NHA’s New Toolkit: Documenting the Impact of Your Humanities Program

By Cecily Hill, NEH for All Director of Community Initiatives


As of this writing, colleges and universities around the nation have closed their doors; most have shifted to online learning. In-person public programs are on pause, indefinitely. For the majority of us, large components of our work have come to a screeching halt, while we have had to abruptly shift to scores of new personal and professional challenges.

At the National Humanities Alliance, we are continuing our work to document the impact of the humanities in a variety of contexts, but with a particular eye toward how humanities organizations and institutions are serving their communities and constituencies during this challenging time. We are also using this time to support humanities faculty, practitioners, and organizations as they plan for the future.

With this in mind, we are launching a new resource for humanities faculty, practitioners, and organizations. Our new toolkit, Documenting the Impact of Your Humanities Program, is aimed at helping the humanities community collect data about the impact of programs such as professional development seminars, public humanities projects, and programs for students that prepare them for college and help them imagine humanities careers. By collecting this data, you can better make the case for the impact of your work and the resources to support it.

With funding from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, since 2018 our NEH for All initiative has been helping National Endowment for the Humanities grantees document their impact through surveys of participants in their programs. In partnership with project directors, we’ve designed and implemented pre- and post-program surveys that take into account the programs’ immediate goals and their broader social impacts, including impacts on trust, empathy, community connection, and appreciation for and pride in local culture and heritage. Our goal has been to help these partners collect information that makes the case for their work to a range of stakeholders, including funders, organizational leadership, and policymakers. The surveys are designed to be broadly useful for humanities faculty and practitioners in highlighting and evaluating their programs.

The toolkit includes:

  • An introduction to impact-driven surveys;
  • Information about why to survey, how to construct a survey, and how to administer a survey; and
  • Advice for interpreting and using your data.

Many programs that we have surveyed to date took place on college campuses, and the toolkit also includes a suite of editable surveys that can be used in programs run by faculty. These include:

  • Pre- and post-program surveys for a humanities summer bridge program offered to first-generation college students. Among other measures, this survey includes questions about college preparedness, interest in internships with humanities organizations, and understanding of and interest in the humanities.
  • Pre- and post-program surveys for two faculty professional development seminars, one focused on an oral history program and the other on integrating local culture and authors into humanities classrooms. The surveys focus on access to resources, the benefits of building interdisciplinary communities of practice, and gains in content knowledge and capacities appropriate to the curricula.
  • Pre- and post-program surveys for humanities courses designed specifically for veterans, aimed at helping them reflect on their experiences through humanities texts. These surveys assess how these courses respond to some of veterans’ specific needs, such as help dealing with social isolation and building community. They also assess how humanities resources (art, film, literature, etc.) promote self-reflection and understanding.

Additionally, sample survey questions, grouped according to impact, are designed to help you build strong surveys that document your program’s strengths. In addition to using these questions as they are presented, you can adapt many of them for pre- and post-program surveys, making your evaluations even stronger. These questions have been tested—we’ve used them across many programs and found them successful.

These surveys have provided us with compelling insights into how humanities programs—from professional development seminars to reading and discussion programs—have an impact on higher education institutions, their faculty and students, and the communities they serve. They have also provided our partners and us with robust quantitative and qualitative data that speaks to the humanities’ broad-ranging impacts and can be used to engage policymakers, funders, leadership, and the public.

During this crisis, we know that humanities courses and programs are continuing to offer crucial opportunities for people to learn, reflect, and engage in dialogue. And we know that they will provide still more significant opportunities for reflection and connection in the months and years to come. As you plan for the future, we hope that you find this toolkit useful. And we want to hear from you! If you have questions or need advice, please contact Emily McDonald at emcdonald@nhalliance.org.

Cecily HillCecily Erin Hill leads NEH for All, an initiative that documents the impact of NEH funding and builds the capacity of humanities organizations to communicate that impact. Prior to joining NHA, Cecily served as Marketing and Communications Director for Books@Work, a public humanities nonprofit based in Cleveland, OH. Her writing has appeared in Studies in English Literature, 1500 - 1900 and Women’s Writing.  She holds a B.A. from the University of Southern Mississippi and a Ph.D. in English from the Ohio State University.

Study the Humanities: Articulating Career Pathways

By Scott Muir, Study the Humanities Project Director, National Humanities Alliance


Commentators have offered a variety of explanations for the widely observed decline in humanities majors and enrollments. Evidence suggests the primary cause is a dramatic reordering of student priorities away from existential educational aims toward pragmatic financial goals, beginning around 1970 and accelerating after the financial crisis of 2008.

