The problem with framing as ‘non-STEM’

I read with interest two recent Western News articles about Juan-Luis Suárez’s new role as Associate Vice-President (Research) for arts, humanities and social sciences (“Suárez tapped to lead non-STEM efforts,” May 2 and “Suárez: Time of retreat is over for humanities,” May 10). As I read, I found myself contemplating the language used to describe arts, humanities and social sciences, and the implications of that language.

Together, the two articles use the term ‘non-STEM’ seven times to refer to arts, humanities and social sciences (STEM stands for science, technology, engineering, and medicine/mathematics). For the reader, this anchors STEM as the default or preferred option, and ‘non-STEM’ as the alternative or less preferred option.

John Capone, Vice-President (Research), noted in one of the articles that there have been concerns that arts, humanities and social sciences research at Western is not as strongly represented as research in STEM disciplines. However, when arts, humanities and social sciences are referred to as ‘non-STEM’ areas, they seem to exist only in opposition to science, technology, engineering and medicine/mathematics.

I did some reading in linguistics over the past two weeks to better understand this usage of language, which confirmed and added to my initial uneasiness with the use of the term ‘non-STEM.’ Markedness is a linguistic concept involving an asymmetrical relationship between two terms, where the unmarked term is dominant, default or primary, and the marked term is subordinate, alternative or secondary. Often, the use of prefixes or suffixes such as un-, non-, and -less modify the unmarked word, as in STEM (unmarked) and ‘non-STEM’ (marked).

The unmarked word reflects and contributes to the cultural norm, i.e., the default way of thinking (in this case) about research.

In addition to potentially minimizing the work of arts, humanities and social sciences researchers, the construct of a binary of research that is either STEM or ‘non-STEM’ also diminishes multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary research. If, as Suárez indicates, the arts, humanities and social sciences are essential to understanding artificial intelligence, climate change and migration (and I certainly believe they are), then using less divisive language may foster greater connections and understanding among disciplines.

Certainly, many of these issues apply to teaching and learning as well. My own educational background includes an undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering and a graduate degree in library and information studies. I did well in high school, and the default choice for ‘doing well’ in my community was to study science or engineering in university. I was praised for choosing such an ‘important’ and ‘prestigious’ undergraduate degree, and then received bewildered looks when I moved on to a social sciences graduate program.

My engineering program required I take four complementary studies electives from arts, humanities, social sciences or business. Unfortunately, I didn’t feel we received any support or encouragement in choosing these complementary courses or in integrating what we learned into our engineering learning or practice. (Many of my peers ended up taking same suite of four courses, based on reports from more advanced students about options that would require little effort or work.)

Later on, to broaden my graduate education, I sought out courses from the business and geology departments. However, because those departments were not connected administratively to library and information studies, scheduling was a challenge and assumptions of prior knowledge became an issue, eventually leading to me dropping the business class.

The challenges of integrating research or education in STEM with arts, humanities and social sciences wasn’t new then, and the challenges haven’t gone away. This division of disciplines is deeply ingrained in our culture. We hear reports of crises in arts and humanities, with worried parents contemplating their children’s future job prospects. Actively integrating different ways of thinking about and understanding our world into all educational programs will help develop new generations of citizens (and researchers and educators) who want to cross disciplinary boundaries.

It could be easy to think of ‘non-STEM’ as simply a shortcut and not a diminishing of arts, humanities, and social sciences. But the language we use matters, and defining a group by what it is not is problematic and reinforces a false dichotomy. The role of the new Associate Vice-President (Research) for arts, humanities and social sciences is to highlight and support scholarship in those disciplines. The role must also involve reconsidering and redefining how we as a campus community talk about and recognize research in arts, humanities, and social sciences.

Author’s Note: I want to acknowledge that Adela Talbot (the author of the two Western News articles I reference) and Juan-Luis Suárez replied quickly to a brief email I sent them about the language used in the two articles, agreeing with my concerns and recognizing the need for different and better terminology. I sincerely appreciate their openness, as well as Talbot’s encouragement to expand my thoughts into an opinion piece.

Lise Doucette is an assistant librarian with Western Libraries.