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Mellon Grant Will Fuel U.Va.'s Humanities Faculty, Teaching and Research

October 11, 2011 — The College and Graduate School of Arts & Sciences at the University of Virginia will enhance the humanities through key initiatives – including up to 10 new interdisciplinary faculty positions and graduate student fellowships – thanks to a $2.9 million, five-year grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

The Mellon grant will bolster and expand U.Va.'s strengths in the humanities by funding an innovative model of hiring, teaching and evaluation that encourages collaboration across multiple fields, based on the recognition that the study of cultures in a global context must traverse traditional disciplines and geographic boundaries.

"We're grateful to the Mellon Foundation for its generous support of this important initiative," said Meredith Jung-En Woo, Buckner W. Clay Dean of Arts & Sciences. "The infusion of faculty and graduate student support will serve as an engine of scholarly, pedagogical and public production in the humanities – seeding new courses and major collaborative research that help define and reflect the public mission of the University.

"Most important, as an institution that is deeply invested in the liberal arts, it will enable us to continue to offer our students the kind of profound intellectual experience they need to be productive citizens of a world that is transforming around them," she said.

The faculty positions seeded by the Mellon grant – up to 10 new hires, two per year – will focus on emerging areas of cross-disciplinary research recently identified by a U.Va. faculty committee, beginning with "Environmental Humanities" and "Comparative Cultures of the Pre-Modern World." 

Along with the creation of the interdisciplinary faculty positions, the grant will establish fellowships for doctoral students in related fields and seminars aimed at preparing them for teaching in an increasingly competitive academic job market.

The newly conceived Institute of the Humanities and Global Cultures will provide the structure for faculty and graduate students working together on these and other interdisciplinary topics. The University-funded institute will begin programming later this fall under the direction of English professor Michael Levenson. The new faculty members will be institute fellows as well as being associated with specific departments.

"The appointment of these new positions will create a framework for interdisciplinary community at the University and will stimulate new terms and tones of cross-department conversation," Levenson said.

Italian professor Cristina Della Coletta, who took the position of associate dean of humanities and the arts this year, said, "This grant, and the institute it will help establish, will bring a fresh focus to the College's longstanding tradition of excellence in the humanities."

As the past associate dean of humanities and the arts, Bruce Holsinger was involved in the humanities planning with Levenson and other faculty members.

"While the humanities have long been a traditional strength of the University of Virginia, we've lacked an institutional hub for supporting the core mission of the humanities as an integral part of the University's research and teaching mission," said Holsinger, professor of English and music. "The Humanities Institute will provide a way to support research, teaching and outreach to our distinguished humanities programs and departments by partnering with other units around Grounds, from the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities to the University Art Museum to the Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities."

In recent years, teams of faculty members from two or more units within and beyond the College of Arts & Sciences collaborated on hiring proposals to submit to the Office of the Dean. The dean's faculty committee decided to group the submissions within several broad research areas, each reflecting the scope and content of the strongest proposals.

Environmental Humanities and Comparative Cultures of the Pre-Modern World will bring together clusters of current and new faculty members from various departments and programs.

"Our relationship with the natural world and its finite resources is one of the most urgent topics of interdisciplinary discussion," Della Coletta said. "Scientists, social scientists and humanists alike are exploring the consequences of the vastly unequal distribution of natural resources. They are investigating the significance of place in the negotiation of economic, social and cultural differences."

A number of faculty members in philosophy and the schools of Law, Medicine and Architecture, among other areas, already focus on environmental ethics. The new Arts & Sciences positions will provide opportunities for collaborative research at the intersection of humanistic and scientific inquiry.

Scholars of early periods already have strong interest in collaborating across conventional areas in the study of the pre-modern world. The cluster on Comparative Cultures of the Pre-Modern World will showcase and enhance the College's strengths of faculty and graduate scholars working in archaeology, history, classics, art, architecture, medieval studies, East Asian studies and South Asian studies. Centers of interdisciplinary excellence that could be expanded include the program in classical art and archaeology and the program in medieval studies.

The Mellon-funded graduate fellowships will aim to attract the best students nationally who work especially, but not exclusively, in the areas of emphasis. The faculty would work with and support these Mellon-funded graduate fellows, creating critical mass within certain trans-disciplinary research paths.

The Mellon Ph.D. seminars will prepare students for more wide-ranging opportunities in their professional careers. While U.Va.'s existing teacher-training courses and modules help prepare graduate teaching assistants for the field-specific classes they teach as part of their doctoral programs, the Mellon Ph.D. seminars will require participants to stretch themselves beyond their comfort zones by designing courses and pedagogical exercises with broad appeal, not necessarily in their areas of specialty.

Through a companion proposal, the U.Va. Art Museum has received support from the Mellon Foundation for an academic curator position that will help integrate the museum with innovation in the humanities, promoting the full use of the museum's collections and staff expertise in the University's curriculum. The curator will be the guiding force at the museum for a new program, also playing a key role in other humanities initiatives and holding an appointment with the new Humanities Institute.

— by Anne Bromley

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