Economic Value of a Humanities Degree

From Forbes (click on excerpt to go to the full article):

Just to provide some examples, I pulled out information on bachelor’s degrees in art, drama, English, French, history, philosophy, and political science. Overall, this is a group that many would predict is destined to produce underemployed graduates, struggling to pay off their student loans, and perhaps happy to work as Starbucks baristas. However, conventional wisdom is wrong. In reality these degrees all produce expected lifetime earning increments far in excess of the cost of college tuition, even at expensive private colleges.

Here are some of the highlights (with the table below showing more results). The present value of the extra earnings that graduates in humanities majors can expect over their lifetime is $302,400 for drama majors, $444,700 for English majors, $537,800 for history majors, and $658,900 for philosophy majors. If a person goes to a top-level, in-state, public university with no financial aid of any kind, the total cost is likely to run around $80,000 (tuition, books, and living expenses). That means the much maligned humanities majors are still getting an A in economics because the returns on their investments are quite high (in the 300 to 700 percent range).

On Fandom Studies

Karen Hellekson, our recent speaker in the Lectures in the Arts and Humanities Series, was recently interviewed by Henry Jenkins on the topic of Fandom Studies (click on the link below to go to the full article and interview):


Snape: The Abject Hero

In chapter 7 of Karen Coats’ book entitled Looking Glasses and Neverlands, we are exposed to the culmination of the book as a whole. In each chapter, up to this point, Coats has been unfolding her study of children’s literature, using Jacques Lacan as a foundation for her work. In the last chapter, called, “Abjection and Adolescent Fiction,” Coats moves away from her usual format of including and explaining multiple Lacanian themes and instead focuses on one primarily: abjection, and its prevalence in adolescent literature.

Coats jumps right in, in chapter seven, immediately illustrating her thesis on page 138, using the bone-chilling example of the Columbine shootings in 1999. According to Coats, both Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris, the shooters at Columbine, embodied what it means to be abject; an outsider. In Coat’s own words, abject individuals are those who have “an intensely ambivalent relationship toward the walls that prevent him or her from fitting in.” (138) Coats goes on to add that, often times, the constant tension of hating those who possess social connections, at the same time as desiring those connections for oneself, results in violence or aggression. Essentially, abjection means to “operate at the social rim.” (138) Additionally, those who push others into the realm of the abject tend to view those individuals as not “clean and proper,” but anathemas to their own social realm.

But in chapter 7, Coats does not simply define abjection, painting it like an inherent unhealthy thing. Instead, she focuses on its prevalence in adolescent fiction and the ways by which those who are abject can escape the confines of abjection. One of her examples of abjection in adolescent literature is the story called Whirligig. Written by Paul Fleischman, Whirligig follows a character named Brent Bishop, a teenager who could be considered both “socially abject…and psychologically abject” (152). In the story, Brent Bishop embodies abjection. As is common with most abject adolescents, Brent has moved from state to state, and finds himself continually in doubt as to where he is. As Coats puts it, “With every move, he checks to make sure the proper ear is pierced, the proper clothes available, the proper hairstyle effected.” Brent embodies abjection, and is even visually abject when he shows up to a party dressed in the “wrong” attire. When his attempts at winning over a girl he likes fail, Brent reaches his limits of humiliation – of not fitting in to that social realm in which he desires to fit – and leaves the party in anger. On his way home, Brent closes his eyes while driving his car, in an attempt to commit suicide. He crashes into another car, but ends up surviving. The other driver, a girl named Lea, however does not. But this is where the transformation takes place.

As restitution for his act, Lea’s mother asks Brent to construct four whirligigs and to take them to the four corners of the U.S. In doing so, Brent encounters Lea through his artwork, and ends up breaking through the realm of abjection and into acceptance by other artists and eventually shares his story with others, accepting his place in the human community.

Though Coats focuses much on the realm of abjection, she also offers, as we see through this piece of fiction, avenues through which the abject individual can escape abjection. Among others, art and religion are the most prolific, Coats says.

