isn't it supposed to be the scientist huddled under some mountain with his misunderstood work?
December 9, 2009 4:16 PM   Subscribe

Do people in humanities classes talk to each other?

As a science major with a distribution requirement over English literature, history, and political science, I've been taking both science and humanities classes recently and noticing an odd social difference between the two. It sesms that people in humanities classes don't talk to each other.

To explain where I'm coming from, in my science classes it's completely unremarkable to walk up to a stranger and ask if he wants to study or work with you. Most people have a study group with which they check homework, go over material, or just sit in the library so there's someone around to ask a quick question. The professors and TAs usually permit or even encourage collaboration, and I've met several current friends through my classes.

And now that I'm in my humanities distribution---that just doesn't happen. We go to class and then we write our essays alone. I ask my room-mate who's already taken these classes to review mine, because I don't know anyone else in the class. I've considered approaching a classmate, but I don't even know what I would say. It feels like we all have our own topics and there's not all that much overlap. I also feel a bit nervous discussing anyone else's work because all but one professor has repeatedly warned us about plagiarism. So, are the humanities just by nature cold and impersonal, or am I doing something wrong?
posted by d. z. wang to Education (41 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
I totally experienced that as an English major, I can't explain why though. Didn't take enough science classes to compare.
posted by Kirklander at 4:22 PM on December 9, 2009

In the kinds of science and humanities at my uni., most scientific study is collaborative (i.e. at postgrad level people will be working in teams) whereas most humanities study is individual. Perhaps the culture has filtered down?
posted by Paragon at 4:27 PM on December 9, 2009

I had the opposite experience. In humanities classes, there was more conversation and discussion built into the class, so it was easier to chat with classmates before and after class, form study groups etc. In the few science courses I took, no one talked and I studied with people I already knew who were also in the class.
posted by donajo at 4:28 PM on December 9, 2009 [1 favorite]

I noticed that too when I was getting my oh so useful degree in The Vague Humanities. I had a roommate who was a Bio/chem major and was always meeting up to study with people. I think there's a lot less camaraderie because everyone is doing something different. I think in science classes the track is pretty much set, and you won't be taking any of the "For Non-Majors" classes. You will see the same classmates in class after class, year after year. In humanities there are kids doing their requirements from all different majors who you'll never see again.

Another reason: These classes tend to focus on writing long papers rather than taking memory/notes-based exams. This doesn't lend itself to community-based preparation.
posted by amethysts at 4:30 PM on December 9, 2009

I found that in my major, I had no trouble finding people to study with, but in classes outside my major, it was harder. It was somewhat easier to do it in sciences than humanities, in part because the kind of work we did in sciences was more amenable to working in groups (eg, lots and lots of practice problems vs a paper -- how do you write your own papers together?) and in part because we got all chatty in labs.
posted by jeather at 4:31 PM on December 9, 2009

Since I wasn't clear, I was one semester away from a major in a science subject, and completed a full major in a humanities subject.
posted by jeather at 4:32 PM on December 9, 2009

Not to be snarky, but political science isn't really considered part of the humanities. I see plenty of collaboration in my own discipline on projects but find the main socialization difference (among grad students atleast) is that we don't work all day in a lab together, sharing equipment, etc.
posted by quodlibet at 4:38 PM on December 9, 2009

Uh yeah, sort of.

As someone who did both a degree in the sciences and humanities, I can say that doing problem sets in the science major was nicely collaborative, which lead to a certain kind of socialization.

In the humanities, there was also a lot of socialization. It depends, though -- surprisingly enough I found that finding people willing to talk about their major outside of class was relatively rare. Moreover, there's less of a common base in the humanities -- there are a lot of threads linking through, but it's not like my paper on narrativity in experimental non-representational 70s NYC cinema is going to really interlock with my friend's thesis on Assyrian cylinder seals or a joint bildungsroman-comparison of Gogol and Melville, etc. On the other hand, I could be doing some computational linear algebra and I could have physics/math/engineering friends chime in and help me out to a certain degree, and so on.

