Is there a future for humanities PhDs in technology, science, and industry?

Category: Web Exclusives
By Cynthia Haven

The legendary wall between "techies" and "fuzzies" will all but crumble in a daylong conference, "BiblioTech," at which today's humanities PhDs will explore career possibilities in the worlds of technology and industry with entrepreneurs from Silicon Valley and beyond. The conference includes 220 people, ranging from top academic and industry leaders to students and parents. It will be live-streamed for a world audience.


The event begins at 8:30 a.m. and continues to 5:30 p.m., on Wednesday, May 11, at the Bechtel Conference Center. Among the leading entrepreneurs scheduled to speak are Patrick Byrne, chairman and CEO of Overstock.com; June Cohen, executive producer of TED Media; John Hagel, co-chairman of the Deloitte Center for Edge Innovation; Damon Horowitz, in-house philosopher and director of engineering at Google; Marissa Mayer, Google's vice-president for consumer products; Michael Moritz, managing partner of Sequoia Capital; and Vivek Ranadivé, chairman and CEO of TIBCO.

A full schedule is provided online.

Stanford President John Hennessy has supported and championed the conference from its inception. He will open the conference and participate in the discussions, along with other members of Stanford's faculty. The conference will address "an important set of issues that transcend Stanford – but Stanford is the perfect place for the discussion to take place," says David Palumbo-Liu, professor of comparative literature and co-organizer of the conference.

"We're going to do something exciting: break down barriers and stereotypes," Palumbo-Liu says. Although there is a persistent lore of techies and fuzzies as different species, according to Palumbo-Liu, a new generation is "less caught up in those ways of thinking. "They are much more acclimatized to being techies and fuzzies at the same time. They excel in both."

Palumbo-Liu is convinced that "the creativity, communication, and sensitivity to nuances the humanities bring to us can be put to good use in visionary imaginings of companies." BiblioTech is made to order for "an era where we can no longer make distinctions between the humanities, the sciences and the social sciences," says Anaïs Saint-Jude, who is finishing her dissertation on French theater in the 17th century this year, as well as organizing the conference with Palumbo-Liu. She hopes the conversation will move "past outdated myths about academia and industry and ignite a new conversation." The conference was initially Saint-Jude's brainchild; she was laying the groundwork for the conference when she saw on Facebook that Palumbo-Liu was thinking along similar lines. She contacted him.

Fits into plan humanities education
"David responded immediately and enthusiastically – he has been a champion of BiblioTech from the beginning," Palumbo-Liu adds. "We met and put our heads together to work BiblioTech from a number of angles. David is very much interested in placing his graduate students in creative non-academic jobs. BiblioTech fits in well with Stanford's larger focus on the humanities. Stanford is investing considerable energy into rethinking the humanities in the 21st century." For the humanities, the alarm has already sounded. "For too long, the humanities have been carved into a block, separate and forgotten." Among the most enduring stereotypes of academics in the humanities is that of the lone researcher toiling on an obscure topic in an ivory tower. "People unfamiliar with today's humanities doctoral programs may think that we simply study in a silo and aren't involved in the world," she says.

Palumbo-Liu says that today's humanities doctoral students are professionals, pointing out that they get a lot of training, participate in a range of workshops for professional development and, besides studying, are "teaching, managing classes, engaging in cross-cultural conversations and national dialogues, participating in national and international conferences." Saint-Jude says that, like entrepreneurs, the humanities PhDs share "a passion for learning, a comfort with risk, the ability to think outside the box and to see the big picture."

Palumbo-Liu also emphasized that "leadership, communication, getting people to work together in teams" are crossover skills that would serve students in any endeavor. It's not a coincidence the conference is happening during a time when the humanities programs of some universities are faced with budget cuts, mergers with other departments or even closure. The recent shutdown of five humanities programs at the State University of New York at Albany has been felt across the humanities.

Considering options to a career in academia
"The days when you can expect to get a teaching position with a PhD are gone. Things are far less certain than they used to be," adds Palumbo-Liu. The message of the conference "is not to discourage them, but to encourage them to look at a wider set of options." Meanwhile, technology and industry know that they are no longer safe from globalization and a shifting economy. They, too, need to mine new ways of thinking to survive. Otherwise, "everything they're working on is going to be done in India and China," says Saint-Jude. Saint-Jude says she took a break from her doctoral studies to bring her humanities background to her own child's early years. Now she wants to convince students – and their parents – that they don't have to study medicine, engineering, computer science or law to get a job.

Many of the speakers will be making her case for her: Cisco System's Laura Roman has a PhD in English; Overstock's Patrick Byrne has a Stanford PhD in philosophy; Google's Damon Horowitz, who also has a PhD in philosophy at Stanford, now works in artificial intelligence. In an email, Horowitz called his role as in-house philosopher largely one of a gadfly – "asking the hard questions, encouraging rigorous debate (especially about the ethical implications of the company's products and operations), and being a liaison for the humanities in general." Horowitz is a particularly good example of the fluidity that is possible between the realms of academia and technology.

"I have an artificial intelligence background from MIT, and built several startups around this technology in the Web1.0 era," he says. He worked in industry for several years, then came to Stanford, "largely in order to understand how we might advance AI more significantly." "Over the course of my PhD, I became interested in philosophy for its own sake, and much more of a humanist in my outlook," he says. "When I returned to the technology industry after my degree, my work was driven by a very different sensibility, much more concerned with the human side of the equation" – for example, user activities and needs – "and less interested in trying to make machines simulate human intelligence.

"In other words, the ‘back and forth' worked tremendously well for me. My graduate studies provided nothing less than an intellectual transformation, and I returned to industry a much better, and more unique, technologist than when I left." He called the conference "a terrific idea, very important." Saint-Jude hopes it won't be the last. "David and I have been discussing with our faculty and industry participants the various ways in which we might grow BiblioTech," says Saint-Jude. "We do not intend for this to be a one-time event." The reaction so far, says Saint-Jude, has been outstanding: Silicon Valley executives "have been knocking down my door to come and talk at this conference. It's an epic event."


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