Coats then uses the rest of her chapter to give other examples, and finally to posit that adolescent literature is filled with the abject, to not only appeal to adolescents, but to also help them cope with their own abjection.

But abjection goes beyond Coat’s study, and can be found, also, in countless modern works of fiction. Take, for example, the Harry Potter series. For anyone who is familiar with the series, the first assumption would be to label the title character Harry as abject. His parents died long ago, he was raised but an unloving, spiteful family, and the world of Magic is so unique and unknown to Harry that he is essentially abject, especially in the first few books of the series. But as we read through the series and encounter other important characters, we see that Harry is not, at his core, abject. Instead, I would propose that it is Snape, the (in)famous professor at Hogwarts that is one of the most abject characters of J.K. Rowling’s magical universe.

When he was at school himself, Snape thought he had found a new life. He was in a place where his kind – wizards and witches – were not only accepted but were the norm. But as he manoeuvred his way through his studies, Snape not only grew dreadfully apart from his friend Lily Evans (Harry’s mother) but was made into a spectacle by many of his Gryffindor rivals. Through this constant rivalry, Snape grew up apart from friendship, only forming relationships with a select few. His abject nature continued throughout his whole life, primarily during his double-agent duties that made him both a heroic stalwart and hated, back-stabber (the latter being falsely labelled) to many. In the end, Snape not only gives his life in service of Dumbledore and Hogwarts, but proves that one cannot judge solely based on perception, and that abject individuals, though outsiders in their own right, not only serve their own purpose in fiction, but help to prove the point that being different is indeed not entirely a bad thing.

The Neverending Story: An Epic of the Mirror Stage and the Advent of Subjectivity

