Recently, there has been much controversy about the allocation of budgets to universities of all stripes, either via fees paid by students or, in the case of state-led institutions, via taxation. As the world is gradually recovering from 2008’s financial meltdown, a general disappointment in the ability to efficiently allocate capital so as to bring all departments up to speed has been voiced by large swathes of students of German and international universities (cf. Online 1, 2 and 3), to which institutional investors and university officials typically react with a semblance of concern, while at the same time incorrectly putting the burden on the students: They ought to study faster and properly align themselves with the job market, no matter how asymmetric and biased towards STEM subjects it has been of late. Apart from the fact that this goes against the principle of human variability of talentsª , there are other issues at play here: In this article I shall take issue with this “fundamentalism of the hard sciences” and prove that the issue of apparent under-financing of the liberal arts appears to be due to increasingly inefficient allocation of capital towards inessential expenditures, like computing, for instance. I will try to give an explanation as to how such inefficiencies could have developed and offer my take on how to improve the current situation as well as suggest how the surplus capital resulting from a rational reallocation of funds should be put to use within the humanities.
Firstly, one should ask oneself what the typical liberal arts/humanities major and/or professor does on a weekly basis and whether the commonly used software is indeed required for the successful completion of such work. I posit that this is not the case: While I concede that Apple and especially Microsoft have become the de facto industry standard for all sorts of software, which might increase compliance due to a wider net of interdependencies and opportunity for help, I argue that open-source alternatives have the potential to serve the common user in a near similar manner, and are in some cases better than proprietary alternatives, in the context of the needs of most liberal arts/humanities students: The workday of the average student and professor in this field is surprisingly similar, the difference amounting to scope and scale: Student X checks his e-mails and researches in a (hopefully) free internet browser like Firefox or Chromium already, networks on Facebook and Linkedin/Xing, uses Microsoft Word to type up his papers and theses, opens pdf-documents with the (partially free) Adobe Acrobat software, and cuts films and documentaries via Windows Mediaplayer. The occasional romp through Microsoft Powerpoint is a given, as is some light data-analysis, probably via Microsoft Excel, for certain branches of linguistics.
On to suitable open-source alternatives: Libre Office (including its derivatives Writer, Impress and Math for writing, presentations and data-analysis) has recently achieved surprisingly accurate compatibility with Word, though there are still some issues with proper graphics rendering, a disadvantage that should not sway the type of student I am talking about, who is primarily concerned with content and knowledge transfer. The Document-reader Okular, unlike Adobe, can open epub, emobi, html and various other formats and it offers the ability to edit documents, thus being clearly preferable to most proprietary alternatives.
Avidemux, in conjunction with the open-source ripper HandBrake, not only lets one excerpt certain film-clips and cut them to size, but allows for near-professional frame-by-frame analysis, an invaluable tool for the liberal arts/humanities student, since he/she must often accurately quote film, in which milliseconds often convey layers of meaning which do not present itself on a “regular” viewing. Hence, we have (yet) another superior alternative beating the proprietary mainstay. Given my experience, it seems that many colleagues and/or academics are using these alternatives already, while still being chained to the Windows desktop environment. I concede that older subjects set in their ways might be resistant to change, but younger ones, who are the very people who will benefit the most from making a personal change effecting university bureaucracy in a bottom-up way, have much more to gain in taking it a step further (cf. Healy 1f.); what I mean by this is acquiring the necessary skills to successfully install a light Windows-like Linux distribution°.
R is far more powerful than anything that Windows can offer when it comes to data-analysis. In the case that Windows might be needed in an emergency, open-source third-party virtualization software has also come a long way. Overall, one can say that the process of installing, upgrading and updating software has become much more user-friendly, making Linux a viable alternative (cf. Healy 3). In terms of word-processing, open-source LaTeX, though difficult to learn, offers several advantages compared to WYSIWYG-word-processors² in the scientific workplace, even for liberal arts/humanities students who might not need to display technical mathematical language like Stem graduates³: As Kieran Healy explains, in the sciences it is imperative to have an accurate overview over just what one did at a(ny) particular time, particularly when working on larger documents, such as Master- and Phd theses; LaTeX, as opposed to Word, lets one do statistical work, say, and add ancillary comments and pieces of code, which are documented automatically for future reference. Secondly, a document should always be able to tell one what it is, leading to a tedious ordeal in Word, where one has to individually name each document, adding dates, procedures, methodologyetc. LaTeX aids one in documenting draft papers, field notes, data sets and so on because it saves each alteration of documents individually in separate documents, which can easily be searched via keywords down the line. Thus it saves students from coming up with flowery classification systems.
Thirdly, science ought to push us to abide by the so-called DRY-tenet¹, something I personally, alas, seem to be particularly susceptible to (especially in the case of clerical errors 🙂 ). Apart from the fact that LaTeX stores one’s mistakes for future reference, easing and reducing correction (-time), the program is highly customizable, unlike Word: Rather than copying and repeating code over and over to do similar task at different parts of a document, a general function eliminates the time wasted on repetitive typing. A tailored LaTeX editing software such as TeXstudio allows one use all the repositories, such as BibTeX, a program storing all your bibliographical data in one file, which can be made to self-adjoin any document in the correct citation style needed. This in particular saves enormous amounts of time for professors, since secretaries may be able to enter mere keywords of bibliographical data, while one’s computer does the rest of the work.
Thus, LaTeX is truly a typesetting system, that is, a system which goes out of the way of the user, so that he/she may (eventually) concentrate solely on the production of high quality content (cf. Healy 3ff.)
Perhaps the most salient objection to the adoption of the aforementioned tools would be that they all are more complex than your average computer program and rather awkward to learn; to that I, and indeed Healy too (cf. Healy 5), assert that studying the intricacies of 19th century Romanticism or delving into higher linguistic analyses of corpora may be seen as no small feat, either. The benefits, however, as I shall lay out in the next chapter, more than make up for the downside of effort (and seemingly excess time) expended.
ª The principle of specific human variability states that humans vary tremendously in their innate potential and interests, causing diverse employment and professional patterns to emerge. It is the task of the welfare state to dampen severe employment discrepancies as we are seeing them now in those devoting their lives to the liberal arts. Otherwise the equally important principles of epigenetics (ie the importance of environmental factors vital to coaxing supreme achievement out of a worker) and the principle of specificity (only specific repeatable deliberate practice allows those suited for it to really shine in their professions) are also ignored. How should a talented art student, say, be able to focus solely on his craft and strive for excellency, if he faces constant disapproval for his apparently economically irrational choices and has to juggle work and studies to an inordinate degree? It seems nigh impossible.
° Lubuntu, a derivative of Ubuntu using the ultra-supple LXDE desktop environment seems particularly apt, given the longterm hardware support online, owing to the supremacy of its “father” Ubuntu in the Opensource community.
² WYSIWG (ie literally What You See Is What You Get) refers to a system which displays the content of a document in the closest possible form resembling the actual printout on the page. WYSIWYM (ie What You See Is What You Mean) editors like LaTeX let the user write text in a structured way, marking content according to meaning and significance; comments unseen in the final printout can thus be added at all times.
³ Stem graduates are all, I might note, using LaTeX, so the claim that such an unpopular choice would not yield the necessary support and help required can be dismissed.
¹ In software jargon “Don’t repeat yourself”, hinting at the tendency of software developers to want to automate repetitive and error-prone processes so that one does not do certain mistakes twice or more.
Healy, Keiran. Choosing your workflow applications. 2013. Online. Link: http://kieranhealy.org/files/misc/workflow-apps.pdf