So what ends up happening in the humanities is that there's a lot of one-sided explanation, a lot of "you know what that reminds me of?" and a lot of tangential conversation that's not always specifically related to what you're studying. Which meant that conversations were rich and lush and varied and exciting, but mostly only when you had them with the right people. And that means that you're probably friends with them outside of class anyways. Which is probably why you're not seeing random students socialize with each other -- if they're interested, they already do on their spare time with friends.
posted by suedehead at 4:49 PM on December 9, 2009

I was a social-science major, with minors in the humanities. I definitely noticed what you're talking about in some of my English classes, even in a few that were largely discussion-based. (In one such course, I specifically remember observing that people didn't even talk in class. They seemed content to leave the instructor's questions hanging and let him sweat it out.) In other discussion-based humanities courses I took, people were more forthcoming, both in and out of class.

But all along, my roommates in engineering seemed to have study groups almost every night. That never changed.
posted by limeonaire at 4:53 PM on December 9, 2009

I found that finding people willing to talk about their major outside of class was relatively rare.

This too. Or when they were willing to talk about their major, you soon found yourself wishing they weren't.

Also, when it comes to editing or reviewing essays/papers, I'll tell you, my experience is that the vast majority of humanities majors are pretty useless in this regard. You're not going to get the kind of in-depth feedback and answers you want from most of them, no matter how friendly they are.
posted by limeonaire at 5:01 PM on December 9, 2009

Another problem with humanities classes, at least in 4 years of experience, is that the people who tend to participate the most in class discussion are often the people who should least do so. You often won't hear from people with valuable and interesting viewpoints, because the class discussion is monopolized by self-important windbags. By the end of a three-hour night class, all I ever wanted was to get home and away from these annoying didn't really motivate me to approach classmates to discuss the course material!
posted by Pomo at 5:12 PM on December 9, 2009 [2 favorites]

Huh. My experience was the opposite of what most people seem to be reporting: my humanities major (Classics, the original humanities subject!) was full of socializing, including study groups, and I knew everyone else very well. In my minor (CS), no one seemed to socialize at all (after the intro course, which had lots of non-majors and lots of people who failed and so didn't continue on in the subject).
posted by lysimache at 5:18 PM on December 9, 2009

Another anecdote (English degree based): lots of socialization but not much collaborative studying/projects. I found conversations naturally started with other people based on either shared interests related to the material, or shared annoyance at the windbag/over-sharer in the class. But I never really wanted to sit and write essays with anyone.
posted by grapesaresour at 5:26 PM on December 9, 2009 [1 favorite]

I was an English major and I definitely never participated in any kind of study group, but I was also almost never expected to memorize anything for classes in my major. Nearly all of my major grades were based on long papers. Still, I did have a few friends with whom I might discuss ideas about the class, the readings, and the paper topics; we always did this in an informal way, and when it came to papers we were usually writing about different topics and just bouncing ideas around before settling in to write by ourselves. I never asked anyone else to look at my papers, and I very rarely reviewed anyone's paper. A few times, I helped non-major friends get through their English requirement by giving advice on their drafts, but I don't recall ever looking at another major's paper. I never gave this much thought. . . but upon reflecting, my friends who majored in the sciences were always heading off to study groups and the like while I was sitting alone at my desk typing away. I guess in that way the humanities are more solitary.
posted by katie at 5:28 PM on December 9, 2009

It is also the nature of the evaluation.

In a science class, studying together for an exam makes sense. In a humanities course where you're writing an essay, why work with other people?
posted by k8t at 5:30 PM on December 9, 2009 [2 favorites]

The phenomenon you're describing is basically proof that nerds are better people. And I would believe it. Most of science/math is problem solving. There's a definite answer, and you either got it or you did something wrong, so lets use reason & the scientific method to determine what you did wrong, how to fix it, etc. Much more conducive to collaboration.

Humanities are all about proving your position. About argument and persuasion. Because there is no definite answer. There's analysis and analogy wrapped up in much, much prettier language, but at the end of the day it's basically you trying to prove you're right. Combative by design. And further, more susceptible to the whims of favoritism.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 5:32 PM on December 9, 2009 [3 favorites]

I haven't taken enough science classes to comment on that area, but I've noticed this culture in humanities as well. In my experience, it's because science majors tend to follow a narrow track to graduation, while humanities students have more options about what classes they take. I rarely saw the same people in my classes semester after semester.

I also agree with liketitanic. Writing assignments just aren't very conducive to collaborative work. I saw study groups spring up more in humanities classes where the tests included memorization than for the classes that required essays.

