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A Humanist in Silicon Valley

Written for "Crossings," the commencement magazine of Stanford's Division of Literatures, Cultures, and Languages, in June 2018.

I recently visited the campus of an old-school liberal arts university. You know the type—where the main library, the art museum, the hall of admissions, and the college’s original departments (philosophy, classical languages, mathematics) stand like a Stonehenge of self-cultivation around the central green, nestling the heart of campus in the pillars of humanistic tradition. Amidst ornate columns and old oak trees that would inspire even the most persnickety of Romantic poets, I couldn’t help but wonder what it’s like to become a professional humanist in a place like this, where the foundation of my field is the wellspring of the community.

The Silicon Valley is an unlikely place to pursue a degree in the humanities. There are over 6,500 VC-funded tech startups in the 150 square miles hugging the Bay, and about 23,000 more hopefuls registered on the VC/recruiting site AngelList. Memorably misspelled nouns adorn the buildings we pass on our way to get coffee, and the cafés ring with talk of data-driven innovation, user experience, and synergistic design. Their optimism is the soundtrack of our dissertations. Their future employees fill our classrooms.

On first glance, this is the last place you would go to slowly, carefully reflect on the political history of a censored film; or to scrutinize a hand-written manuscript for clues about how it was used in the 12th century; or to analyze the sheet-music of an opera; or to unravel the narrative structure of a novel that’s never been translated into English and remains unknown even to colleagues in your subfield. 

Although it’s easy to feel out-of-place here, I’d like to suggest that the Silicon Valley is a great training ground for becoming a humanist today. For one thing, being the only humanist in the room means that you spend a lot of time explaining what you do to people who don’t automatically get it. You might find yourself at a teaching workshop, paired with a nanomaterials engineer, trying to explain how you use housing ads to teach the past tense in your language course. Or you’ll find yourself sitting next to a budding CFO at a party, or across from a programmer at a dinner, and without fail, the question will come up: “So why literature? And why that language?”

The answer to this question ultimately forces us to articulate why the humanities matter. As we explain why we came to grad school, or why teaching foreign language is important, we learn to advocate for our profession. Indeed, the so-called “crisis in the humanities” has made advocacy a central part of our work: as enrollments, job opportunities, and funding for foreign language continue to decline, it is ever more urgent that we know how to explain why the study of language and culture is valuable.

But it’s not for the job market that we learn to explain poetry to physicists. The crisis, the Silicon Valley, the data-driven dinner partner—these are our opportunities to be a humanist in the first place. Being a humanist means thinking carefully about how people create meaning. The essence of our work is to articulate the significance of words, images, sounds, and space. We empower others to navigate these webs of meaning—to speak new languages, to appreciate the complexity of art, to understand the belief systems of other eras and cultures, and to hold their ground in the face of false information. Articulating why language matters is the work of the humanities, and it would still be the work of the humanities if enrollments hovered in the hundreds and jobs were plentiful.

The grand challenge of learning a foreign language is figuring out how to form meaningful relationships with people whose worldview is very different than our own. As our students slowly master alternate ways of thinking, we, too, have the opportunity to discover the common ground we share with other disciplines. Some of the most enriching experiences of my graduate education have involved working closely with inspiring individuals in other fields—in the School of Education, the School of Engineering, the Stanford Arts Institute, or local startups. I am humbled, too, by the groundbreaking interdisciplinary projects and courses brought to life by my peers in the DLCL, which bring the humanities into dialogue with computer science, biology, politics, theater, psychology, environmental science, and disciplines from across the university.

As with learning a language, understanding the pursuits of other fields—and helping them understand us—takes time, trust, and critical self-reflection. Ultimately, our neighbors across the quad and around the Bay struggle with the same humanistic challenge that we face in our dissertations: to make an inscrutable idea legible to others in such a way that it can make a positive impact on our thinking and on the world. Although it was tempting—walking through that old liberal arts campus—to imagine a more forgiving environment in which to become a humanist, I am grateful that I chose to spend my graduate education here. Being at Stanford has shown me that the humanities have an important role to play in many sectors of society and a unique contribution to make to a variety of today’s grand challenges.


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