This article aims to give a brief outline on studying humanities and social sciences (or the ‘Arts’) in a local university course, taking the NUS Arts and Social Sciences course as a focus. I will give a brief introduction to the subjects, the workload, and job prospects relating to an Arts education. The Humanities and Social Sciences are academic fields which focus on the study of people, societies, and social knowledge. In general, both fields study human intellectual history and behavior. While the social sciences take a largely empirical approach towards the analysis of social phenomena and human behavior, the humanities focus on the theoretical understanding of human expression. The collective term ‘Arts’ is used to refer to university faculties that are home to these fields.
Disciplines and Majors
Common humanities disciplines include English Literature, linguistics, history, performing arts, and philosophy. The social sciences feature subjects such as psychology, sociology, economics, political science, and geography. Each discipline has a unique academic purpose, and imparts a specific worldview to students. As such, selecting the right major is a pivotal task for a prospective arts student. Contrary to the perceived notion that Arts courses offer a ‘pick-and-mix’ style of selecting classes, much thought must be put into choosing your major and modules. Not all classes (and subjects) are equally easy or equally fulfilling to your unique intellectual development.
In the NUS Arts and Social Sciences course, you can choose a major from the 20 disciplines offered by the faculty. Students graduate with a Bachelor of Arts (3 years), or Honours in Arts/Social Sciences (4 years). Most of the courses you take will be from your major, leaving about 7 courses for elective modules to be taken within or outside the Arts faculty. The purpose of this arrangement is to allow students to gain an exposure to knowledge beyond their specialization.
In the humanities, literature comprises of both classical texts and modern academic writings. You will learn to critically analyze the arguments made in these texts. The purpose of each discipline varies to a large extent, as expressed in the different types of issues and the writing styles encountered in each discipline (for example, academic literature in history differs greatly in purpose and approach, as compared to articles in philosophy or theatre studies).
In the social sciences, most texts featured are contemporary academic articles and books revolving around themes and issues in the social world. For example, in political science, the issues discussed include state formation, military growth, socio-economic development, and partisan politics. The literature featured in social science modules are mostly academic articles revolving around real world issues and events. You will learn how to understand and respond to arguments made regarding these issues.
The average number of modules taken each semester is five. To graduate, you must complete modules under the categories required by the university and the faculty. The primary bulk of the workload in an Arts course comes from reading. Almost all Arts modules have intensive reading lists featuring academic articles, books, research papers, and classical texts. Some modules require students to study complementary materials such as films and audio clips. You may also need to undertake primary research, such as interviewing subjects, conducting surveys, and participating in performances (e.g. In some Theatre Studies classes, students have the opportunity to write and/or perform in plays).
Another large part of the workload comes from writing. Written assessments include:
The length of written assignments could be short (memos, responses, and short essays from 500 – 1500 words), moderate (2000 – 3500 words), or long (research papers, ranging from 4000 – 6000 words). The length of the response depends on the subject and topic being examined, the type of question being posed, and the lecturer’s approach to the subject. All essays require students to undertake independent research into relevant academic literature and other sources. The primary source of printed materials can be found in university libraries or online archives such as JSTOR.
Final exams usually comprise of long essay answers and open-ended questions. Some lecturers prefer to give MCQ exams, but most modules have essay-based exams. Good answers require both comprehensive understanding of the subject material and a critical analysis of the issues discussed in the module. You must learn to nurture your perspectives and sharpen your arguments in order to convince your readers (applies to all assignments). Memory work must be used strategically during exams, as there is a lot of material to be remembered for each class you will be taking – pure regurgitation only works if you are really, really good at memorizing huge chunks of texts (which is a good skill to have too).
Many core modules in FASS have a group project component. Projects can include group written assignments, proposals, class presentation on a certain topic/reading, a planned debate/discussion, a scripted play, or others. These group projects usually take up a significant portion of the total grade. It requires a combination of creativity, coordination (between members), delivery, and understanding of the module’s objectives in order to produce a good group work. Group work can get tough when members have conflicting schedules or varying degrees of dedication. It involves strategic planning and confidence in the selection of your team, and to rally them together.
Apart from lectures, FASS modules also require students to attend tutorial lessons. Tutorial lessons are intended to be smaller and more focused, to discuss specific issues taken from the lectures. They could take the form of debates (where students are arranged into opposing sides), roundtable discussions, Q&A sessions to clarify doubts, or a recap of the lecture content. Your tutors may ask you to prepare short answers or responses (usually 1-2 pages) before coming to class, so as to initiate the discussion.
Tutorial attendance and participation form another significant component of the class grade. Students must engage actively in the discussion of the topics, and contribute constructive arguments. With tutorial class sizes varying across the different disciplines, it may be difficult to chime in during a verbal spar between 20 other students. To be successful, you must position yourself and be confident in raising your hand and asserting your arguments (But make sure you know your content before you speak on it). In-class presentations also take up a percentage of the participation grade. You will be assigned topics from the course, and given a certain amount of time (10 – 30 minutes, depending on class size) to summarize and/or present your views on the issue.
For social science disciplines such as geography, economics and psychology, some advanced modules include lab assignments and field research. Statistical analysis is emphasized for psychology and economics (using computer programs such as STATA and SPSS). Empirical research also takes place in the form of interviews and field research for sociology and geography classes.
Class sizes are relatively small compared to faculties such as Engineering. Smaller class sizes – combined with a curved grading system (meaning there will necessarily be students doing better than others) – bring about a more focused type of completion. The average class size in first year introduction modules is large (up to 200 or more students), and becomes smaller in the second and third years (average of 30 or 40 for the larger departments such as political science and sociology. Economics and Psychology have the largest intakes.)
Rote learning is not sufficient for scoring well – one must be creative in drafting responses, and in engaging the material. As most essays and exams are open-ended, answers are not as straightforward as they are in math and sciences. A successful student must understand the learning objectives of the modules early on in the semester. Consistent effort to keep up with the readings, and reading beyond the assigned texts are necessary to critically respond to the material.
A perceived downside of having an Arts education is that most majors do not provide a specialized set of skills, unlike Engineering, Pharmacy, or Law courses. Instead, Arts graduates have to rely on the various skills they pick up over their undergraduate course to make themselves professionally relevant. It is crucial to tap on every available resource and ad hoc skill acquired in the course of one’s studies and co-curricular activities (this applies not just for Arts students, but also for student of other faculties – even students in engineering and law face intense competition in their respective career fields).
Not all content knowledge imparted is directly relevant to finding work in the mainstream job market. The malleable applicability of an Arts education is a reflection of the adaptability needed to survive in an increasingly competitive economy. An Arts education teaches students to compete with creativity, based on their diverse exposure to various perspectives in society. Industries do not solely comprise of positions that require specialized skills – they also need people who can grasp the bigger picture.
Writing, media design, marketing, sales, market research and investment are amongst some of the prospective career fields which Arts students can position their learning towards during their undergraduate education. However, studying and getting the degree alone will not help an Arts student in getting opportunities in these fields. Before starting the course, you must have a general idea of what interests you, and think about how an Arts education can complement and develop opportunities in those interests.
All in all, prospective students must recognize that an Arts education does not offer the same professional skills as science, engineering and computing courses. Rather, an Arts education aims at giving you an expansive worldview and a skeptical curiosity towards your social environment. The content knowledge that you will learn in Arts has society and perspectives as its main focal points, taking a more fluid shape than the knowledge acquired from the more ‘down-to-earth’ courses. Students must decide for themselves if this type of pedagogy truly suits her objectives in getting in a university education.