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The Humanities in Transition

Duke humanities faculty affirm their importance in an era of interdisciplinarity

Part of the Humanities Writ Large Series

In 2006, Duke University made an emphatic statement about the central role of the humanities in tackling the world's largest and most complex social issues.

It adopted interdisciplinarity as a centerpiece of its new strategic plan. New ideas for cross-discipline collaboration quickly sprouted. The digital humanities blossomed. A collection of new "humanities labs" took root.

And two years ago, the university's innovation was rewarded with a five-year, $6 million grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation for Humanities Writ Large, an initiative aimed at transforming the humanities in undergraduate education.

But this transformation has also raised concerns over the pace of change, the role of traditional humanities disciplines and whether Duke might be spreading itself too thin by devoting energy and resources to interdisciplinary programs.

Many of these concerns came to light at a recent campus forum that drew nearly 100 faculty members, graduate students, campus librarians and others.

The participants raised questions about Duke's emphasis on the labs and other grant-funded interdisciplinary work. They expressed a perceived lack of communication and involvement in decisions affecting the humanities. They vowed to organize and become more active in decision-making.


"There are fundamental differences in vision," said Michael Valdez Moses, an English professor who attended the forum and said it was "the most agitated and energized" he'd seen the faculty in his more than 25 years at Duke. "But I like to remain optimistic," he said. "I don't think we have stepped over the cliff but we are approaching a dangerous precipice."

Senior Duke officials -- many of them scholars themselves in literature, religion, classics and other humanities fields -- point to a series of major initiatives as evidence of their shared vision with humanities faculty: a passionate commitment to expand student interest, promote faculty collaboration and engage the public.

"We have a wide and varied faculty who are involved on all sides of the question," said Srinivas Aravamudan, an English professor currently on leave as dean of the humanities. "We have some debate and intellectual disagreement within the administration as well on issues of substance, as we too are faculty."


By the numbers, the traditional humanities disciplines still seem healthy. While the numbers within Duke's various departments ebb and flow, the percentage of students majoring in humanities disciplines has remained essentially flat over the last 10 years. This reflects trends nationally. According to U.S. Department of Education data, the percentage of bachelor's degrees awarded in humanities disciplines has remained steady over the past two decades, hovering between 8 percent and 12 percent depending on how some degrees are classified.

Duke is not alone in pondering how best to nurture and advance the disciplines for its students, scholars and others. Indeed, it has programs and resources in the humanities that few other universities can match.

Humanities Writ Large ties the humanities explicitly to global challenges. Now in its second year, it aims to redefine the role of the humanities in undergraduate education. It has brought visiting scholars to campus and funded new and ongoing humanities projects, mixing expertise across Duke. The initiative also subsidizes humanities labs where faculty and students from myriad disciplines join to work on common themes.

Trinity Dean Laurie Patton

Similarly, Bass Connections, a $50 million, donor-funded initiative announced last January, creates teams of faculty and students from across campus to work on energy, global health, education and other cross-cutting problems.

"Humanist inquiry was part of it from the beginning," said Andrew Janiak, a philosophy professor chairing the Bass Connections faculty advisory council. "This is a great Duke example of making connections that might not seem obvious. What we are trying to do is novel, so it can seem like we're leaving out various kinds of scholarship, but in fact we're giving faculty and students an opportunity to forge new connections across campus."

While multi-million dollar funding is helpful, Laurie Patton, dean of the Trinity College of Arts & Sciences, wants Duke to do more to promote the inherent value of humanities research, both in the university and in the public sphere.

"I really want to work with faculty to find ways to connect their work with the world," said Patton, a scholar of South Asian history, culture and religion. "We have an obligation to develop new ways of thinking, new ways of living in the world, and remind society of old ways of thinking and living. Humanistic knowledge is essential to developing those alternate ways of living."



Toril Moi, a literature professor with appointments in five humanities departments, welcomes the partnerships the grants encourage but said the pairings have not been organic.

"The humanities are invited to join projects designed for quite different disciplines and working methods in the name of innovation," said Moi, who helped organize the forum. "It makes us feel like an afterthought and not a valued partner."

Philosophy professor Owen Flanagan fears traditional humanities research is being de-emphasized as interdisciplinary ventures gain prominence, calling this a particular concern for junior faculty.

"They are being asked to step outside of the discipline in which they've been trained and told they would be evaluated in," Flanagan said.

