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When the Initiative for Humanities and Culture was organized in 1998, the Academy recognized that the humanities lack reliable, comprehensive, and consistently updated statistical data necessary to chart trends and draw conclusions. To address this need, the Academy began working closely with major humanities institutions, including the National Endowment for the Humanities, the American Council of Learned Societies and the National Humanities Alliance, to develop an infrastructure for the compilation, analysis and publication of comprehensive trend data about the humanities. The Humanities Indicators (HI) is a result of this work and is modeled after the Science and Engineering Indicators published biennially by the National Science Board.
The HI have been developed from existing data sets and follow rigorous data quality standards, in order to demonstrate the importance and feasibility of compiling statistical information on the condition of the humanities. In addition, the Indicators include original data collected by the Academy in collaboration with several learned societies via the Humanities Departmental Survey (HDS). The Survey was administered in 2008 and again in 2013 to approximately 1,400 four-year college and university humanities departments. The HI is designed to equip researchers and policymakers, universities, foundations, museums, libraries, humanities councils, and other public institutions with better statistical tools to answer basic questions about the state of the humanities.
What Are Indicators?
The data presented here are “indicators,” which are quantitative descriptive statistics that chart trends over time in aspects of the humanities that are of interest to a wide audience and for which there are available data. They are selected to provide summary information related to the scope and vitality of the humanities. Indicators describe; they do not explain anything. They are factual and policy neutral. At best, they provide a “reality check” against which arguments about changes in the field can be tested. If done well, they can provide a common starting ground for arguments about the nature or rate of change in some phenomena of interest. They answer “what” questions, not “why” questions. As such, they can be somewhat like the Delphic oracle. Their interpretation is not always straightforward, and they may mean different things to different observers. The HI present quantitative measures without attempting any qualitative assessment.
From Questions to Indicators
The procedure for developing the indicator framework was informed by a U.S. Government Accountability Office review of past efforts to develop indicators systems. According to that report, one of the reasons for the failure of many past efforts to create indicators was that the selection and presentation of indicators was determined by the producers of the data, rather than the users. Thus the approach adopted by the HI was to start with what the users wanted rather than what experts in the field thought they might want. To ascertain potential users’ needs, a number of stakeholders in the humanities community were interviewed to determine what questions they would like an indicator system to answer. From this exercise, project staff compiled a list of questions suggested by stakeholders for which there might be high-quality national data that could supply answers.
Examples of these questions are “What are students studying in college and how is that changing over time?” and “What is the size and character of the humanities workforce?” Questions were then sorted into five parts according to broad topics. Within each part, sections (sub-topics) were created that closely aligned with the questions. Indicators were then developed that matched as nearly as possible the questions that had been generated in the earlier interviews. Further refinement of the indicators in consultation with the advisory committee and subject matter experts has brought the total number of indicators to approximately 250. There were a number of questions suggested by our informants for which there were no data. The Academy hopes that the HI will stimulate the collection of data on important topics for which there are currently no national data of adequate quality.
Summary of the Five Parts of the Humanities Indicators
The HI provide data on a diverse range of topics pertaining to the role of the humanities in the contemporary United States. These topics are organized into five major parts, to which additional indicators may be added as more data becomes available.
Part I. Primary and Secondary Education in the Humanities: These indicators cover national measures of achievement at the primary and secondary school levels; high school course-taking; and the characteristics of primary and secondary faculty.
Part II. Undergraduate and Graduate Education in the Humanities: The indicators here focus on the types of courses undergraduate and graduate students take and the degrees they receive, and consider both preparedness for graduate school and the conditions of graduate education.
Part III. The Humanities Workforce: These indicators describe employment in humanistic settings and occupations, with emphasis on post-secondary faculty, and also the career paths of those with undergraduate and graduate degrees in the humanities.
Part IV. Humanities Funding and Research: Included here are data on federal, state, and private funding for the humanities, as well as on support for academic research.
Part V. The Humanities in American Life: The topics currently treated here include humanistic skills and practices, such as reading and multilingualism; support for and utilization of various humanistic institutions, such as libraries and museums; and public attitudes toward the humanities.
Humanities Departmental Survey
In collaboration with a number of national humanities organizations, the Academy is also generatingnew data about the U.S. humanities enterprise. The Humanities Departmental Survey has been developed to explore how the regular data collection activities of humanities disciplinary associations can be harnessed to generate needed information. The survey was first administered in 2008 (yielding data for the 2007 academic year) to approximately 1,400 departments in humanities disciplines, including history, modern languages and literatures, art history, linguistics, and religion. A uniform questionnaire was designed in partnership with the following learned societies:
- The American Council of Learned Societies
- The American Academy of Religion
- The American Historical Association
- The American Political Science Association
- The College Art Association
- The Linguistic Society of America
- The Modern Language Association of America
The survey was fielded again in 2013, and included several additional humanities disciplines. The Academy’s long-term goal is to develop a system of regular surveys producing comparable data on faculty research and teaching, distribution of teaching loads, jobs secured by graduates, students' academic and course load experience, and other areas of interest.
U.S. Government Accountability Office, “Informing Our Nation: Improving How to Understand and Assess the USA’s Position and Progress”
(Report to the Chairman, Subcommittee on Science, Technology, and Space, Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, U.S. Senate; GAO-05-1). Washington, DC: U.S. Government Accountability Office, 2004.