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SHAPE today and tomorrow: Q&A with Sophie Goldsworthy and Julia Black (part two)

SHAPE (Social Sciences, Arts, and Humanities for People and the Economy) research helps us to make sense of the past, to inform the present, and develop a vision for the future. Considering the last year alone in which the vital work of STEM researchers in developing vaccines and treating COVID-19 has been closely followed across the globe, it is also important to acknowledge that SHAPE research has played an important role in our response to the pandemic. From considering ethics to inform how vaccines should be allocated amongst the population, to looking back at the societal and economic impact of pandemics through history, SHAPE research has provided us with valuable insights across a vast spectrum of different areas.

This second part of our Q&A with Sophie Goldsworthy, Director of Content Strategy & Acquisitions at OUP, and Professor Julia Black CBE FCA, Strategic Director of Innovation and Professor of Law at the London School of Economics and Political Science, and President-elect of the British Academy, reflects on how SHAPE disciplines can help us to understand the impact of the events of the pandemic and look towards the future of SHAPE.

In part one of our Q&A with Sophie Goldsworthy and Professor Julia Black, they introduce SHAPE and what it means to themif you missed it, you can read it here.

In the current context of the coronavirus pandemic, how can SHAPE subjects help us make sense of how the last year has impacted us and the world in which we live?

Sophie Goldsworthy: The last year has been testing in many ways. But we might turn to SHAPE subjects as we start to evaluate what life looks like after the pandemic, assessing the human impact, finding new ways to connect, and working out how to salvage the best of what we have been left with.

SHAPE subjects can help us start to understand where we are now and drive innovative solutions. We can draw on what these subjects tell us as we endeavour to improve on the inclusivity of our virtual networks; and to figure out how we retain balance in our ways of working and flexibility around our caring and other social responsibilities; and as we think again about how we might inhabit global city spaces and reimagine transport networks with sustainability and environmental impacts in mind. Scientists tell us that birdsong changed during the shutdowns, that wild animals moved quickly to inhabit the spaces we vacated, that air quality improved as transport ground to a halt. SHAPE subjects can help us to think about the ways in which we learn from and build on this enforced hiatus.

Julia Black: It’s difficult to think of a single area where SHAPE subjects don’t help us make sense of how COVID has impacted us and where they won’t be relevant in thinking about the future. The enforced lockdown of the world’s population has been a natural experiment of a scale no policy maker would never have volunteered to undertake, but our clearer skies, quieter roads, and noisier wildlife have made us all acutely aware of the impact our ways of living were having on our planet, and to the vulnerabilities to which we are thereby exposing ourselves as well.

“Ultimately SHAPE subjects help us imagine and evaluate what kind of world we want to live in, and what kind of life we want to have.”

We have turned to literature and, virtually at least, to the arts to provide us with solace, enrichment, entertainment, and sheer relief. We have turned to history for insights into how societies in the past have been fundamentally changed due to pandemics and to philosophy for reflections on how we want our societies to be. As we re-think how we will live, how we will travel, how we will work, insights from anthropology, geography, economics, psychology, politics, literature, design, architecture, and art, to name but a few, will all be essential.

We also face other challenges which COVID has revealed or exacerbated: to equality and inclusivity, to democracy and to human rights, to the shifting imbalances in power within societies and across nations. And meanwhile the need to address climate change and enhance biodiversity are becoming ever more pressing. Ultimately SHAPE subjects help us imagine and evaluate what kind of world we want to live in, and what kind of life we want to have.

The pandemic has undoubtedly had a profound impact on universities and the student experience. Why should prospective students choose to study a SHAPE subject, and what unique skills do you think SHAPE graduates bring to the workforce?

SG: SHAPE graduates are highly employable, bringing a wealth of skills to the workforce, and prospective students might be attracted to these subjects for the same reasons. They help us make sense of the human experience and develop our capacity for critical thinking and communication. They encourage problem solving, creativity, and curiosity, and help graduates approach a question from many angles, working collaboratively and with empathy. In a world beset by challenges, among them not only the pandemic, but climate change, structural inequalities, the rise of populism in some quarters and nationalism in others, SHAPE graduates are central to the development of the versatile, resilient workforce that will help us respond to these challenges, identify future opportunities, and nurture innovation.

JB: Studying SHAPE subjects provides both knowledge and skills which are valuable to all aspects of society, whether a person is working in a business or the public sector, or for a charity, or in the voluntary sector, or as a freelancer, or an entrepreneur. Some of the subjects have more direct application than others, such as law, finance, journalism, languages, education, design, or the arts, but in different ways all provide knowledge of how to analyse complex problems, interpret and integrate information and ideas, test the strength of competing arguments, see things from another’s point of view, create new inspirations and forms of expression, and understand how and why context matters.  Many of the skills of analysis, rigour, interpretation and creativity can be learned studying either SHAPE or STEM subjects, but it is their focus on the human world which helps those who study SHAPE understand people and the societies they live in, and the values they live by.

Where do you see SHAPE in the future? How do you think these fields of study might change?

SG: Just as we think about SHAPE and STEM as complementing each other, so we’re seeing an increasing move towards interdisciplinarity within SHAPE subjects, both in the academy—with university trends including the amalgamation of departments and interdisciplinary research programmes—and in our publishing programme, with multi-disciplinary content one of our fastest growing areas. Our disciplinary analysis shows a fascinating web of connections between subjects, showing how our existing content clusters and is used online, and we’re excited to explore this more at OUP, developing our acquisitions approach to reflect changing practices within the academy and encourage emerging spheres of research, as these subjects aggregate to redefine fields of study.

“The core disciplinary pillars within SHAPE and STEM subjects remain strong, but increasingly we are seeing them combined in new and exciting ways.”

JB: I think the SHAPE subjects are changing in three ways. The first is a growing inter- or multi-disciplinary engagement across SHAPE disciplines and with those of STEM, often focused around particular challenges or themes, such as health, climate change, or conservation. The second is the awareness that the languages of mathematics and computer codes can be used to interrogate questions which preoccupy social scientists and humanities scholars, just as they can those of physicists or biologists. Digital humanities and computational social sciences combine knowledge from languages, history, media and communications, economics, information studies, graphic design, computer sciences, data analytics, machine learning, AI, and more to analyse texts, music, or data on a scale which was previously unimaginable, providing powerful new insights. Thirdly, both SHAPE and STEM disciplines are adopting critical stances towards the other in ways which are, or have the potential, to change the way in which each are conducted: the challenge to social sciences to produce results which are replicable, verifiable, and falsifiable, for example; and the challenge to science and technology to be conducted in ways which are ethical, non-discriminatory, and which take into account their impact on societies. The core disciplinary pillars within SHAPE and STEM subjects remain strong, but increasingly we are seeing them combined in new and exciting ways.

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