In the first chapter of Karen Coats’ Looking Glasses and Neverlands: Lacan, Desire, and Subjectivity in Children’s Literature, Coats endeavors to explain not only the mirror stage postulated by Jacques Lacan, but the subsequent entry of the child undergoing that process into what Coats calls the “Symbolic order” (25). The Symbolic was defined for us in class as the entrance into a conscious, rather than a merely imitative, use of language – in Lacanian theory the source of all meaning, as well as of our beliefs, customs, and the various places which any given person can assume in the social hierarchy. Once a person has found language, they have found an identity and a subjectivity; she has progressed from an attitude that says ‘I am what I am’ to one that questions ‘who am I?’ and constructs an answer to that question from language itself. Coats uses the children’s chapter-book Charlotte’s Web as a detailed allegory for that process. Initially, Wilbur doesn’t really have an identity of his own; all he has is a collection of sensory perceptions, which he gradually learns to organize so as to “’[imprint] the outside world in networks of meaning made up of images, sounds, and effects.’” (27) When the time comes that Wilbur can identify with anything, he does so with Fern, the little girl who has taken on the task of being his surrogate mother. Wilbur can perceive no real difference between his identity and Fern’s own, and so they form an “Imaginary fusionary relationship” (20). Wilbur idealizes Fern as something whole and exemplary, and so, in an illusion, tries to dissolve his own identity into hers. He has officially entered the mirror stage, or in Coats’ words “has entered the world of signifying transactions, and image has displaced being …” (19). He has not yet, however, claimed a place in the Symbolic social reality, and is still in danger of being cast in that reality as ‘food’ – unless, of course, he learns to speak for himself, or has someone else to speak for him.
That which Coats calls the “Law” or the “Name of the Father” intervenes, prohibiting Wilbur’s desire for Fern by enjoining her to sell Wilbur to Farmer Zuckerman, who locks the pig in a pen and cuts him off from direct physical contact with Fern. Wilbur tries to find a way to fit into the Symbolic order represented by the barnyard, but to no avail. Enter Charlotte, the titular spider, who, in Coats’ terminology possesses “her own version of the phallus” (29) or the power to manipulate the Symbolic order. Charlotte does so through language – she speaks fluently, writes in her web, and understands how people can be shaped and manipulated through the printed word. Fern has become a “[r]epressed representation” (21) in the Real part of Wilbur’s mind, and with Charlotte, he gains a cover for the emptiness left behind by his separation from Fern. Charlotte not only becomes a close, maternal friend to Wilbur, but also becomes his “phallic mother” (29) – one who connects him to language and teaches him how to use it, who offers Wilbur an identity as a “terrific”, “radiant”, “humble” pig which he can perform, and who convinces the rest of the world that Wilbur is, in fact, that pig. The world or “big Other” responds to Charlotte’s characterization with belief, elevating Wilbur’s material condition, sparing his life, and reinforcing his performance. In the end, when Charlotte has died and left behind her egg sac, it turns out that Wilbur has taken Charlotte’s representation of him and his relationship with her and made it part of his Real and his identity, as he takes on the task of teaching and helping Charlotte’s babies. He has become his own formulated version of Fern and Charlotte, a signifier for a mother, for compassion, and for literacy, and has claimed his place in the Symbolic.
Through Coats’ explanation, I have come to understand Lacanian theory far better than I did through Lacan himself, and I find myself cast back in time to my own childhood, to a movie that I loved and whose every detail I memorized: The Neverending Story, directed by Wolfgang Petersen and based on the book by Michael Ende. The protagonist, Bastian, undergoes a very different journey than that of Wilbur – only to arrive at the same destination of subjectivity. When the movie begins, Bastian’s mother has died, probably not too long ago: he’s still troubled by dreams in which she is alive. In Wilbur’s case, Coats explained the “Law” as a societal function, a prohibition to break up the child’s illusion of complete identification with the mother and the mother’s body and force the child into the process of assuming a separate identity. But in Bastian’s, a more primal law has intervened in his deep identification with his mother: the law of mortality itself. The ‘lack’ left by the separation of death is far more painful than any social injunction – though we do see a glimpse of the conventional “Law” in the form of Bastian’s father, who, in a breakfast conversation with his son after the dream, admonishes him to concentrate more on the world around him and to improve his grades.
