Why Humanities?

Dr Alison Hems, Head of the School of Humanities, discusses the importance of time, art, thought, history and language.

In August 2020, Ali Smith published the final volume in her Seasons quartet. She had, in Autumn, Winter, and Spring, taken the reader through a series of major events in recent history, some explicitly, some less so. She wrote about the EU Referendum, the migrant crisis in the Mediterranean, Grenfell Tower, fake news, the election of President Trump, the ‘hostile environment’. Summer, which ended the sequence, was written against a background of pandemic and the isolation of lockdown. Threaded through her depictions of these events were commentaries on art and literature, woodland and coastlines, fields criss-crossed by fences, human resilience and courage, cowardice and duplicity. 

Smith had conceived of the quartet as a kind of experiment: what would happen if you could write and publish a novel about time, and the times in which it was written, in as short a time as possible? What she wrote about, in the end, was precisely what the Humanities at Bath Spa University are all about: 

“Time, art, thought, history, language; who gets to speak and who doesn’t; people real and fictional and how their stories are and aren’t told; division, loss; protest, activism, resistance; generosity, the story of unexpected and extended family. Human coldness, human warmth, human work.”

— Ali Smith, ‘Before Brexit, Grenfell, Covid 19’

These things matter to us as much as they do to Smith. They demand time and attention, and the asking of critical questions: who does get to speak, who is silenced? How do we hear lost voices, or avoid listening only to the loud and powerful ones? How do we understand the processes of loss or protest, activism or resistance, and the impact that they have? How do we read the evidence, but also create it ourselves, through the traces we leave in the record, the connections we make, our warmth and our work?

As I write now, at the beginning of November and as the Government announces a second lockdown, it is far from clear when coronavirus might be over, or how it might be over.  We don’t know what the long term impact on the economy might be, or how young people, in particular, thinking about going to university, might adjust to changed times and expectations. There will be virtual open days to attend over the next few weeks, course information to read, a UCAS application to complete in January. And maybe, understandably, a nagging doubt about whether to do this. My answer would be emphatically yes. Whatever happens next, I know that time, art, thought, history, language will be at the heart of it, because these things have always been at the heart of human resilience and recovery.

Both as training for a career, and as a foundation or a framework of ideas and ways of thinking that can develop into something else: problem solving, creative energy, emotional intelligence, personal autonomy, enterprise and imagination. An ability to cope with ambiguity and uncertainty whilst also bringing clarity and precision to them. 

Our degree programmes and short courses demand that our students learn to write well, read widely, communicate with others, find and interpret evidence, question convention, address inequalities, value diversity, recognise injustice and know how it might be challenged. 

"Whatever happens next, I know that time, art, thought, history, language will be at the heart of it, because these things have always been at the heart of human resilience and recovery."

Our programmes are taught by people whose research embraces past and present, abstract concepts and physical structures. It crosses continents. We analyse big data and tiny fragments of text. We explore objects and images, the rhetoric of power, the gaps in the narrative. Our research has impact internationally, nationally and locally. Our teaching draws on this and on our work as policy advisors, trustees, fundraisers, advocates, curators, conservators, broadcasters, game designers, web editors, poets. Our graduates go on to do all of these things. And more.

At the core of our programmes lies a conviction that this matters now more than ever, because we need people who can think critically and creatively. Who want to understand other people and who can show empathy towards them. Who know the difference between evidence and assertion, and who can analyse both. Who can communicate clearly and persuasively, in many different ways. Who can get things done, and who have the tools they need to do this. Who recognise the value of making a contribution to their community, and who see meaning in making a difference in small ways, on a local scale. As well as in wanting to change the world.

Time, art, thought, history, language. 

Human work.

Disclaimer: The Bath Spa blog is a platform for individual voices and views from the University's community. Any views or opinions represented in individual posts are personal, belonging solely to the author of that post, and do not represent the views of other Bath Spa staff, or Bath Spa University as an institution.



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