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Duke to Overhaul Humanities

Mellon Foundation grant aims to reverse declining enrollments in the humanities

Part of the Humanities Writ Large Series

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

"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

"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

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 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."