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At Advising Fortnight, Humanities Admins Seek Students Amid Falling Interest

Barker Center
The Barker Center houses many of Harvard's Humanities departments.

Amid fears that Harvard students are losing interest in the humanities, administrators hosted events at a two-week Advising Fortnight—meant to help freshmen plan their academic futures—that in part highlighted fields of study like English, Classics, and Romance Languages and Literatures.

Thirty-one of the 67 events included in this year’s iteration of Advising Fortnight—an annual program—focused on concentrations that fall under the arts and humanities umbrella. Harvard boasts 50 concentrations in total.

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Some administrators who oversee humanities-related fields of study said they felt pressure this year to attract more students to their Advising Fortnight events—and to their concentrations—given falling levels of undergraduate interest. Traditional humanities fields of study like English and Comparative Literature have seen marked declines in the number of concentrators across the past decade.

Naomi A. Weiss, director of undergraduate studies for the Classics concentration, left nothing up to chance. She said she did a lot of “outreach” to augment her concentration’s Advising Fortnight event this week.

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“I emailed every student whose name was on one of various lists of people who might possibly be interested in classics,” Weiss said. “We have to make quite an act about it, to bring people in.”

At the Classics Advising Fortnight event Tuesday, current concentrators gave public speeches touting what they called the concentration’s numerous practical benefits. Classics concentrator Richard F. Dunn ’19 said he feels he has an advantage in applying to law school with his Classics degree.

Weiss agreed, adding that analytical skills developed in the concentration are often immensely useful outside of the field.

Professor Stephen Mitchell, director of undergraduate studies for the Committee on Folklore and Mythology, seemed less stressed about the need to recruit students than did Weiss. He noted his concentration has an average of 14 to 18 students at any given time.

“We know that we have the opportunity to really help people with their time at Harvard, and we’re kind of eager to build the most out of this very precious commodity of being at Harvard for four years,” Mitchell said. “We’re eager to recruit people in that sense. It’s kind of a missionary zeal, not a survivalist kind of concern about being cut.”

Mitchell acknowledged Folk and Mythology can have trouble attracting undergraduates. He said people sometimes “scoff” at the concentration’s title, at one point prompting Folk and Mythology affiliates to develop a guide for “horrified” parents.

And Mitchell—like Weiss—has developed strategies to cope. When seeking to convince students and parents ambivalent about the concentration, Mitchell said he highlights individual student success stories.

“It’s going to take a certain amount of initiative to be successful in [folk and myth],” Mitchell said, adding there is no rigid course plan for concentrators. “We think people who do it really come away with substantial critical tools.”

But Mitchell has no immediate plans to touch the concentration’s at-times off-putting title.

There’s a “certain kind of clientele that kind of likes the nerdiness of it,” he said.

Concentrator Ailie F. Kerr ’18 said her parents were supportive of her decision to concentrate in Folk and Mythology.

“People get really worried about the employability of their degree, and I think that people worry about that too much,” Kerr said. “[My parents] said exactly what I said, if you have a degree from Harvard, who cares what it’s in.”

Kathy Richman, director of undergraduate studies for Romance Languages and Literatures, said she feels pressure to attract concentrators for a different reason. She said she is always looking for more students because she wants to share her love for the discipline.

Nonetheless, she—like Weiss, like Dunn, like Mitchell—could not resist deflating the common myth that humanities majors learn nothing useful in a practical sense and cannot find jobs after graduation.

“Employers are looking for people who can express themselves well, work well… with others,” Richman said. “And those are all things that you learn in the humanities.”


—Staff writer Annie C. Doris can be reached at annie.doris@thecrimson.com.

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