Humanities Courses: 8 Top Picks from Dr. Kevin Downey (2019)

Dr. Kevin Downey helps introduce new students to the field of Humanities and breaks down the best courses and learning materials to get started.

Navigating Online Humanities Courses

Online courses in the Humanities offer a dizzying array of disciplines and subjects to choose from, so many that it can be hard to know where to start and in what direction to head. I’ve already walked this path. With a doctorate and years of teaching the Humanities at the university level behind me, what I have seen is that there are two general motivations for studying the Humanities. One is for personal fulfillment, and the other is to acquire skills for professional success. This article will help you to understand what the Humanities can offer, suggest particular courses that will help you grow, and recognize on your own the kinds of classes that will move you forward.

For those after personal fulfillment, the best advice I can give is to explore. Find a few attractive courses and branch out from there. They could be in Traditional Romanian Dance, Buddhist Meditation, or Portuguese Colonialism. My path was mainly history and religion, but I also studied anthropology, linguistics, philosophy and law. We all have our own interests, and all these courses build on each other. I guarantee the sum is greater than the parts.

Those of you who want to upgrade your skills can get a bit more guidance. If you’re an early-to mid-career STEM or business professional who has worked hard in school to gain the required skills for your field, you may find that now you need a little more to get to the next level...you need more human skills. If you guessed the Humanities can help, your instincts are good. But with all those courses, which ones are the best for acquiring those special skills? No worries. There are many outlets for online learning. You just need a few courses on humaning. But what courses teach you how to human? Below I will lay out a course of studies to improve key talents and abilities to promote your success.

List of Humanities Courses for Personal and Professional Development

Before we look at each of these courses in more detail, it’s important to understand a few things about a Humanities approach, and how it can help with humaning. First, the Humanities is actually not the study of human beings. It’s the study of anything from the human perspective. It values our viewpoint as a legitimate foundation for knowledge and source of answers, which means the Humanities are:

  • Inquisitive – they seek new questions and new solutions
  • Analytic – they break down large problems in to smaller, resolvable parts
  • Speculative – they trust man’s ability to reason, deduce, suppose and infer

This is not so different from STEM approaches. Like the Humanities, the Sciences are inquisitive and analytic. But the Sciences are empirical instead of speculative, and this one change means a lot in the way we think and learn. Science trusts what it can measure and quantify, and seeks to eliminate perspective completely through neutral observation. This trust in facts is what most of us have to unlearn to take full advantages of the Humanities where the goal is to educate and expand our perspective so we can trust our own deduction and reasoning, as well as the deduction and reasoning of others.

Given this difference, what kind of courses that you avoided at college will aid in your personal development? I have identified three general fields that will make you more effective, and will give recommendation for specific online courses for each.

  • Critical Reasoning– these courses will teach you to think clearly and communicate your ideas logically. They will also improve your ability to listen to and understand the arguments of others. These are the foundations for all other human skills.
  • Interpersonal Communication– in these classes, you will learn how to communicate better with those around you by reading people, understanding their cultural backgrounds, and using these insights to get the most from your staff and contacts.
  • Business Correspondence– even though we post fewer letters today, digital communications require us to write more than ever before. Crafting a solid email or blog entry is now as crucial as producing polished business letters and reports. This is a set of skills that are necessary to continue advancing in your field.

Given the breadth of the course material available, I will not rank these courses against each other. Instead, I will present the benefits of each course chosen in terms of the skills they will develop in the learner.

Courses on Critical Thinking

Logical and Critical Thinking – University of Aukland

(8 Weeks, 4 hrs/week)

Futurelearn– Free audit, Certificate Course $69

The ability to recognize good and bad arguments is a skill that is indispensable in the workplace and beyond. This course provides methods for differentiating good reasoning from bad by gauging the structure of arguments as you read and hear them, and offers units on how to appraise scientific, legal and moral claims.

In addition to assessing the arguments of others, these methods can be used to check the quality of your own arguments. Then the course touches on techniques for constructing more logical arguments, making them more compelling to your audience.

What you will learn:

  • How to explore and analyze key concepts in logical and critical thinking
  • How to identify the components of a good argument and obstacles to logical and critical thinking
  • How to classify deductive and non-deductive arguments
  • How to evaluate arguments based on criteria such as validity, strength and cogency
  • How to apply basic logical strategies in areas such as science, moral theories and law


Course Syllabus

  • Week 1: Introduction to Logical and Critical Thinking
  • Week 2: The Basics of Arguments
  • Week 3: Logic and Arguments
  • Week 4: Good and Bad Arguments
  • Week 5: Science
  • Week 6: Law
  • Week 7: Morality
  • Week 8: Recapitulation and Conclusion

This course will teach you how to calibrate your analysis for today’s world. The Information Age makes demands on us that Industrial Age training cannot meet. In an industrial economy, the workforce just needed to think logically, hypothetically and abstractly. But today, these are not enough. Critical thinking must be refocused for the Information Age.