Despite his father’s words of dubious support, Bastian hasn’t yet assumed much of an identity which he can use to protect himself from the pain of his mother’s death. He doesn’t seem to command much respect from anyone around him: the boys who beat him up and toss him in a dumpster cast him as a victim, his teachers cast him as a problem, and Mr. Koriander, the curmudgeonly bookstore-owner from whom Bastian obtains The Neverending Story, casts him only as a stereotypical, illiterate, juvenile annoyance. The only thing that Bastian seems to know about himself is that he loves books, particularly ones of fantasy. He desires the book titled The Neverending Story from the moment he sees it, but is prohibited by Koriander’s warning that “This book is not for you.” Significantly, Bastian disobeys this prohibition, steals the book, and begins to read in the attic of his school – fitting, since he seeks both a higher and a more secret knowledge than that offered in the math class he skips.
In The Neverending Story, the world of Fantasia is threatened by the encroachment of an all-consuming force called the Nothing, which leaves, well, nothing in its wake. As the Nothing advances, the ruler of this fantasy world, the Childlike Empress, becomes more ill and approaches death. A champion must find a cure for her illness, which will presumably stop the Nothing and save whatever is left of Fantasia.
That champion is Atreyu of the Plains People – a young boy only a little older than Bastian, with whom he immediately identifies (as indicated by the camera shots that cut back and forth between Bastian and Atreyu as the latter arrives at the Ivory Tower to receive his mission. After the initial identification with Atreyu, Bastian becomes deeply invested in his story, entering his mirror stage. Bastian’s actions through the middle part of the movie are mimetic: he cries when Atreyu mourns the loss of his horse in the Swamps of Sadness, he screams when Atreyu is frightened by the appearance of Morla the Ancient One, he eats at the same moment that Atreyu breaks his march for lunch, and he taps into his own confidence to urge Atreyu on through a magical test of will. Bastian, in a sense, becomes the champion of Fantasia. At one point, when Atreyu looks into a magical mirror, he sees Bastian’s face – a clever inversion of the process by which Bastian looks into the “mirror” of the book and sees Atreyu. Mirror stage indeed!
It also becomes clearer through the progression of the journey what Bastian is fighting. The Nothing could be taken as the persistence of Bastian’s emptiness, his failure to find substitutions for his relationship with his mother which would allow him to become a part of the Symbolic. Bastian has a choice between being and nothingness, even as Fantasia does – he must become a “desiring being” (Coats, 21). The alternative is made clear by the only visible monster of the movie, the G’Mork, who identifies desires with the imagination and with hope. He claims that he helps the “force behind the Nothing” out of admiration for its philosophy: “ … people who have no hopes are easy to control. And whoever has the control has the power!” If Bastian doesn’t choose his own place in the Symbolic, larger forces (a society, perhaps) will do so for him, and, as we have already seen with his tormentors, they’ll consult their convenience and pleasure more than his wellbeing when they do so.
The book, by contrast, becomes Bastian’s “phallic mother”, inundating him with empowering language that casts and reshapes him as a hero in Atreyu’s mold. Through reading, Bastian’s mother’s loss becomes repressed in his Real, not gone but no longer obsessing him. Bastian is enabled to look beyond grief for substitutes to cover his ‘lack’ with meaningful mentoring relationships: with Atreyu, with Falkor the Luck Dragon, with the scientist gnomes Engyhook and Urgl, with the Southern Oracle, and eventually with the Childlike Empress herself. These fantastical beings instruct Bastian through Atreyu in where to go on the stages of his quest, how to get there, and how to behave when he arrives.
By the end of the story, Bastian (though unsure and a little reluctant to the last) is entrusted with the power of language, power over the Symbolic order. It’s not good enough to form an Imaginary identification with Atreyu any longer. The Childlike Empress can only be cured and saved from the Nothing by the bestowal upon her of a new name – and Atreyu can’t do that. The Empress addresses Bastian directly from the pages: he has to come up with and call out the name, which he eventually does. He’s no longer studying or imitating the Symbolic in the book – he holds an actual place in that Symbolic, by making up and manipulating signifiers himself. Once he’s taken that place, the Empress appears to him, and grants him the power to rebuild Fantasia, to undo all of the damage and death dealt out by the Nothing, with wishes. Again, the Symbolic, coming to him from outside through language, gives him a role and something meaningful to do with it. His relationship to language allows him to travel between worlds and to take Atreyu’s place riding on Falkor’s back (a position that he never would have believed he could occupy at the beginning). The book uses words to save Bastian’s life, though it suffers its own “erasure” (Coats, 16), and in return, Bastian uses words to rebuild its world. By the end of the movie, the book has disappeared, absorbed into Bastian’s subjectivity; and Bastian has become an alternate version of the book he loves. So, claims Coats, goes it with all of the books that mean something to us as children (33) – and so the movie invites the child viewer to allow it to be absorbed into that child’s own growing subjectivity, not only by the implicit means of identification with both Bastian and Atreyu, but by the Empress’ explicit explanation to Atreyu of what the story means: “ … just as he has shared your adventures, others are sharing his.”

