Generic Definitions for Area Distributions (HU, NS, SS, MSA, CE, ID)

Humanities (HU)

Humanities courses focus on creations of the human mind as expressed, for example, in literature, religion, philosophy, music, and the visual and performing arts. Its methods are analytical, critical, and speculative, and can often be contrasted with the quantitative and qualitative methods employed in the social sciences. Examples of humanistic study would include analysis of visual arts, literary forms, aesthetic values, and moral and ethical philosophies. Study in the humanities leads to a better understanding of the human condition and what it means to be human. Such study fosters a deeper appreciation of one or more cultural areas by focusing close attention on exemplary practices or works and how they fit within their larger context. Several fields such as communications, cultural anthropology, history, and linguistics can be studied with either a humanistic or social scientific method.

Natural Sciences (NS)

Natural science courses focus on understanding the natural world through application of the scientific method, which emphasizes observation, experimentation, formation of testable hypotheses about natural phenomena, and testing of those hypotheses. Courses do not have to emphasize all of these areas to qualify. For example, descriptive astronomy courses (emphasizing the observational aspect and the conclusions that can be drawn from those observations), chemistry laboratory courses (emphasizing the experimental aspect), and theoretical physics courses (which lay the groundwork for formation of testable hypotheses about the physical universe) could all lie well within the realm of natural science courses.

Courses that apply the scientific method to the understanding of human behavior would generally not be considered natural science courses, but would fall within the realm of the social sciences. However, courses that seek knowledge about the biological underpinnings of certain aspects of human behavior could well be natural science courses. Some examples would include certain aspects of neuroscience, bio-psychology, and cognition. While there have been many valuable mathematical and statistical tools developed to support the natural sciences, courses that focus primarily on those tools rather than their application to the study of the natural world would more likely fall within the realm of mathematical and symbolic analysis courses.

Social Sciences (SS)

Social science courses focus on people and the institutions within which they interact as individuals, and in groups, societies, nations, and states. Social scientists often use qualitative methods, such as ethnography, oral history, and descriptive analysis of archival materials and artifacts. They also use quantitative tools grounded in the scientific method to collect and analyze data, and form testable hypotheses about social phenomena. Examples of quantitative social science would include survey research and economic modeling. Topics studied by social scientists include voting behavior, consumer preferences, academic achievement, and population growth.

The quantitative and qualitative methods employed in the social sciences can often be contrasted with the analytical, critical, and speculative methods used in the humanities that focus on the human condition as expressed, for example, in literature, religion, philosophy, and the visual and performing arts. Several fields such as communications, cultural anthropology, history, and linguistics can be studied with either a humanistic or social scientific method.

Math & Symbolic Analysis (MSA)

MSA courses focus primarily on the mathematical and statistical tools used to support the study of the natural and social sciences. Rather than mathematical manipulation or computation, these courses focus on the methodology used to analyze quantitative information to make decisions, judgments and predictions. This involves defining a problem by means of numerical or geometrical representations of real-world phenomena, determining how to solve it, deducing consequences, formulating alternatives, and predicting outcomes. In addition to mathematics and statistics, MSA courses are taught in a variety of subjects, including astronomy, biology, chemistry, economics, the environment, geological sciences, philosophy, physics, and sociology.

Creative Expression (CE)

Creative Expression courses entail hands-on activities that allow students to express their creativity through a wide range of arts. This differs from courses in the Humanities (HU) that are taught at a more theoretical or abstract level. For example, HU music courses focus on theory without making sounds or practicing music. CE courses teach students how to apply the theory not only on paper but through playing an instrument, creating sound, composing music, or arranging music. CE courses may address many different mediums, including the performing arts, fine arts, plastic and visual arts architecture, ceramics, metalworking, paper and textiles, woodworking, and glass.

Interdisciplinary (ID)

Interdisciplinary courses combine in roughly equal measure the approaches within two or three of the primary distributions (HU, NS, and SS) in order to examine the differences and similarities between disciplines and explore alternative ways of discovering and organizing knowledge. Interdisciplinary work is primarily concerned with crossings and connections between areas of knowledge, inquiry, and method. These courses emphasize critical thinking, team-based intellectual work, and the analytic skills characteristic of each discipline.


College of Literature, Science & the Arts 500 S. State Street, Ann Arbor, MI  48109-1382 © 2014 Regents of the University of Michigan