Our information-based environment demands that we in use data effectively. This requires proficiency in statistics, probability theory, scientific methodology, cost-benefit analysis, and cognitive psychology. This course hones these skills through videos, articles and assignments that improve decision-making through statistical inference while reducing cognitive bias.


What you will learn:

  • How to collect data
  • How to analyze the validity of data
  • How to find patters in data, and ignore false patterns
  • How to critique arguments based on data
  • How to make decisions based on data collected by others

Course Syllabus

Week 1:

  • Introduction
  • Lesson 1: Statistics
  • Lesson 2: The Law of Large Numbers

Week 2:

  • Lesson 3: Correlation
  • Lesson 4: Experiments

Week 3:

  • Lesson 5: Prediction
  • Lesson 6: Cognitive Biases

Week 4:

  • Lesson 7: Choosing and Deciding
  • Lesson 8: Logic and Dialectical Reasoning
  • Conclusion

Toulouse Business School

(4 chapters, 3-4 hrs/week)

Iversity – Free audit, Certificate Course 29€/$33

This course will explain how to analyze complex situations you encounter, and find solutions that will not emerge from a simplistic approach. Complexity increases in association with the number, variety, and interconnectedness of issues; and is best addressed by breaking larger
questions into smaller, solvable parts.

The lectures, articles and case study exercises draw on systems and complexity theory, as well as data collection and modeling techniques, to improve problem solving and planning.

Deliverables are the ability to describe any complex system—a business growth strategy, an intricate policy issue, or an interpersonal dynamic—and to identify opportunities for effective action or change


What you will learn:

  • How complex situations require changes to the way we approach the world
  • How to model the various features that create complexity in a given problem
  • How to identify how these complexity create unexpected and frustrating behaviors
  • How to recognize similar complexities in different state of affairs
  • How to manage real world situations by learning through comparison


Course Syllabus

  • Chapter 1: Introducing Complexity
  • Chapter 2: Thinking in Systems
  • Chapter 3: Mapping the Dynamics of Complexity
  • Chapter 4: Living with Complexity

Courses on Interpersonal Communication

(7 weeks, 1-2 hrs/week)

edX – Free audit, Certificate Course $99

What we do when we communicate is a crucial aspect of understanding how to communicate more effectively, directly and honestly in our private lives and in the workplace. This course explores a range of topics in social psychology—how we think about ourselves and others, how this effects our interaction, and we influence and are influenced by others.

The material presented in this class will lay the foundation for improving every one of your communication skills. It is an obvious first step toward greater success. This course also gives students to participate in social psychology research performed by the instructor. It is completely optional, and one’s participation or non-participation has no effect on the coursework, grading or price.

What you will learn:

  • How we influence each other
  • Why we sometimes hurt other people
  • How we think about ourselves and others
  • How we communicate non-verbally
  • What causes prejudice and stereotypes

Course Syllabus

  • Week 1: Nonverbal Communication
  • Week 2: The Self
  • Week 3: Social Cognition
  • Week 4: Attitudes
  • Week 5: Persuasion
  • Week 6: Prejudice and Stereotyping
  • Week 7: Aggression and Prosocial Behavior

(5 weeks, 4 hrs/week)

Futurelearn – Free audit, Certificate Course $69

Globalization has made our interactions increasingly extra-local and intercultural. The ability to communicate across cultures has become essential, not only in cosmopolitan centers but also in the most typical neighborhood and workplace. Communication improves with greater empathy.

This course explores interculturality by identifying the sources of intercultural misunderstanding and the benefits of overcoming these impasses. The goal is to cultivate greater awareness our own cultural identities; sensitivity to the identities of others; and the recognition of social perceptions of stereotypes, prejudice, and discrimination related to intergroup contact.

What you will learn:

  • How to identify the importance of learning intercultural communication
  • How to describe your cultural identities and their significance
  • How to compare your own cultural assumptions and those of others
  • How to identify different cultural behaviors and variations in communication styles
  • How to adapt to intercultural interactions more confidently and effectively

Course Syllabus

  • Week 1: Comprehending Intercultural Communication
  • Week 2: Contextualizing Cultural Identities
  • Week 3: Comparing Cultural Communication Styles
  • Week 4: Clarifying and Contrasting Values
  • Week 5: Cultivating Intercultural Adaptation

(4 weeks, 6-8 hrs/week)

edX– Free audit, Certificate Course $49

Humans are social creatures. Whether at work or at play, our world values robust collaboration around shared goals. We may know our colleagues well and understand their interests and motivations, but what makes a good team? What are the keys to sustained cooperation?

