To Support, Celebrate, and Connect: Introducing the UI Humanities Advisory Board

Craig Gibson, Teresa Mangum, Lena Hill

When UI Vice President for Research Dan Reed says, “The humanities are an essential component of the University of Iowa’s institutional identity,” it should come as no surprise. The UI frequently makes headlines as a leader in the humanities, a place where nationally recognized scholars and artists, both teachers and students, do profound, pioneering work. Add to that the UI’s wealth of programs that support teaching and research in the humanities, and it’s hard to know which to applaud more loudly—the accomplishments or the support.

For instance, there’s the Arts and Humanities Initiative grant program, through which the Office for the Vice President of Research and Economic Development provides generous support for humanities scholarship and work in the creative, visual, and performing arts. There’s the Public Humanities in a Digital World program, a collaboration of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and the Provost’s Office, that recently brought six new faculty members to campus who specialize in publicly engaged digital humanities scholarship and inspired Provost Butler to create The Digital Studio for Public Arts and Humanities. There’s the new Magid Undergraduate Writing Center in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. There are the famed literary journals like The Iowa Review, the global 91st Meridian, and the new Iowa Literaria, as well as prestigious scholarly journals like The Walt Whitman Quarterly. There’s the Carver College of Medicine’s acclaimed Writing and Humanities Program and Examined Life literary journal.

And, of course, there’s President Obama’s awarding Marilynne Robinson a 2012 National Humanities Medal and his recent appointment of two UI faculty members—Professor Katherine Tachau in the Department of History and Christopher Merrill, professor of English and director of the International Writing Program—to the prestigious National Council on the Humanities, making Iowa one of only three U.S. institutions to have more than one representative on the 26-member council. (The NCH advises the chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, one of the largest funders for humanities programs in the U.S. through grants to universities, museums, and other cultural institutions.) The NEH’s most recent chairman, former U.S. Congressman Jim Leach—noted champion of the humanities—has just joined our College of Law as a visiting professor.

Dan Reed

And now, this fall, the Office of the Vice President for Research and Economic Development, under the leadership of Dan Reed (left), joined with the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, led by Dean Chaden Djalali (right), to establish a Humanities Advisory Board, which will serve as a direct line of communication between faculty in humanities disciplines and UI administration. “Our objective,” says Djalali, “is to provide a formal platform to enhance consultation to the Dean’s and Vice President’s offices and, perhaps more important, to stimulate interaction and collaboration among the faculty.”

Chaden Djalali

The Humanities Advisory Board, comprising 11 faculty and 3 ex-officio members who will meet twice per semester, is charged with “advis[ing] the Vice President for Research and Economic Development and the Dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences on humanities issues including: leveraging existing and future resources in support of scholarship in the humanities; raising the visibility of UI humanities programs in Iowa and beyond; and exploring new forms of scholarship and possible areas of interdisciplinary research among the arts, humanities and sciences.”

That is, members will identify opportunities for collaboration among humanities scholars and departments, in addition to possible partnerships between humanities faculty and their colleagues in the sciences and arts; find and provide resources (financial, technical, and otherwise) to facilitate those collaborations; and devise ways to promote humanities scholarship both on campus and to external audiences.

The board is co-chaired by Craig Gibson, Professor of Classics, and Teresa Mangum, Director of the Obermann Center for Advanced Studies and an Associate Professor of Gender, Women’s and Sexuality Studies. Each will serve a three-year term. Chosen as emerging thought leaders in the humanities on campus, the board’s members, who will serve two- to three-year terms, are

Tom Rice, Associate Provost for Faculty; Joe Kearney, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences Associate Dean for Research; and Ann Ricketts, UI Assistant Vice President for Research, will serve as ex officio members.

Chris Merrill, Glenn PennyChris Merrill and Glenn Penny

Ricketts credits the UI’s Ad Hoc Arts Advancement Committee with providing a model for the new board. That committee, established by the Provost’s Office in November 2012 and consisting of campus arts units and venues, seeks to raise the profile of UI arts programs and events and recommend new ways the units can work together. In the same way, says Mangum, the Humanities Advisory Board will “communicate to the larger public what we do, as well as educate ourselves about what we do. There’s such exciting work going on here, but it’s very easy for faculty to miss because they’re busy with their own work in their own departments.” An early initiative, she says, will be to create a web portal similar to the ArtsIowa website that will showcase humanities research and programming on campus.

The co-chairs envision a variety of public activities sponsored and/or organized by the new board, including humanities festivals, symposia, and student workshops, as well as projects featuring alliances between humanities researchers and community organizations such as museums, performing venues, archives, and special collections.

The board will prioritize communicating with departmental colleagues and may, in the future, form sub-committees that include students studying the humanities and alumni with humanities degrees: “We could let them teach us about the value of the humanities in their lives,” says Mangum. “The power of conversation is remarkable.”

At the board’s first official meeting Thursday, September 5, members discussed two prominent reports recently issued on the state of the humanities in the U.S., the "The Heart of the Matter" report and the "Mapping the Future" report. They then assessed the current state of humanities support at Iowa and brainstormed possible visibility, communication, and teaching initiatives. Mangum says she expected the inaugural discussion to focus on resources for faculty research, but to her (very pleasant) surprise, “People were especially interested in discussing teaching. They were brimming with ideas about ways to share our scholarship with students, ways to involve them in digital public humanities research with us, and new possibilities for courses and team teaching.”

This outpouring of enthusiasm for humanities teaching and research—not just at Iowa, but throughout higher education, she says—is an encouraging development: “With all the anxieties about the economy the last few years, majors and disciplines that don’t seem to have immediate practical applications have been a bit beleaguered because students and their parents are reasonably worried about their future. But I feel like this has been a productive moment; I’m meeting more and more faculty on campus and across the country who instead of lamenting the lack of appreciation for literature, history, and philosophy—knowledge that isn’t immediately vocational—they’re saying ‘What can we do to interest the public in the work we do, and how are we going to convince them of the value of the humanities?’”

To convince them, in other words, that (to quote VP Reed) “The critical perspective and creative approaches of the humanities are crucial to addressing the grand challenges of our day. The solutions to complex problems—from international conflict to climate change—are rooted in understanding their cultural and historical contexts.”

By creating the Humanities Advisory Board, the University of Iowa simultaneously gives humanities faculty a voice in the administration and strengthens the University’s position on the value of humanities scholarship and teaching. In Mangum’s words, “Students who take courses in the humanities learn to use the imagination as a resource, to consider the histories and stories through which we interpret the world and each other, to live with ambiguity instead of grasping at short-sighted solutions, and to approach life with curiosity and personal accountability. Isn’t that what we all hope to find in our workplace colleagues, our neighbors, and our fellow citizens at home and across the world?”


According to the National Endowment for the Humanities, "The term 'humanities' includes, but is not limited to, the study and interpretation of the following: language, both modern and classical; linguistics; literature; history; jurisprudence; philosophy; archaeology; comparative religion; ethics; the history, criticism and theory of the arts; those aspects of social sciences which have humanistic content and employ humanistic methods; and the study and application of the humanities to the human environment with particular attention to reflecting our diverse heritage, traditions, and history and to the relevance of the humanities to the current conditions of national life."

—National Foundation on the Arts and the Humanities Act, 1965


 

—Jenna Hammerich
CLAS Strategic Communications