Another theory I have is that science labs help build the sense of community in the sciences. I don't have much experience with science classes, and this may be be specific to my school, but my friends in psychology and horticulture take at least one lab every semester. I think that helps break down social boundaries and build a sense of camaraderie based on shared previous experiences.
posted by lilac girl at 5:44 PM on December 9, 2009

I'll chime and agree with my fellow Humanities majors (English/Creative Writing here). The very nature of the classes lend themselves to more individual study. Writing essays isn't really a collaborative process. The social aspect most certainly takes place more often in loud voices over beers or coffee than over a library table in hushed tones. You spend more time discussing literature and film, thematic elements and symbolism, than about what your paper is about or the correct answer to an essay question.

Also, I would also like to state for the record, that this type of learning is very effective at improving one's critical thinking skills, not really so much about argument and favoritism.
posted by ThaBombShelterSmith at 5:58 PM on December 9, 2009 [2 favorites]

I noticed this a lot as an undergrad, and though I'm biased (as a student of science), I perceived the split as a basic one between the style of education in the humanities and in the sciences.

No institution worth it's salt is just going to teach you what to think, but after you master the basic elements of critical thinking (which you'd need to succeed in any academic field), science teaches you ways of thinking about stuff, and the humanities teach you a bunch of stuff you can think about.

I realize that's a massively oversimplified dichotomy, but it rang true throughout my education. Each new topic I studied in the humanities was it's own beast, and while I could apply writing and analysis skills from other classes, I still had to approach it in a unique way. Anything new I learn in science certainly has different methods associated with it, but the approach is remarkably consistent across subjects.

Having to come up with a new perspective seems like more of an individual pursuit, and one that is likely to be heavily integrated with one's own way of thinking. Reshaping the way you view something doesn't readily lend itself to group work.

Also, the laboratory/collaborative culture promoted by the sciences probably has a lot to do with this. Creative thought is prized in both domains, but in science, a new idea doesn't mean anything unless you know of a way to test it. That said, it seems like there's less of a chance that someone can just up and hijack your ideas. In the humanities though, ideas are more precious and likely to be stolen.
posted by solipsophistocracy at 6:01 PM on December 9, 2009 [1 favorite]

The phenomenon you're describing is basically proof that nerds are better people. And I would believe it. Most of science/math is problem solving. There's a definite answer, and you either got it or you did something wrong, so lets use reason & the scientific method to determine what you did wrong, how to fix it, etc. Much more conducive to collaboration.

As someone who worked in a writing center, I'd like to argue with your thesis that nerds=math & science people.

But anyway . . .

In my university, and at the university where I later taught, humanities/social sciences were often required for students in a variety of disciplines. Even upper-level English classes, though not required, were often allowed as electives. This meant that we had people of all disciplines, many who had no interest in the actual coursework (reading or discussing the texts, doing the work, forming cogent or even interesting arguments), which for me was often a barrier against actually wanting to talk to people in my classes. When you're actually interested in the work, and everyone around you views a class as an easy-A, just getting through the class period can be really wearying.

That changed when I was in graduate school (surrounded by other like-minded nerds), and earlier, when I would take classes with people from the writing center mentioned above, who were also big lit/philosophy nerds. In both cases, there was sometimes the problem of grandstanding that Pomo describes, but even in an 8-person seminar, that was never the dominant personality.

This problem also didn't exist in most of the upper-level philosophy classes I took for my minor, despite these classes being open to all majors. Well, in some classes it would, particularly with one hippie-dippy Eastern philosophy professor who was known for giving easy As, but the rest of the professors made the classes really challenging and, frankly, sort-of terrifying for most non-majors. The rest was a close-knit group of students who would go out to bars with the professors after evening classes for beers to continue discussing whatever was discussed in class.

So my theory is that a large population of students who really, really don't want to be there has something to do with it.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 6:02 PM on December 9, 2009 [2 favorites]

Sounds like you guys took some crappy humanities classes.

What you need to do is look for literature seminars. They're almost always upper-level classes, and they're kept small enough so that class is a discussion (not the professor asking leading questions, but a round-table sort of thing). When there are 8 to 10 people in a class, and half of the final grade is based on your involvement in discussion, you can really get to know people in interesting ways.

