The Humanities as the Catalyst for Knowledge Integration

October 31, 2013

Another death knell for the humanities. Since tonight is Halloween, an article in the New York Times “As Interest Fades in the Humanities, Colleges Worry” seems timely. The humanities have had a rough go of it in terms of student enrollment, and so initiatives such as Digital Humanities have come to the rescue not only to instrument a stay of execution, but as a means to employ methods such as Big Data as a way to analyze culturally significant texts using computing tools.

I sit in between two worlds: Arts & Humanities and Computer Science, but in my short time at the University of Texas at Dallas (less than a year), I am finding that the humanities have a much greater role to play in the academy than has been publicly acknowledged. It started this Fall when I began to teach Computer Simulation in my home area of Arts & Technology (ATEC).

I had taught this class for 25 years mostly to engineering and computer science students. But things started to change for me, and the students, as I began teaching humanists and computer scientists together in the same class. I am radically changing how I teach the course mainly as a result of a strong influence from the arts and humanities. Instead of a set of narrow simulation topics, I selected a 13th century water clock design by Al Jazari.

This clock is fairly complicated but my teaching has been organized around viewing and understanding the clock from multiple knowledge perspectives. These perspectives are models of Al Jazari’s clock. Students research the history of the clock, its cultural setting, its mathematically defined dynamic function, its physics, its artistic design, and narratives that relate to the clock. It is not possible to understand the clock without this integrated approach.

By focusing not on a set of disciplinary topics, but instead on a cultural artifact, we come to know the clock in multiple ways. It is not enough just to talk about the physics, since students debate the types of materials used and how to formulate a design with 3D computer graphics. The main lesson learned so far is that we need to break down the disciplinary barriers that separate faculty, and we can achieve this by working together in an integrated fashion.


Courses that target highly vertical learning objectives are rapidly being converted into massively online projects. This trend will continue, and change teaching within universities to become more holistic and integrated, with online courses used for specialized, vertically oriented topics.

Courses should become multidisciplinary instructor-facilitated collaborative sessions. This approach naturally mirrors the real world beyond the academy where objects to be understood and produced (such as aircraft carriers, computer games, and buildings) must involve a diverse, and well integrated, set of people.

Article by Professor Paul Fishwick
Distinguished Endowed Chair of Arts and Technology and Professor of Computer Science. Director of the Creative Automata Laboratory