The Many Tentacles of Humanities Writ Large

Now in its fourth year, the HWL initiative is having lasting effects across Duke and beyond.

Students in Sheila Dillon's Art and Archaeology of Athens class at the Acropolis. Photo courtesy of Sheila Dillon
Students in Sheila Dillon's Art and Archaeology of Athens class at the Acropolis. Photo courtesy of Sheila Dillon

For more than a decade, Joshua Nadel has kicked around in his head an idea for a year-long class. By spending two semesters on a single topic, he knew he could bring students on a deeper intellectual dive than is customary when hamstrung by the traditional academic semester.

But how? A history professor at N.C. Central University in Durham, Nadel teaches four courses a semester, a schedule that doesn’t allow for much flexibility.

That’s where Duke came in. In 2012-13, Nadel spent the year across town as a visiting faculty fellow, an initiative underwritten by Duke’s ongoing Humanities Writ Large project.

Nadel taught a two-semester undergraduate course for Duke and NCCU students addressing humanitarian aid in Haiti, an effort that culminated in a 2013 conference, hosted by Duke, that examined the history and future of international aid to the island nation. Its panelists included prominent researchers, the leaders of non-governmental organizations active in Haiti and a former Haitian prime minister.

“Humanities Writ Large allowed me to experiment with a form of teaching I was interested in trying,” said Nadel, now back at NCCU teaching courses in world and Latin American history. “And I don’t know how many students would go out of their way to interact with a former Haitian prime minister or someone who runs an NGO there. It’s a rare opportunity.”

That rare opportunity is what Humanities Writ Large (HWL) is all about. Now in the fourth year of a five-year, $6 million grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, HWL has become a source of seed funding for dozens of projects, courses, seminars and other academic exercises that professors and students might not otherwise be able to take on. The breadth and depth of the initiative’s reach is impressive: Thus far, it has underwritten more than 40 new courses, 18 visiting fellows and myriad lab projects, class trips and other ventures that faculty members simply wouldn’t otherwise have the funds for.

“The idea is to give a boost at a critical moment and connect one thing with another,” said Srinivas Aravamudan, Duke’s former Dean of the Humanities and the chief architect of the initiative. “HWL [Humanities Writ Large] is impure -- in a really good way. It mixes itself up into a lot of different things.”

Boosting the humanities

Within the humanities these days at Duke, HWL appears to have its tentacles everywhere.

This fall, the fourth group of HWL-funded visiting faculty fellows has hit campus, where they’re teaching, conducting research, giving talks and engaging in other scholarly pursuits in such areas as Hispanic studies, English, philosophy, history, religious studies, and classics.

At Smith Warehouse, a new cluster of humanities labs invites students to learn about digital scholarship and the intertwined relationships among media in audio and video.

And across campus, professors are using HWL money to give their individual classes some extra oomph.

In 2012, John Supko wanted to give the 18 students in his sound studies course a better view of just what goes into making music. With funding from HWL, he brought in Jason Richmond, a sound engineer with Durham’s Sound Pure Studios. Half the classes were held in a Duke classroom; the rest occurred at the studio, where students learned where to place microphones, edit music files and improve recorded sounds using technology. They also made 30-second radio commercials and each had a go as the lead engineer for a recording session.

“The money from Humanities Writ Large made it possible to do something you really couldn’t do otherwise,” Supko said. “(Jason) taught them how to run a recording session and be a sound engineer.”

Spring Break in Athens

Last semester, Sheila Dillon co-taught a course on the art and archaeology of Athens with a professor from a Greek university. The course provided a foundational understanding of the role Athens -- as the birthplace of democracy, philosophy and theater -- played in the development of the western world.

Students from the two universities met once a week, communicating in real time using Skype and other technologies.

That likely would have been the extent of the international experience. But with a grant from HWL, Dillon took 12 students on a spring break trip to Greece, where they visited archaeological sites in Athens, Attica and Delphi. The money paid for airfare, lodging, meals, transportation and museum fees.

“The trip was a crucial component of this course,” said Dillon, a professor of art, art history and visual studies. “For the Duke students, it helped them understand both the advantages and the limitations of working within the virtual environment to which this generation is native, by having them confront and critically engage with the physical remains of Athens itself.”

Lasting effects

All these deep dives into humanities scholarship sound good, but to what end?

While demonstrating long-term impact on the humanities may take some time, the initiative took a step toward doing so with the hiring of Jules Odendahl-James as director of academic engagement–humanities in the Academic Advising Center.

Odendahl-James is tasked with helping students find humanities courses, projects and other opportunities that fit their particular interests, as well as connecting students with faculty members in the humanities.

HWL is funding the position for two years.

“The position focuses on guiding all of Duke’s undergraduates toward the rich array of opportunities for engagement with humanistic research at Duke,” Aravamudan said. “Nothing succeeds like success. I hope the position will become so vital that Duke will make it permanent.”

Below: This mural on the side of a downtown Durham building is one result of Two-Way Bridges, a Humanities Writ Large project aimed at connecting Duke and Durham Latino communities.

two way bridge