But Aravamudan, the principal investigator for the Humanities Writ Large grant, believes faculty members don't have to choose one route or the other.

"The humanities, more than any other area of research, can walk and chew gum at the same time," said Aravamudan, who was on leave during the 2012-13 academic year but returns later this year as dean of the humanities. "Let us not forget that what some might consider 'traditional' now was 'radical' 25 years ago."

Joshua Sosin agrees a university is about more than one type of scholarship or teaching style. The classics professor sees a university like an ecosystem whose various parts -- humanities, the social sciences, the natural sciences -- must all be healthy in order for the whole to thrive. 

"There's a general tendency in academia to privilege the so-called cutting edge over normal science -- that is, the less sexy but needed business of contributing to scholarship," said Sosin, an associate professor of classical studies. "You need an environment in which all the various parts are valued. Not everything can be new. The cutting edge isn't the cutting edge without the rest of the blade."

Some department chairs in the humanities say that while they appreciate Humanities Writ Large and all the good it will do, they have some trouble reconciling that spending with recent budget strains that have made it dificult to meet basic departmental needs and fill vacant positions without splitting the cost of those hires with another department.

Flanagan and Moi, who organized the forum with English professor Nancy Armstrong, say they'd like humanities faculty to become more active in making decisions about academic priorities.



The concerns voiced by Duke faculty are far from unique. Across higher education, enrollment in humanities courses and federal funding for humanities initiatives has remained stagnant, said Molly Broad, president of the Washington D.C.-based American Council on Education. While they may not fit the needs and expertise of all faculty members, large initiatives like Bass Connections and Humanities Writ Large constitute a rare bit of good news, Broad argues.

"There are things that, understandably, cause humanities faculty to worry about their place and the future," said Broad, a former president of the University of North Carolina system. "So lucky for Duke to have this kind of investment. The national humanities funding has diminished, so isn't it great that there are other places where funding is provided to make sure the role of humanities continues to be vital?"

Duke President Richard Brodhead, a scholar of 19th century American literature, is co-chair of the American Academy Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences, which is developing recommendations about how to promote these disciplines and better serve the public nationwide. In a 2012 speech at the North Carolina Humanities Council, he discussed the need for the humanities to reinvent itself for relevance.

He said, in part:

"To make someone want to invest in the humanities, we first have to remind them what the humanities are and why they matter. This case has to be made boldly, positively -- no whining pleas of 'give me some money or I'll die before your eyes.'

"It has to advance a broad, big-picture concept of the humanities that people can readily see their stake in. We need to remind people, with examples they will feel the force of where abstractions fail, that the humanities are a core competence of being human and a key measure of social strength -- something it's relatively cheap to provide for yet costly to put at risk."

Cathy Davidson, a professor of English and interdisciplinary studies, co-founded the Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Advanced Collaboratory (HASTAC) to advance the "writ large" aspect of the humanities. She believes the humanities can broaden its scope by engaging the challenges and opportunities produced by digital technology, making the field more important now than ever before.

"I think everything we do in our contemporary world is 'digital,' and I believe that the humanities writ large -- history, philosophy, context, culture, language, literature -- is urgently necessary and important to understanding the world we live in today," Davidson said. "In that sense, humanists must engage profoundly and completely with the virtual, the digital, the material and the everyday. We are at a tremendously exciting moment when all the ways we communicate and interact are changing, and, to my mind, everything about the humanities are central to our world."

Deborah Jenson, professor of Romance studies


It would be difficult to find a humanities professor more dedicated to interdisciplinary education than Deborah Jenson.

The romance studies professor teaches a course called "Flaubert's Brain: Neurohumanities," that combines French literature with neuroscience. She also co-directs Duke's Haiti Lab, one of the Franklin Humanities Institute's offerings where faculty in languages, culture, history, global health and law worked together on Haiti-related scholarship. Her Web page lists five job titles.

Her perspective helps her see the value of people of varied backgrounds working together.

Yet she understands the argument arising from some of her humanities faculty colleagues who believe Duke's devotion to interdisciplinary teaching and scholarship may not always be what's best for students or faculty.

Jenson can't speak French in her French literature/neuroscience course because the students with science backgrounds wouldn't understand her. But that means that even with a separate French discussion section for the language students, they aren't able to absorb the class fully in the language they're learning -- a critical piece of their education.

"If French literature undergraduates haven't had enough language training and advanced French culture and literature, they may graduate having done something creative, but without the required skills," Jenson said. On the other hand, she notes, her French students benefit from viewpoints offered by science students in the class.