I was a triple-major (yeah, overachiever) in three humanities subjects (History, English and Classics), and I didn't hang out with many people from my departments in college. I studied and wrote alone, and then spent my free time with my ragtag group of friends. A lot of being a humanities student is learning to see things from different points of view (and valuing opportunities to debate and share knowledge), so it was great to be able to come home and talk about things with my philosophy major boyfriend, my political science major roommate, or my artist friends. That doesn't mean I didn't learn a lot from and with my classmates-- I certainly did-- but it was usually in the context of class time.
posted by oinopaponton at 6:11 PM on December 9, 2009 [1 favorite]

It really boils down to three things:

1. The format of the class. Lab-based classes encourage more interaction, simply because if you don't interact with your lab partners, you're dead meat. If all you have to do is read, study, and write, you can choose to not speak to anyone and still pass.

2. The teacher. Some teachers encourage discussions and interactions in class, some just want to give their lecture and get the heck out of there. Also, some teachers are good at controlling the classroom atmosphere, some aren't. If they're good at controlling the class, then they're going to get their way re: interaction in class. If they're terrible at controlling the class then it is mostly up to...

3. The students themselves. This is the most important bit. Due to some wonkiness and uncertainty in my schedule earlier this semester, I ended up going to two different sections of the same Sociology course with the same teacher (about halfway between lecture-only and let's-chat, and probably the best classroom controller I've seen) for a couple weeks. The first section, Wednesdays at 9:30 AM was very chatty and tended to veer off-track with even the slightest bit of prompting. There were several whisperers in the back corner, and a handful of those people that have something to say about everything. The second section, Fridays at 1:00 PM, was WAY more focused. Twice the material got covered, the questions asked were good, the comments were illuminating. No interruptions, no whispering, people were getting to know each other and socializing before and after class -- it was basically the model setting.

The most surprising thing at the time, though, was the the Wednesday section completely clammed up during bathroom breaks and after class. No study groups set up, no Nice-to-meet-yous or How's-it-goings. Same course, same teacher, with completely opposite results based solely on the group of students in each section.

(This is junior college, so YMMV)
posted by clorox at 6:15 PM on December 9, 2009 [1 favorite]

Ooh, yeah, seconding what oinopaponton said about lit. seminars. Granted, in my experience, most of the "socialization" would happen during these classes (particularly during the end-of-semester-let's-all-bring-cookies party), rather than before or after them, but I still keep in touch with people from some of my literature seminars--they're definitely an example of a social, congenial atmosphere in the humanities.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 6:20 PM on December 9, 2009

PhoBWanKenobi has a good point. Lots of people at my uni took a few humanities classes as easy units- they knew they could turn in an average essay and get a pass, which was far easier than hours of practicals and tests and lectures. So lots of the people there just aren't interested.

Also, I think it's much easier to ask for help or work together on science stuff. Compare 'hey, did I balance this chemical equation correctly?' to 'so, why did Lady Anne agree to marry Richard?' One has a pretty straightforward answer, the other requires much more input and debate and actual conversation.

I did a double degree in Arts/Science, and almost all of the friends I made were from the Sciences, but we never got into conversations as deep or as interesting as those I had with my handful of Arts friends.
posted by twirlypen at 6:41 PM on December 9, 2009

I am a mathematician. I went to a mathematics lecture earlier today. Before the lecture there were about twenty or thirty of us in the audience just sitting there keeping to ourselves. This is typical for math lectures, classes, etc. (at least in my current department, which I admit may be unusual in ways I can't recognize). I actually came to this post thinking that you were going to be saying that people in humanities classes do talk to each other and people in science classes don't.
posted by madcaptenor at 6:46 PM on December 9, 2009

I think there are three main reasons for what you describe:

1. People who major in the sciences have a much more rigid schedule, and generally have 3 or 4 classes together every semester, so they know each other, or at least recongize each other from other classes. People in the humanities generally do not, unless they are majoring in something specific with a lot of assigned core classes, like a foreign language.

2. The nature of the assignments- it's makes more sense to work together studying for an exam or doing a problem set than when you're required to hand in an original, individual paper.

3. Do not underestimate the bonding power of labs. Aside from the work, there's something about having to stay late on a Friday to run a gel or come in over the weekend to examine fruit flies that brings people closer together.
posted by emd3737 at 7:52 PM on December 9, 2009

I can think of several issues here.

First, what are you going to collaborate on? In a science class, you can ask someone how you solve a particular type of differential equation or what the whatsit moment of fleebnium is and so on. What are you going to ask someone in a literature class? What the particular meaning of a thing is? What's a persuasive argument that So-and-so has some psychological trait? The things you might collaborate on in science courses don't really have a parallel in humanities classes, except for language classes where you can help each other study vocabulary or conjugation rules.

