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Duke to Overhaul Humanities

Duke to Overhaul Humanities

Mellon Foundation grant aims to reverse declining enrollments in the humanities

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Durham, NC - A new endeavor at Duke University aimed at changing the role of the humanities in the undergraduate curriculum is being funded with a five-year, $6 million grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

The "Humanities Writ Large" initiative also will support visiting scholars and new faculty appointments, undergraduate research efforts, humanities labs, and focused support for interdisciplinary collaborations across departments and institutions.

"The Mellon Foundation is the most generous supporter of the humanities in the nation today," said Duke President Richard H. Brodhead.  "Duke is honored and grateful to receive the Mellon Foundation's support for critical initiatives -- the Nasher Museum of Art, the Visual Studies Initiative, Duke Libraries, and now the Humanities Writ Large. This program will build on Duke's existing strengths in the humanities and forge new connections among faculty, students and areas of study."

The undertaking comes as American higher education continues to experience declining enrollments in the humanities. Combined with a public perception that science and technology are the key drivers to a competitive economy, Duke faculty and administrators are committed to supporting the critical role of the humanities in a global world, said the initiative's principal investigator Srinivas Aravamudan, dean of the humanities and a professor of English, literature and Romance studies at Duke.

"This is as amazing and interesting a moment as any for the humanities, and we need to seize the opportunities before us with fresh eyes and think about many of the things that are making the world much closer," Aravamudan said. "Some of the things we study in the humanities, as if they were dry or things that occurred far away and long ago, have become live, real, open-ended things we're seeing unfolding before us."

Understanding social networks like those that recently helped fuel democratic movements in the Middle East requires knowledge of not only computer technology and Internet literacy, but also cultural norms and regional history, he said.

Aravamudan said humanistic inquiry can answer such questions as: How does social media work to connect people of different persuasions and opinions? What do these ways of communicating mean for the future of something like the book or, more broadly, print technology?

"The humanities offer historical perspectives and critical analytical skills of great relevance to the pressing problems and opportunities of our time," said Mariet Westermann, vice president of the Mellon Foundation. "To realize this potential, the humanities need to be a vital part of all undergraduate education, and humanities scholarship cannot be disconnected from the social sciences, sciences, and engineering.

"Duke's new initiative recognizes these imperatives and will put in place innovative structures to enhance the role of the humanities across disciplines and across the university community, from undergraduate students to Ph.D. candidates and from post-docs to senior faculty," Westermann said.

Lee D. Baker, dean of academic affairs of Trinity College of Arts & Sciences and associate vice provost for undergraduate education, notes that "from the beginning, the Humanities Writ Large initiative will have an important focus on the undergraduate experience, including undergraduate research. The focused pursuit of the humanities will enhance critical inquiry and global understanding for our students."

English professor Ian Baucom, director of the John Hope Franklin Humanities Institute, said the initiative will provide more experiential learning in and outside the classroom, sparking collaboration among undergraduates, graduate students, faculty and librarians. Building on the existing humanities laboratories model at Duke, now in its second year, the initiative will invest in the creation of new projects through which the humanities can intersect with other disciplines.

For example, the Haiti Lab brings together humanities faculty and students from Romance studies, history and other disciplines with scholars from the Law School and the Duke Global Health Institute. Through traditional seminars and independent study projects, faculty and students work on issues ranging from research on post-traumatic stress disorder following last year's earthquake to strengthening women's rights in Haiti.

Duke also plans to create an inter-institutional model for research and teaching that builds on existing relationships -- such as one that brings to campus visiting scholars from historically black colleges and universities -- and establishes new partnerships.

The grant also allocates funds to support "emergent networks," a term Aravamudan uses to describe collaborations between specialists in various disciplines that currently lack a sustainable structure or source of continuous funding.

"For example, people working on contemporary fiction in the English department can talk with those working on the same topic in Romance studies and in Asian and Middle East studies," he said. "If researchers like that got together over, say, the emergent global novel, no single person will know all those languages and histories, but people in that group will learn very quickly from each other."

From these emergent networks, Aravamudan anticipates new forms of research and documentation to develop, requiring support from Duke Libraries.

"In the past, libraries focused largely on capturing and preserving the end product of scholarship," said University Librarian Deborah Jakubs, vice provost for library affairs. "Today we're working hand-in-hand with faculty and students to capture and preserve new knowledge as it's created, in whatever form it takes. The opportunities are especially exciting in the humanities.

"The Humanities Writ Large initiative not only strengthens our base of expertise here in the Libraries, but dramatically expands our opportunities to collaborate university-wide by bringing a host of new experts into the Duke community and new resources into the classroom."

More Information

Contact: Keith Lawrence
Phone: (919) 681-8059

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More Information

Contact: Keith Lawrence
Phone: (919) 681-8059