Carla Antonaccio sees another challenge with the new initiatives in practice. The classics chair said the new models don't necessarily fit well with some traditional humanities disciplines because they often rely on "vertical integration," in which people of varying levels of expertise -- from an experienced professor to a graduate student to an undergrad -- work as a unit.

"In the humanities, students often undergo very long apprenticeships to master a very long tradition," she said. "You can't put a freshman on a team with a grad student who knows six languages and have them work together as equals. It's not indigenous to our type of training."

Vertical integration, which reflects the mix of experience levels found in most American workplaces, is the primary model for Bass Connections and for the Franklin Humanities Institute labs including BorderWork(s) and GreaterThanGames. It is intended to give students a layered look at the scholarly process by which research leads to new knowledge.

"There's a notion that you can have extremely large grants and organize an army of faculty to address a single problem. But that's not how the humanities works. That's not the history of arts and letters," said English professor Moses. "I worry that we are adopting a single model system."

Ian Baucom, an English professor and director of the Franklin Humanities Institute, believes the lab model gives students a learning experience that will significantly enrich those offered in a regular classroom.

"Our hope is that a history Ph.D. student will find her research on Haitian independence richer for having participated in the labs, that an art history major will understand his field better working on a curatorial team, that a global health student working on a human rights issue will learn the importance of literature, philosophy and other humanities disciplines," Baucom said.


Administrators say the existence of Bass Connections and Humanities Writ Large doesn't represent a zero-sum game. Faculty who aren't involved in those programs aren't losing out because other faculty members are involved, said Peter Burian, a longtime faculty member in Duke's classical studies department and interim dean of the humanities.

Though philanthropic foundations like the Mellon Foundation still underwrite traditional humanities work, they're interested in promoting innovation, Burian said. Their money can be a boon for faculty looking to try something new.


"They want to be a seedbed for developing new ways of thinking and trying things that would otherwise be difficult to attempt," said Burian, a scholar of Greek drama. "We have people who can pursue that and do that and have interesting results. How is that a bad thing?"

And that private funding frees up money for use elsewhere, notes Provost Peter Lange, the university's chief academic officer.

"If you raise external money, it actually enables us to pursue our new initiatives without diverting funds from the more traditional work," he said.

One challenge in guiding the Humanities Writ Large grant is to invite as many faculty members as possible into the process, regardless of whether their disciplines seem an obvious fit, said Geoffrey Harpham, director of the National Humanities Center, which is based in Research Triangle Park.

"Generally, big institutional grants affect people differentially; some people would benefit and some won't," Harpham said. "You can't expect those who aren't affected to be particularly enthusiastic. So it's the challenge of the administration to make sure everyone who wishes to be included has an opportunity."


Moses, the English professor who has served on the executive committee of the graduate faculty, said senior leadership and a "much more active faculty" are needed to remind people of the importance of the disciplines.

"The humanities faculty need to make their needs known," Moses said, suggesting that complacence may be at fault. "More venues in which they are given the opportunity to express the unusual and unique nature of their research needs would be extremely helpful."

He and others cite a lack of communication with the administration and with their colleagues who sit on the committees meant to represent them. The curriculum behind the new initiatives, they say, was developed with insufficient real input by the humanities faculty.

Toril Moi
Toril Moi, James B. Duke Professor of Literature

"The communications channels at Duke are not working. Maybe a few faculty members participated on a committee, but we still don't know about it," Moi said. "If there is an issue for which they really want faculty input, it must go to the departments' faculty meetings. That is the best way to reach faculty because those are the meetings people go to. It's about communication and consultation. Be inclusive."

For his part, Flanagan said: "the faculty are prepared to re-articulate the value of humanities research and teaching, and to think and speak more democratically about what we do and how we can do it most effectively." He wants the administration to "slow down, listen to what faculty think will best achieve our teaching mission before you take any money."

Administrators and faculty leaders say their new initiatives were hardly a secret and, in any case, they welcome new opportunities to work with faculty in the humanities disciplines.

 "The pace of change in the humanities has been staggering in recent years, and I think it's normal for people to react with trepidation," said Jenson of romance studies. "But there's a risk of being nostalgic when universities around us are being forced to change and adapt."

Photo credits: Quote images derived from original works (c) William Cromar, Dan Zelazo, Mike Bishop, Brett Walters, Oliver Bieh-Zimmert and Craig Bellamy, respectively; used under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike license.