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Srinivas Aravamudan on the Humanities

A conversation with Duke humanities dean Srinivas Aravamudan

Part of the Humanities Writ Large Series

Srinivas Aravamudan

As the chief architect of the five-year, $6 million Humanities Writ Large initiative, Srinivas Aravamudan has a vested interest in the health of the humanities at Duke. A professor of English, literature and romance studies, Aravamudan is currently on leave but returns as dean of the humanities later this year. He spoke with Duke Today about the direction of the humanities at Duke.

In general terms, do you feel the humanities is devalued or disrespected at Duke?

First of all, I deeply value the dialogue now happening at Duke around the humanities -- it is appropriate, it is welcome and it is constructive. If you look at the record at Duke over the last 25 years, there is no question that the humanities disciplines are very highly valued and respected. The story of how the then-provost, Phillip Griffiths, built the humanities first, in order to launch Duke from a southern regional school into the national top ten, bears repeating, especially given that Griffiths was himself a mathematician, known for his work in algebraic geometry. 

If you look at any rankings, whether the more serious ones done by the National Research Council or the more populist ones done by U.S. News, the humanities at Duke are extraordinarily well represented, with multiple departments and areas ranking in the top ten nationally. 

None of this happened through magic -- it is a sign that the institution has invested very wisely, and repeatedly, in the humanities over the last 25 years.

Does Humanities Writ Large (HWL) try to create more interdisciplinarity and bring the humanities out into the public more? If so, why?

I disagree with the premise of the question, so let me first explain why. Many of the humanities disciplines have already been very interdisciplinary. It is an ongoing process whereby scholars engage other disciplines (become interdisciplinary) and then after that exchange they often "re-discipline" themselves. Take the way film got integrated into various literature departments, or how theories of race, class and gender are much more significant in humanistic study now than they were 30 years ago, or how some new digital tools and the ability to manipulate big data can help answer even some very old-fashioned humanistic questions.


In similar fashion, the goal of HWL is to discover and make visible some of the newer engagements of the humanities -- with areas such as visual studies, information technology, neuroscience and medicine -- even as the point is to connect the new conversations with the multiple departmental cores. The traffic has to be two-way for it to be healthy. 

HWL is intended to be provocative and create debate. We should know that Mellon chose Duke for its single biggest individual grant in the humanities because of 1) our existing prestige in the humanities, 2) our tradition of speedy innovation, and 3) our willingness to try some new experimental approaches to engaging undergraduates with the humanities.  Duke has been known especially for the fact that we don't sit on our laurels.

The other part of your question -- "to bring the humanities into the public more" -- would seem to suggest that the humanities is currently private, or not public enough. That is not exactly true but some people nationwide are not listening (or casting aspersions at the humanities).  Therefore, we need to re-fashion some of our communicational strategies. For instance Dean Laurie Patton (of the Trinity College of Arts & Sciences) is investing in a new scholars and publics center headed by romance studies professor Laurent Dubois, which will address public scholarship not just in humanities but in all areas of knowledge. 

The notion of the public, especially with respect to scholarship, has to be understood as multiple. We are oriented to multiple publics -- students, parents, alumni, the media, as well as scholars working in other areas of knowledge.

Is it possible to emphasize interdisciplinarity and the need for a redefined humanities while retaining what many faculty say is the more traditional model of humanities education? Does it have to be one or the other?

It does not have to be one or the other. The humanities, more than any other area of research, can walk and chew gum at the same time.  Let us not forget that what some might consider "traditional" now was "radical" 25 years ago. Departments are still set up and funded as self-governing entities to do what they do best, and are deeply involved in fundamental research, graduate training and undergraduate education. 

In that context, I believe that a distinguished faculty member suggested that HWL was gimmicky. Perhaps so! But that is what the authorities of the Academie des Beaux-Arts in Paris thought of the Impressionists back in the late nineteenth century.  In retrospect, we realize that the Impressionists, who were ridiculed and then exhibited in the Salon des Refuses, may have been on to something! 

HWL is a five-year grant focused on undergraduates, and we do have a plan. In the first couple of years, we have started to map the edges and become familiar with new areas of knowledge featuring interesting innovations of topic as well as method. Hence the focus on labs, the many versatile topics around emerging networks, the desire to experiment with "vertically integrated" structures that connect research and learning across multiple levels. We're exploring whether humanities research can be done while working in teams, even while not assuming that any of this is a one-size-fits-all approach, or for everyone. 

In the next couple of years we anticipate moving closer to the multiple departmental cores and encouraging stronger dialogue among the "traditional" and "redefined" models, to use your terms.  Not everything new is necessarily good, but overall, we foster an open rather than dismissive attitude to novelty. 

Image derived from original work (c) Martin Abegglen, used under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike license.