Below are links to the full movie, if you’re interested in watching. Be warned if you haven’t already seen it: the story is interesting, but the special effects suck like a vacuum cleaner. And the theme song will be stuck in your head for weeks, which could be good or bad, depending on whether you like 80’s pop.

Silence is the New Black

(Below is a post I wrote for Prof. Johnson’s English 455: Literary and Cultural Studies)

In chapter 2 of Acoustic Territories, LaBelle focused on the home, the interior and the normal life noise. How noise has become the enemy is suburban communities. Adults seek to contain noise within the home, not letting that sacred territory be breached by outside interference, for instance by a car passing by blaring its radio (47). But they also seek to keep the noise of the home within the home. This was challenged by the idea of the ‘Talking House’ which sought to project the sound within the home to the outside world, essentially breaching that barrier (65).

The suburban was juxtaposed to the prison system of the early 1800s. Where silenced was used as a punishment, where physical punishment “’not only itself resistant to language but also actively destroys language, deconstructing it into the pre-language cries and groans” (72). The prison system in those times kept prisoners completely silent leading to a mental degrading (71).

This section on the prisons reminded me of the popular series Orange is the New Black that takes place in a woman’s prison. The story follows Piper Chapman, a woman who was incarcerated for helping a drug deal ten years prior. In this show the ultimate punishment, aside from transfer to maximum security or time added to their sentences, is being sent to Security Housing Unit (SHU) or solitary confinement.

Chapman experiences SHU three times and the first time was the worst. The cell is a beige cement box with nothing but a cot, a toilet and a sink for furnishings. The door has a tiny window is only uncovered when the warden wishes to speak to her or meals are brought. The hours of silence continue until it was broken when she heard a voice coming from the cell next to hers. She questions if her neighbor is real. The hours of silence make her wonder if the voice is actually her desperate need for company. In this way silence is truly a punishment, one that gives Chapman extreme mental strain. The audience never truly figures out if her neighbor was real but that made it more poignant. As LaBelle said, “The possibility of insanity though lurked as an ever-present risk, as the silent system stripped the prisoners of any real social relation” (71). It conceivably caused Chapman the need to imagine a conversational partner, to cut through the aching loneliness of solitary confinement.

Janae Watson was another character sent to SHU in the series. She is feisty and argues with a guard which sends her to solitary. When she returns her overwhelming joy at being outside, the cloudy sky no hindrance, is almost painful to watch. She is harder upon returning, less argumentative but there is a new coldness in her.

In Orange is the New Black the use of solitary confinement is a punishment. Silence is the greatest punishment because these women have created a community, one that helps them get through the long months of incarceration. Silence is imposed on them throughout the day, and at night they are not supposed to talk. Much like the suburbia LaBelle describes. Yet SHU is much worse. Silence becomes a crushing blow to the human psyche, cruel and yet accepted by the penitentiary system.

Changing the Narrative

From The Chronicle of Higher Education, “To Save the Humanities, Change the Narrative”: The article discusses the continuing assault of articles in the media claiming the humanities are in crisis, even though the data suggests something quite different (click on the excerpt below to go to the whole article).

Interestingly, although programs and tenure-track lines may in fact be under stress, actual data do not support the overall crisis narrative. Unemployment rates and salaries in the humanities are near the median for all majors, and salaries for graduates in philosophy, English, and history are higher than the median. Following a drop in total major numbers in the 1970s, humanities degrees have remained constant. However, these data seem to have little effect on the humanities’ detractors, and the narrative that they weave about the demise and irrelevance of the humanities can seem impervious to empirical reality. Unfortunately, false crisis narratives have real effects.

Dr. Karen Hellekson: Doctor Who and Fan Studies Presentation

Dr. Karen Hellekson is a renowned fan studies and Doctor Who scholar. She earned her PhD in English from the University of Kansas, where she also studied science fiction. She’s published several articles, two books, and coedited three books. Most of her work is within the science fiction and fan communities. Doctor Who Poster

Dr. Misty Krueger, a professor of English at UMF, calls Dr. Karen Hellekson “a database of Doctor Who knowledge.”

This riveting presentation, “Affirmational and Transformational Doctor Who Fan Videos,” illustrated a broader view of fandoms, fannish communities, and fan fiction than what many people are familiar. Moreover, as a whole, her career illuminates the modern day applicability and relevance of the English degree.

Fan fiction is broken up into two types of texts: affirmational and transformational.

Affirmational texts

  • Created by men
  • Restate the source material
  • Affirm the creator and/or producer
  • Fan sanctioned by creator

Transformational texts

  • Created by women
  • Twist and manipulate source material
  • Creator and/or producer are not relevant
  • Fans are unsanctioned by creator

Why transform?

