also skills that empower students to grapple with today’s pressing challenges within and outside the workplace, and ultimately to live fulfilling lives.”

Putting it All Together

Go back to the students invigorated by a compelling political or philosophical idea, talking late into the night. Now, place them within the context of an experiential, interdisciplinary education that enables students to truly grapple with deep questions in texts and in real-world settings.

At Pace, it is our mission to link these things in a way that is not only captivating but enables students to make a positive impact in their daily lives and in their careers as future leaders; to provide students with an investment in knowledge that, as Ben Franklin would appreciate, truly does pay the best interest. That’s the Pace difference.

“Our approach to experiential humanities is about empowering students to explore their curiosity–and ultimately to learn in a way that makes them partners in producing knowledge about the past and putting, in conversation with present challenges,” concludes Kreitz. “Ultimately, we are preparing students to create the future in which they want to participate.”

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