This course is an introduction to teamwork skills for all disciplines that will help you improve your own performance and that of your team. It covers why teams are important, the roles of individuals in a team, systems and processes for effective teamwork and communication, and methods for addressing team.

What you will learn:

  • How to identify different types of teams, the lifecycle of teams, and what makes a high performing team
  • How to be an effective team member by focusing on commitment, team roles, leadership, communication
  • How to uses systems, processes, and diagnostic tools for building high performance teams
  • How to understand and resolve team conflict and dysfunction

Course Syllabus

  • Section 1: What is a Team?
  • Section 2: Personalities and Role Preferences In Teams
  • Section 3: Critique a Hypothetical Team
  • Section 4: Everyday Teamwork Planning Tools
  • Section 5: Leadership, Assertiveness, and Cooperation
  • Section 6: Maintaining Your Team
  • Section 7: Addressing Team Conflict

Courses on Business Correspondence

(3 courses: 4 weeks each, 3-5 hrs/week)

edX – Certificate Course $99 each, $267.30 for the three-course series (no free audit)

We should always be improving our written communications skills. The better you are able to express our ideas, the more you can inspire cooperation and collaboration with others. This three-course Professional Certification Program imparts greater poise as you learn how to improve your writing organization, logic, and style.


The Business Writing Series Courses

  • The Writing Process - The first course in the series will present the core lessons for clear writing: how to identify an audience, how to choose the best structure for your arguments, and how to evaluate early drafts of your work for revision.
  • Effective Business Writing - The second course will explain how to choose the best format for your message, organize information so it is easy to for others to comprehend, and condense content for the most effective messaging.
  • Writing for Social Media - Businesses now turn to social media platforms to build and promote their brands, share news and information, and engage with their audiences. This course teaches how to structure and write content that will deliver your messaging and engage your audience.

What you will learn

  • How to apply organization and logic to your writing
  • How to get your point across clearly
  • How to write appropriately for your audience
  • How to edit and revise your own work
  • How to write with increased confidence

University of California-Berkeley’s course is highly rated, but as a dedicated certification program, it is not available for audit and has restricted availability. To access the courses, you will have to pay for enrollment through edX.

(Multiple courses: 2-3 hrs/course)

LinkedIn Learning – Certified courses $24.99 each. Unlimited access with a paid subscription.

In Learning, the education platform of LinkedIn, offers a number of short and focused writing courses to improve every aspect of your professional correspondence. A selection of particularly helpful courses is provided below:

  • Business Writing Principles presents the 10 Cs of strong business communication, points out common grammar and writing mistakes, and introduces formats for emails and reports.
  • Business Writing Strategies helps you determine how to write for specific business purposes, and provides the tools, techniques, and templates you need to write for your specific strategies.
  • Writing Formal Business Letters and Emails teaches how to build better relationships with clients, colleagues, and customers by making your writing comprehensible, concise, and appropriate for all readers.
  • Writing a Business Report outlines the different types of business reports and gives guidance on how to write your own from cover letter to concluding sentence.
  • Grammar Foundations show how to apply the basic principles of grammar and avoid making the most common usage and structural mistakes.
  • Advanced Grammar helps you review basic grammar rules, parts of speech, punctuation, and proper sentence structure; and focuses on more advanced principles in correct usage, locating incorrect grammar.

The pricing and availability of courses at In Learning is rather flexible. If you are interested in taking a single course, the charge is $24.99. However, you can purchase a subscription with unlimited access for $29.99 monthly or for a single $239.88 annual fee ($19.99 per month). All subscriptions also come with the initial month free, and are accessible for as long as they are on available on the In Learning site.

The Last Word

With my experience from my studies, and having taught many university courses in the field, I can offer some practical tips on how to learn from any Humanities course. Because they are based on our perspectives more than on objective verification, keep the following in mind:

  • Stop looking for facts
  • Nothing is obvious—not what you say and not what you hear
  • Listening is the key to any discussion
  • Clarity will not always change minds

So ends your guide to Navigating Online Humanities Courses, and on learning how to human. You now have the tools to select from countless other courses as well that will develop your human skills, as well as any other interests you discover. Enjoy!

Recommended Books and Chapters

The Humanities is not one single field, but a wide range of fields characterized by a particular approach that trusts man’s reason and intuition. For this reason, finding a single book that is encompasses the whole of the humanities in a popularly accessible way is a challenge. But any challenge can be met. Modern writings on the Humanities deal largely with its relationship to scientific fields. Science established an approach that trusts empirical measurements. By comparison, the Humanities have been seen as soft, imprecise and inherently biased. The writings suggested below claim that the Humanities worth preserving, even in a scientific world, because the tools they offer are unique and irreplaceable.

These texts provide a good starting point to understanding the role of the Humanities in the modern world, and will help you find your path as you navigate online Humanities courses.

Authored by:

Edited by:

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Brendan Martin Chief Editor at Course Panel