It creates community, celebrates the text, critiques the text or culture, provides character studies, and positions text from the preferred fan meaning. Furthermore, transformational texts are a site of critique, often on women, gender, culture, or the text itself. The text is transformed to make a larger point beyond the source material.

Dr. Hellekson’s talk was part of the continuing Lectures in the Arts and Humanities Series at UMF, jointly sponsored by the Honors Program, the Humanities Division, and the department of Sound, Performance, and Visual Inquiry.

A brief and powerful interview with Karen Hellekson:

It’s really interesting that you’ve continued to do scholarship although your career path is not an academic one. I’m wondering if you would comment on what English majors who aren’t interested in teaching might do?

My day job is in publishing, which is a good field for English majors. I copyedit journal articles and books in the scientific, technical, and medical market, which I had to learn all about, as I do not have a technical background. I thought I wanted to be a college professor, so I got a PhD, only to discover that I did not enjoy teaching. However, I had already begun to publish and present in my field, science fiction. (I went to the University of Kansas specifically to study SF literature with Professor James Gunn, who is now retired). My interests then broadened to include fan studies, and I was able to leverage my background in both journal production and scholarship into editing a peer-reviewed academic journal in fan studies, “Transformative Works and Cultures” (

Also, I’m guessing a lot of people are surprised when they find out you’re a professional fan and scholar of Doctor Who, because it sounds like it couldn’t possibly be a real thing, but rather the teenage fantasy of thousands… How would you respond to this? How did you turn your love of Doctor Who and fan fiction into a career?

I’ve loved Doctor Who since 1982! So it’s been a long time! It actually turns out that you can leverage pretty much anything into scholarship, because it’s all out there: all sorts of TV shows and films, all sorts of genres (SF, westerns, fantasy, cop shows…), plus all sorts of engagement with them. When I was at the University of Kansas in the 1990s, science fiction was just mainstreaming as a teachable form of literature; now I see the same thing happening with fan studies and video games.

Fan engagement and scholarly engagement are actually quite similar. In my talk I showed fan-created videos, and I argued that these videos are actually a form of criticism of the show. The videos are fulfilling the same function as an English paper about, say, a Shakespeare play. The critical impulse is identical: you want to make a point about a text. It’s just that the text you’re assessing is Doctor Who instead of a Shakespeare play, and the form that assessment takes is a video made up of clips set to music, instead of a written text. Of course the creative criticism doesn’t have to take the form of a video. It could also be in manipulated images, icon sets, GIFs, avatar blanks, freehand sketches, music, written fiction, or hyperlinked text/images/whatever. It could even be handiworks like knitting projects or homemade sonic screwdrivers, or costumes (cosplay). There are many, many ways to engage. And it’s likely that if you are in fandom, you’ll find a group with like interests.

Fans tend to spend a lot of time learning about their fandom, just like scholars spend a lot of time learning about their fields. It isn’t that much of a stretch to use the critical methodology, close reading skills, and modes of analysis I learned as an English student and apply them to other, non-written texts—texts that I was already paying a lot of attention to. Applying various modes of analysis is pretty easy.

Several other scholars are working on Doctor Who (and Doctor Who fans!) who are far better known than I am, including Matt Hills and Paul Booth. However, as an independent scholar (the term means only that I am not affiliated with or supported by a university), I’m almost unique. There are very few independent scholars out there. It’s kind of an expensive hobby, with travel to various places to give talks, plus memberships in organizations who publish academic journals, which you have to be a member of before they will publish your paper.

I’d love to be able to share the videos you presented on the blog. Is that possible? And, if so, would you link me to where they’re on your blog?

You can link directly to the YouTube ones, but please don’t link directly to the fan-created ones, unless you obtain permission directly from the creators.

During the presentation, she explained that video creators, often times, consider their videos private; therefore, attaining permission to share them is important. She received permission to show the videos in her presentation.