Second, in science courses, or at least your science courses, there doesn't seem to be much of an expectation that anything is fully your work, except for exams and projects specifically designated as being solo work. In the (undergraduate) humanities, there is much more of an expectation that anything you turn in is fully your work unless you have been specifically authorized to work together or specifically assigned to work in a group.

Third, some of this is probably due to the nature of assignments. Science classes often feature very frequent problem sets, the purpose of which is not really to assess your ability to do something but more to force you to try to apply your learning. If people collaborate on these and someone is turning in stuff they don't fully understand, that's not that important because you'll catch them out on the exams. But in a humanities course, the exams and a few big projects are all there is, so everything is assessing you and everything has to be solo.

Fourth, some of it probably also reflects ideas of how learning in the humanities happens. I can't point to anything, but I think there's a perception that unless you, personally and alone, wrestle with the various issues being raised or with the possible meanings of a particular passage or work, you haven't really learned much. That the kind of learning that they're after is something that other people can't help you with very much by explaining it to you.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 8:03 PM on December 9, 2009 [2 favorites]

My English degree involved a few workshop classes that were very interactive. And generally, I've always gotten a very warm vibe from my literature and writing classes. Most of the interaction happens in the classroom, though, since outside time is usually just spent reading a primary text, researching primary texts, or writing on a self-chosen topic related to a primary text.

The higher-level classes can tend to be a little colder, though, as students compete to dominate discussions or curry favor with a prof by making interesting theories about material.

I'd say that by far the coldest experience of my college career was taking a C programming course. Our work was scored automatically by a script and the professor took no real effort to evaluate us in any other way.
posted by cowbellemoo at 8:06 PM on December 9, 2009

I majored in creative writing (!) and history, and I socialized with the creative writing folks (indeed, I was one of them) more than with my history classmates; there was no socializing in the history stream. A few years later I went back and got an education degree, and students in those classes also studied together, mostly once again because of class size.

This doesn't really help you hypothesis, since science streams usually have larger classes.
posted by KokuRyu at 9:47 PM on December 9, 2009

My degree is in literature. My classmates and I talked to each other, and I even met my best college friend in one of our major classes.
posted by cmgonzalez at 10:39 PM on December 9, 2009

ROU_Xenophobe: "f people collaborate on these and someone is turning in stuff they don't fully understand, that's not that important because you'll catch them out on the exams."

Arguably, study groups help out, because under the threat of academic dishonesty and exams, division of labor is dangerous. I've seen it work very well, where three people get one answer and a fourth gets a different one. Because you're expected to show your work, you can't just replace your final answer with the consensus and move on, you need to identify what mistake you made, in interpreting the problem, applying theory or (most frequently) basic arithmetic.
posted by pwnguin at 11:01 PM on December 9, 2009

As a mathematics major, we spoke frequently outside class but avoided collaborating on homework assignments. So I'd say the problem is more fundamental than merely collaboration. We did talk about mathematics lots outside class and we enjoyed the competed about the problems we'd solved, but we never collaborated.

I still noticed this effect in my humanities courses of course, but more likely reasons are : First, many humanities disciplines are fundamentally tied to solitary pursuits of entertainment, especially literature. Second, humanities degrees are frequently cover far easier material, meaning students need not collaborate or compete. Third, humanities degrees simply don't translate into jobs nearly so effectively as the degrees further down the difficulty scale, like say management.

In particular, STEM faculty actually put enormous effort into making students work together because (a) studies show students learn the hard STEM material better when working together, and (b) society needs lots of STEM graduates. Otoh, a humanities professor is simply being cruel by encouraging mediocre students to persist in a discipline where even the best of the best struggle to find positions.
posted by jeffburdges at 3:10 AM on December 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

I was a comp. lit. major and in the classes I took people generally talked until they were blue in the face, both during and after class. Quite a few of my friends were made there. Note, I was a student at the University of Iceland and Hampshire College in western Massachusetts, so that may be different.

jeffburdges: a humanities professor is simply being cruel by encouraging mediocre students to persist in a discipline where even the best of the best struggle to find positions.

