New Institute Provides Structure for Working Across Disciplinary, Cultural Boundaries

November 10, 2011
November 10, 2011 — University of Virginia English professor Michael Levenson joked that he has a tattoo that reads, "The humanities aren't in crisis. The rest of the world is."

The importance of the humanities in today's world of distracting daily concerns was discussed Tuesday night by Levenson and several other U.Va. professors at an event in the Rotunda to introduce the Institute of the Humanities & Global Cultures in the College and Graduate School of Arts & Sciences.

Levenson, William B. Christian Professor of Modern Literature and Critical Theory, told the 60 or so attendees at the gathering that, as the institute's director, he hopes the venture will encourage faculty to revitalize the sentiments and reasons that led them into the humanities in the first place.

The decision to link "humanities" to "global cultures" was deliberate, he said – to emphasize the possibilities of innovations in teaching and scholarship between local and international exchanges. "Cultures" is plural, he said, to stress that the humanities shouldn't be homogenized into Western culture.

At the same time U.Va. and other schools are putting more emphasis on the sciences and engineering, Arts & Sciences Dean Meredith Jung-En Woo declared that the humanities are alive and well on Grounds. The recent Andrew W. Mellon grant to hire up to 10 interdisciplinary faculty members in the next five years will position the University to pursue a new model for teaching and research, she said. Woo called the creation of the humanities institute part of a process to re-imagine and remap the structure of knowledge. The institute and participating faculty will help "connect the dots of excellence," she said.

She described the connections that will be possible between humanities and the sciences in two areas to be supported by the Mellon grant. "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.

The opening event demonstrated the aspirations of the new institute, which is described on its website: "The humanities serve to define our world in myriad ways: its intellectual and cultural aspirations, its aesthetic values, its comprehension of the past that formed it, and its central ethical, moral and theological dilemmas. With an enduring commitment to the humanities as both a domain of research innovation and an idiom of institutional self-scrutiny, the institute seeks to play a leading role in the shaping of higher education on the global stage."

Professor of English and music Bruce Holsinger, the former associate dean of the humanities and the arts in the College, gave the background of several years' efforts to plan what the institute would be. One of the ways it will support the strengths and innovations of humanities programs and departments is by partnering with other units around Grounds, he said, including the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, the University of Virginia Art Museum and the Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities.

A panel discussion following his talk included Maurie McInnis, associate dean for undergraduate academic programs and professor of American art and material culture in the McIntire Department of Art; Ricardo Padrón, associate professor of Spanish; and John Parker, associate professor of English. Their remarks explored the place of the humanities in today's world and in their daily lives, especially in their responsibility toward students.

They talked about feeling the stress of having to vindicate the humanities. They each had stories of students who came to them with the burden of having discovered they love philosophy or medieval art ... and what were they going to do with that in getting a job after college? What would they tell their parents?

Padrón and Parker said their usual response is to console them and talk about the useful skills learned in the humanities that will help them over the years, even in changing careers – critical thinking, how to comprehend and communicate information, what it means to be ethical.

Fundamentally, studying the humanities gives individuals the ability to reasonably engage in conversations that have no right answers, Padrón said. They must be valued even though there's no clear, direct, economic benefit.

Parker said he was indirectly trying to assure students they would find happiness from studying the humanities, and this is one of the preoccupying questions about the pursuit of learning since Aristotle. He realized that giving students that impression was taking a big gamble, he said.

For example, English professors often tell majors it's a fine preparation for law school, but seven out of 10 lawyers are unhappy in their profession, Parker said. He said even he began to feel that the academic bureaucracy made him feel like a junior partner in a law firm; what saved him was changing his ways of teaching and being more spontaneous.

The truth behind these pragmatic defenses is that studying the humanities brings its own rewards, albeit sometimes a guilty pleasure. Thinking can bring happiness, "can set you on fire," Parker said. He quoted "Herzog" by Saul Bellow, whose character said, "It is a joy to be crammed full of thought."

Padrón stressed the importance of students picking their major. "This might be students' first wide-open choice of an exercise in figuring out what they love and giving themselves the permission to pursue it," he said.

The humanities provide structures that help people order their knowledge of a world in the midst of great change, Padrón said.

Although the humanities have historically been dominated by the English-speaking world and Europe, students are more interested now in global cultures and are challenging the hierarchy of foreign languages that exists in higher education, he said. Languages like Spanish and Arabic are in high demand, and foreign-language departments offer more than just teaching students how to read and speak another language.

The institute offers a forum to experiment and try new combinations of disciplines and methods in remapping the humanities, Padrón said.

McInnis said, "The humanities institute offers the opportunity to do something new in articulating the centrality of the humanities in understanding our world. We owe it to our students to imagine here and beyond what the humanities means for all students."

In her administrative role, McInnis said she reads many articles describing and decrying the crisis in the humanities due to decreased funding, lack of institutional attention and students' and parents' worries about job training. The establishment of the institute is an indication that U.Va.'s situation is not so dire, she said.

The current conditions also provide an opportunity to reevaluate the curriculum, she said. McInnis recently convened a committee to do just that.

"The '70s was the last time the curriculum was changed," she said. In the last 10 to 15 years, the University has expanded its offerings in interdisciplinary studies. Especially in introductory courses, students are more interested in the bigger questions, problems and issues related to topics, she said.

The curriculum committee will need to think about how to transcend traditional disciplinary boundaries, while maintaining U.Va.'s emphasis on the liberal arts in the undergraduate experience, she said.

The Institute of the Humanities & Global Cultures not only reaffirms a commitment to the humanities, but also brings a new paradigm in knowledge creation and teaching, Woo said. It will expand the ways the University prepares students to be citizens of the world.

A series of events is planned for the spring, including a visit on March 21 from Harvard University professor Louis Menand, who won the Pulitzer Prize for history in 2002.

— By Anne Bromley

Media Contact

Anne E. Bromley

University News Associate Office of University Communications