MIT Open Learning: Measuring the impact of humanities on STEM-focused education with Prof Wiebke Denecke

Published on: January 26, 2024

MIT Integrated Learning Initiative grantees research how STEM and humanities complement each other.

Wiebke Denecke (魏樸和) is professor of East Asian Literatures. She was trained in sinology, Japanology, Korean studies, philosophy, and medicine in her native Germany, in Hungary, Norway, Dalian, Taipei, Tokyo, Seoul, and Boston. She received her BA and MA from the University of Göttingen and her PhD from Harvard University. Her research and teaching encompass the classical literatures and philosophical traditions of China, Japan, and Korea, comparative studies of East Asia and the premodern world, world literature, and the politics of cultural heritage and memory.

Tristan G. Brown is a historian of late imperial (“early modern”) China. His research focuses on the ways in which law, science, environment, and religion interacted in China from the sixteenth to nineteenth centuries. His first book, “Laws of the Land: Fengshui and the State in Qing Dynasty China” (Princeton University Press, 2023), examines Qing (1644–1912) judicial archives to investigate the uses of cosmology in Chinese law during an era of great economic and environmental change. He is preparing a second book that employs Chinese, Arabic, and Persian sources to examine the history of Islam in the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644), when many Muslim communities integrated into Chinese society.

Denecke and Brown are recent recipients of a grant from the MIT Integrated Learning Initiative (MITili) — part of MIT Open Learning — to research educational effectiveness. Their project, “Measuring the Impact of Humanities Learning in an Age of STEM”, looks to examine the reason humanities studies are in decline and what impact humanities studies may have on a STEM focused education.

Your studies and work span an impressive global array of countries and regions, how does that help you in being an effective educator?

D: There is the obvious. If you studied and worked in many different places, you lived in alternative realities and can teach from multiple perspectives, in terms of local knowledge, cultural appreciation, and even teaching methodology — which varies widely across the world. Our “active learning” style is certainly news to instructor-centered East Asian education systems! Then there is the more subtle, in the classroom. When you teach students with family heritage or international students from the regions where you lived it makes a world of difference to know the languages, values, places & lore. It makes these students feel “at home” and even the other students in the class pick up on that vibe of familiarity and get hungry for global experiences in their studies and work — we want that! And then there is the less obvious effect on my teaching, something I want to sensitize students to. “Humanities” appear in many different shapes in different parts of the world, but most of the debates regarding humanities education and the proverbial “humanities crisis” and budget cuts are driven by the situation in the US or Europe. Too little students know that there is a “humanities boom” in other parts of the world, most notably mainland China, where classical (especially Confucian) studies are promoted as the official party line and new programs that offer the study of “Chinese Classics” in competitive juxtaposition with the Western canon have recently emerged. It’s an investment in ideological nation branding of a certain kind. I always paint the varied picture of the humanities across the world for my students and urge them to stand up for their embattled humanities education. If they realize that our “crisis humanities” in Western democracies could be outvoiced someday by “humanities booms” elsewhere that are mobilized for divisive nation branding, they are more likely to care about that crisis and speak out.

B: It is remarkable how many of my students tell me that they never have had the chance to take a course on Chinese history before. Some of them have heard about the Three Kingdoms era (220–280 CE) or the Great Wall — but that’s often about it. It’s exhilarating to introduce MIT students to the calligraphy of Su Shi (1037–1101 CE) and the paintings of Zhao Mengfu (1254–1322 CE) for the first time. But perhaps due to my background in Arabic and Islamic studies, I’m also always thinking about what was happening in other parts of the world at the same time. Balancing a plethora of views from the local to the global allows for some dramatic cross-cultural reveals over the course of the semester: the appearance of pseudo-Phagspa script (the official writing system of the Mongol Yuan Empire) in late medieval Western Art or Arabic and Persian inscriptions rendered onto Ming (1368–1644) porcelain. Those are the moments that help make an undergraduate education.

In your research work with MITili, you’ll be measuring the impact of the humanities on learning during a time when so many are focusing on technology and in particular AI. How important is it, in your mind, to maintain a balance in the curriculum these days?

D: Yes, indeed. The “AI boom” or also “AI doom boom” makes a great mass of smart people exercise their minds on current technological developments, applications, and futuristic scenarios. This is all very important and we’ll see what emerges when the dust settles. We do want to engage students as early and honestly as possible about their uses of AI. In the new fifth edition of the Norton Anthology of World Literature, which I am co-editing, we included an AI-generated translation of the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke’s poignantly personal “Archaic Torso of Apollo,” alongside with “human” English translations in a “Translation Lab” feature for comparison. It’s not that bad actually!

AI has certainly huge implications for the mass-administered humanities-class essays. That might make oral exams, and more unique and less template-applicable syllabi and essay designs more popular in the future. MIT has an unusually strong humanities requirement and I believe it should continue to go strong on things that hardly require any technology but are central to the business of the humanities: practicing critical thinking, highlighting human agency and responsibility for the world we are shaping, savoring the complexity of values and human societies past and present, being touched by a good line of poetry…and how all of this will actively blend with their STEM education and their work in our STEM-driven world.

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