That's something of a myth: "contrary to rumors of rampant joblessness, only 39, or about 5%, of respondents in English were not in the paid workforce in December 1995 (table 5). However, only five people, less than 1% of respondents, were unemployed in the traditional economic sense of being involuntarily out of work and seeking work. Fourteen of those not working did not give an explanation for this, but it is probable that most of these women were caretakers since, in another section of the survey, they reported having small children. Twelve people, all women, were retired, many of them former high school teachers who started graduate school in midlife because they enjoyed literature." From Rumors to Facts: Career Outcomes of English PhDs - Results from the "PhDs Ten Years Later" Study.
posted by Kattullus at 5:35 AM on December 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

Science classes often feature very frequent problem sets, the purpose of which is not really to assess your ability to do something but more to force you to try to apply your learning. If people collaborate on these and someone is turning in stuff they don't fully understand, that's not that important because you'll catch them out on the exams.

This is either changing or never was very acceptable to the science departments that I have dealt with. Plagiarism in assignments and particularly lab reports is a significant offense in most undergrad science courses. Several occasions come to mind where we had to deal with students who turned in identical lab papers, for instance. Labs are considered so important that, even though they constitute 10-20% of the final mark, it's a usual requirement that the student pass the lab section independent of the lecture section of the course. Many universities divide the labs into a separate course, just for this purpose.

Btw, it is labs, not problem sets, which are the science equivalent to papers in the humanities. Lower year lab reports are short --- 8-10 pages, because the students do 3-4 per week, but upper year labs are often longer and require some research and writing skills.

To actually address the problem, I think the key is the lab sections. As mentioned above, science students tend to do long lab periods, 4-5 hours together, 3-4 times a week which naturally allows for a lot of socialization. In the humanities course I took, the only thing similar was the 1 hour tutorial section held weekly (but all the science and math courses had those too). Much less chance for interaction with your classmates in the humanities.

I never once made friends with anyone from my humanities electives, but I made fast friends in the first weeks of meeting them in my science courses. More time together and more intimate time (labs are done in 2-4 person groups) led to friendship. The friends I did have in humanities, I met through clubs and residence.
posted by bonehead at 6:27 AM on December 10, 2009

Second, humanities degrees are frequently cover far easier material, meaning students need not collaborate or compete.

Wow. That's just astonishing. You could also argue that "individual grappling with difficult, no-single-answer material" is much tougher than "group solves solvable problems." Both would be absurd overgeneralizations, but neither more so than the other. The other practical points above - tighter schedules and a more structured path to the degree producing a closer cohort, e.g. - are likely the relevant answer. Please ignore the shallow, bigoted anti-humanities garbage peppered in some of the responses.
posted by mediareport at 6:36 AM on December 10, 2009 [2 favorites]

I had social/study groups emerge from humanities classes all the time, in part because I wanted them and encouraged them to happen. Most humanities classes work with shared texts, and study groups allow you to flesh out and practice arguing and refining your theories about those texts. You might have insight into an angle that someone else is taking with their argument, but, due to the nature of humanities, you're almost certainly not going to have the same argument, so there isn't that sort of competition involved. (I'm happy to report that, in my PhD program, this same sort of cooperation is common -- other students, at the very least, provide sources of feedback and critique for improving your work at most levels of the process.)

Since the fundamental paradigm of humanities work is the conversation (the "great conversation" happening across time, as they say), it seems ludicrous that people would do humanities work without a great deal of socialization and discussion around their work. If you're not in discussion with your peers, you're doing it wrong.

But I suspect most of the people in the OP's class weren't terribly committed to doing humanities work, so they were fine with doing it wrong. Or, perhaps, no one mentioned to them that there was another way to be.
posted by Casuistry at 8:36 AM on December 10, 2009

"Writing essays isn't really a collaborative process."

Just as a data point, I'm in a writing center right now and undergraduates in the humanities are talking at one table about how to support an argument about Korea's "economic miracle" and at another table are trying to figure out which tense works better in her memoir.

We write conference reports after each meeting. Here's a random sample:

"I tried to give her some advice on how to use direct quotes most effectively to support her own statements. The student was also concerned with the flow from one topic to another, so we discussed how to utilize subtitles within her paper. We didn't spend much time on the content of the paper. The focus of the session was to help her get organized and try to help her feel less overwhelmed about it. She said she was going to make another appointment for when she works more on the paper."
posted by i'm being pummeled very heavily at 9:15 AM on December 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

I was a humanities major and there were plenty of study groups in my classes. However, they were not as common as study groups in my non-humanity classes. To me, the reason is obvious: humanities are not as well-suited to the methods of study that all the study groups I encountered seemed to use. Study groups are good when there are rules and principles you need to cover and you have questions about them, which makes them great for math, science, etc. In many of my philosophy classes, some of my government classes, and some psychology and physical anthropology classes, that study group approach works; there is actually something to be gained by working through something as a group, because there might well be things you simply don't understand.