Herein lies the greatest opportunity for reversing the decline, for the problem is with students’ perceptions more than reality. It’s not that the humanities don’t prepare students for career success; humanities majors’ career outcomes are in fact quite strong. But in the absence of clear pathways to a sustainable career, students and parents whose confidence has been shaken by the Great Recession and rising student debt fill the void with their fears. To restore confidence in the humanities, we must replace a cloudy picture of uncertain outcomes with a brighter vision of expansive possibilities. But how?

At the National Humanities Alliance (NHA), we have gained a unique perspective on this challenge and the opportunity it presents. Over the past two years, we’ve assessed the field of undergraduate humanities recruitment efforts, including a recent survey of more than 390 faculty and administrators at nearly 300 institutions. We’ve collected a wide variety of promising strategies for recruiting students with the goal of sharing these strategies to benefit the whole community. Many involve clarifying career pathways for humanities majors, ranging from efforts aimed at persuading prospective students to those that help graduating majors successfully navigate the job market.

For prospective students and their parents, many faculty and administrators have reported that presenting the national employment data featured in our Study the Humanities toolkit helps confront widespread misconceptions concerning career prospects. Additionally, data and success stories drawn from one’s own institution provide a more concrete and accessible picture of the possibilities. For example, at Brandeis University, the School of Arts and Sciences has partnered with the Hiatt Career Center to present outcome data by major, which Dean Dorothy Hodgson reports “shows the tremendous placement success—and overcomes parental and student anxieties.” At Lebanon Valley College, the English Department researched their graduates’ career outcomes and created a brief video that presents the actual job titles of alumni to prospective students and their parents.

Once on campus, general education courses provide crucial opportunities to demonstrate the practical value of humanities skills to broad populations of students. At the University of Missouri, the College of Arts and Sciences appointed a Career Readiness Faculty Fellow to help faculty across the college incorporate modules explaining how the liberal arts equip students for long-term career success into their gen ed courses. And at the University of Minnesota, the College of Liberal Arts developed a pedagogical tool to help students identify the skills developed through their assignments and translate them to non-academic settings. Importantly, they also implemented incentives to encourage faculty to incorporate the tool in their courses, as well as identify transferable skills on their syllabi. As a result, more than 10,000 students completed the translation assignment last semester.

Other initiatives help ensure humanities majors preparing to graduate are equipped to transition to the workforce. For example, the English Department at West Chester University created a poster series and annual event entitled “What can you do with an English major?” to help students explore a variety of career pathways. Furthermore, the department created an internship course and a series of six workshops that help majors translate academic accomplishments for job application materials. At Hendrix College, John Sanders redesigned the Religious Studies Department’s capstone course to help students articulate transferable skills gained through previous courses and capstone projects. Meanwhile, students work with career center staff to hone their resumes and interview skills.

Finally, humanities faculty and administrators are developing new ways to engage alumni and employers to identify opportunities for their students and increase demand for their skills. For the past decade, Duke University has hosted an annual weekend of programming that brings together arts and humanities majors interested in working in a wide variety of media-related fields with alumni who have found success there. And at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, the Humanities Network and Consortium has partnered with career center staff to bring employers and recruiters to campus for regular events that highlight the professional advantages provided by the humanities.

Together, these initiatives present models for identifying transferable humanities skills and illuminating career pathways, helping to correct misconceptions and provide a clearer, more accurate picture of humanities majors’ career prospects. Of course, there are many other benefits to studying the humanities and strategies for highlighting them. Several campuses are experimenting with cohort programs to help students forge deep connections. Others are developing or revising courses to demonstrate how the humanities can help address a wide variety of contemporary challenges.

In the coming year, we will be working to ensure the lessons learned on individual campuses benefit the whole humanities community. To better understand which recruitment strategies are most effective, we have developed survey instruments to measure their impact on students’ perceptions and behaviors. We are partnering with directors of compelling initiatives to implement customized surveys. And we will distribute resources that provide an overview of various strategies faculty and administrators across the country are employing and highlight particularly promising models. We invite you to partner with us in these efforts by sharing your strategies via our survey.

Scott Muir leads Study the Humanities, an initiative that provides humanities faculty, administrators, and advocates with evidence-based resources and strategies to make the case for studying the humanities as an undergraduate. Prior to joining NHA, Scott pursued training at the intersection of the humanities and social sciences, earning a Ph.D. in Religious Studies from Duke University, an M.T.S. from Emory University, and a B.A. from Dartmouth College. He has taught at Duke, Emory, and Western Carolina University, and his work has appeared in Sacred Matters Magazine and the Journal of Religion and Society. He can be reached at smuir@nhalliance.org.