Igniting Confidence and Building the Humanities Pipeline

The Johns Hopkins-Community College of Baltimore County Humanities for All Program builds confidence and research skills for community college students.

group of students standing on stairsVisiting student researchers in the Humanities for All program visit the Leadership Alliance National Symposium in Connecticut. Photo courtesy of Johns Hopkins University.

Professor Natalie Strobach, the director of undergraduate research at the Johns Hopkins Krieger School of the Arts and Sciences was struck by a simple question last summer:  How can we show students that humanities research can feel cutting-edge and energizing?

Strobach heads the Johns Hopkins’ Humanities for All program, a ten-week summer course open to a select group of students from nearby Community College of Baltimore County (CCBC). Created with support from an Andrew W. Mellon Foundation grant, Humanities for All seeks to help community college students transition smoothly to four-year colleges where they can complete a bachelor’s in the humanities. During its inaugural session in 2017, the program started off with a full-day, eight-hour schedule divided in halves:  classes in “close” or investigative reading and research techniques were held during morning sessions, while students spent afternoons working independently on the type of presentations scholars give at literature or history conferences.

Still, Strobach felt something was missing, especially when she talked to the program’s eight students, who were rooming on-campus with STEM students enrolled in a similar bridge program in the sciences. The Humanities for All students began to feel a bit jealous after seeing how their STEM peers were bonding. The STEM cohort talked about communal group projects, working as teams in labs, watching professors model experiments, and figuring out ways to surmount failures. “I thought, ‘My students need to see the steps, starts, stops, and occasional messes that comprise what humanists experience when working on projects—or else they are going to feel as if humanities scholars are like solitary monks locked in a library!’” Strobach recalls.

The next week, Strobach launched a new seminar as part of the program. Using a projection screen in her class, she spent an hour a day working with students on an actual presentation she was preparing for a conference on psychoanalysis in literature. “I wanted the students to see what research looks like firsthand,” she says.

That meant pulling back the curtain on her own methodology to reveal every step Strobach was taking from start to finish. Strobach rolled up her sleeves as she synthesized a range of information, selecting passages from works by psychologist Jacques Lacan and paintings by artist Nicolas Poussin. She thought aloud to reveal how she was making decisions about tailoring her presentation to her audience. She selected sources and citations, changed her mind, rethought steps, and drew the class directly into the process. In sum, Strobach had now created a lab experience for humanities students very much like the team-building work STEM students were doing.

Humanities for All participants worked on a capstone project during the summer:  a half-hour presentation that students would deliver during a Leadership Alliance National Symposium with their colleagues and families in attendance. “I witnessed some stellar presentations, covering hip-hop, grammar… that were quite moving,” says Monica Walker, who heads recruitment of Humanities for All participants and is CCBC’s dean of developmental education and special academic programs. “I wasn’t surprised, given the quality of the CCBC students, that they would be able to conduct original research and deliver an engaging talk after eight weeks of work,” said Joel Schildbach, vice dean for undergraduate education at the Krieger School.

“What did surprise me was the variety of topics, the depth of the research, and the polish and professionalism displayed during the talks. The students are going to benefit from this experience and the skills developed through the rest of their education and likely through their careers.”

students standing next to each otherAmen Onuoha and Lydia Coley, participants in the Humanities for All program. Photo courtesy of Nathan Brigham.

Lydia Coley, a Humanities for All program participant, is one of those students. She received an associate’s degree in general studies last year and enrolled in the University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC) as an American Studies major in the fall of 2017. Coley credits Humanities for All for opening her eyes to several valuable research skills such as finding a broad array of scholarly articles and pinpointing relevant sources. Perhaps most importantly, Coley says she acquired strategies to organize ideas that supported her own premise, while acknowledging opposing viewpoints that were key to elevating her scholarship.

During the program, she put her new abilities to the test in a project to compare expressions of protest in hip-hop lyrics and Shakespeare’s Hamlet. “My research question was, ‘If hip-hop and Shakespeare use similar literary devices and share overlapping themes, why is Shakespeare canonized while hip-hop is ostracized?’" Coley says the experience left her feeling more confident—so much so that she was able to respectfully disagree with professors and even carry on meaningful debate in written assignments. “One of the most important lessons last summer was the ability to take a stance and defend it,” she says.

Walker says other participants shared similar experiences. In follow-up conversations with CCBC grads who took part in Humanities for All last year, she has heard time and again how the program left a lasting impression and changed how the community college graduates see their future. “What really resonates with me is how our students now have an awareness about possibilities in the humanities and their own careers,” she says. “I saw a boost in their confidence as well – some of our graduates admit that they hadn’t considered themselves as ‘Hopkins material,’ let alone capable of pursuing transfer or continuing undergraduate work at a prestigious institution . . . but that changed.”  Since last year, Humanities for All participants moved on to four-year colleges such as Columbia University, UMBC, Towson University, and Roanoke College.

Amen Onuoha, another 2017 program participant, who is now majoring in English writing at Towson University, agreed. She says Humanities for All gave her a feeling that she could break ground on ambitious topics. Her summer project focused on an examination of how the punctuation used in published versions of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18 has changed radically over time. Onuoha’s research unearthed a number of surprises; she found that the function of commas, exclamation points, and other marks have changed considerably over the centuries.

Amen Onuoha presents her research at the Leadership Alliance National Symposium 2.jpgAmen Onuoha presents her research at the Leadership Alliance National Symposium. Photo courtesy of Johns Hopkins University.

Now in its second year, Humanities for All is expanding in 2018. While CCBC had relied on professors’ and departments’ recommendations in the first year, the program received 26 applications directly from students for this summer. The program accepted ten students in 2018, up from eight the previous year. Strobach will also enlist the help of three PhD candidates from Johns Hopkins who will devote more one-on-one time to participants, offering a variety of perspectives on the humanities and research techniques. The Humanities for All classroom is due for a makeover too:  three new 85-inch monitors will be installed to project students’ and instructors’ desktops so the whole team can brainstorm, debate, and collaborate with one another. “The goal is to create a humanities lab where everyone can see what everyone else is working on,” says Strobach.

As the program expands and evolves, some things won’t change. The Humanities for All will continue to emphasize close reading, thorough research, analysis, and critical thinking. The underlying mission, too, remains the same:  helping community college graduates see themselves as successful students at four-year universities. “We strive to engage CCBC students in scholarly research while helping them to gain access to libraries and resources that will help them succeed,” says CCBC’s Walker. “The results convince students they indeed have the ability not only to transfer to fine universities but to be comfortable and at home there as well.”    


College students sitting outside

In New Hampshire, Community Colleges Foster a New Generation of Humanities Scholars

The New Hampshire Humanities Collaborative is rekindling enthusiasm for the humanities by helping community college students find meaningful employment and aiding in the transfer process to four-year institutions.