But for the most part, humanities are about learning new things that don't necessarily follow any rules or principles, or if they do, those rules and principles aren't complicated and must simply be memorized. For example, what does anyone have to gain by having a study group for a history class? Learning a new historical event isn't hard. The books and lecture notes are a better source of information than your classmates. In my experience -- I went to a few history study sessions just to see if they'd be helpful, then stopped when they weren't -- mostly who shows up to those sessions are people who missed days of class so they don't have notes and want to bum them off other people, and/or they're too lazy to read the book. The one time I needed tons of notes myself this was helpful because it's basically a filling in each other's blank lectures, but there necessarily can't be more going on than that unless we use each other as flash cards -- which is no better than reviewing on our own.

In other words, for a lot of humanities classes there isn't that "I don't understand this and further discussion will help me" element going on, it's a "there's too much information to remember" thing going on, and the latter is something that's better alleviated by oneself by making flashcards or something. For that kind of class if you need a study group, you're either doing it wrong or you're just the type of person that, for whatever reason, studies better in groups (which is fine, but you can't expect too many others to go through all the effort for something they can do more efficiently on their own).

Furthermore, there are two kinds of essays you have to write in the humanities, depending on what type of professor you have: regurgitate some key facts so I know that you've absorbed what I've wanted you to essays, and have an original thought/argument essays. As I've already said, memorization is more easily and conveniently done alone. When it comes to original thoughts or arguments, those are things study groups can't really help you with either since they have to be originally derived from the material you already know, and generally you don't know what the professor is going to ask you. Even if you did know and came up with answers as a group, the overlapping answers would likely irritate the professor or make him suspicious since you're supposed to do the thinking yourself. After all, the stated point of the humanities at many universities is to make you a better thinker. If you find yourself needing a study group for that sort of project, you're defeating the purpose and handicapping yourself by relying on other people; it's not supposed to be easy to come up with original thoughts or arguments that are worth anything, or at least not at first.

That said, your humanities classmates are not at all cold or impersonal. You're taking basic-level humanities that it seems most people at your university have to take, which I'm guessing mean the classes are quite large and discussion is at a minimum; I almost never saw actual discussion go on in big classes like that, since it simply wasn't feasible. If they don't seem to be jumping at attempts to make study groups, it's for all the reasons above and because, frankly, entry-level humanities classes are generally very easy.

If you were to enter a smaller humanities class that is not required by everyone at the university, there is quite a lot of discussion and back-and-forth going on, and this is during the actual lecture, with the professor's blessing. Everyone collaborates to reach a greater understanding of the material and approach it from several directions, and individual contributions are generally valuable. There are still some professors that mainly lecture, depending on the material, but discussions become far more frequent and I loved this. If you are someone who talks frequently in discussion, people will approach you and e-mail you with questions quite readily, or at least that was my experience. It was unusual to form study groups because on the whole it would have been a waste of time (the class discussion already acted as a study group), but I would often have someone ask me about this or that thing they didn't understand. This is something you won't often see in a non-humanities class, or at least not from what I've seen; I would attend my boyfriend's (now husband) aerospace classes during gaps in my schedule, and it was largely the professor lecturing and taking whatever questions would come up. My university had it set up that some required non-humanities classes would split into smaller discussion groups one day a week, and that's about as close to anything like a humanities class I ever experienced outside the humanities.
posted by Nattie at 9:39 AM on December 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

Second, humanities degrees are frequently cover far easier material, meaning students need not collaborate or compete.

Sure, when you're a math major who isn't taking all the advanced humanities courses.
posted by spaltavian at 9:45 AM on December 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

is there a gender proportion difference in the classes as well? my science/math classes were always heavily loaded with dudes. the humanities, not so much.
posted by madred at 9:47 AM on December 10, 2009

Mod note: few comments removed - there's already a MeTa post about this so if you're not answering the question maybe you can take side discussions there.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 11:32 AM on December 10, 2009

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