After the Summer of the Humanities

Although an active debate is still taking place in the press and online about whether or not the humanities are in decline, there is no doubt about the fact that the summer of 2013 has been appropriately dubbed the “Summer of the Humanities.”  I am excited to join The Humanities Initiative at NYU as Director after this inspiring summer of dialogue about the state of the humanities.

In early June, the Arts and Humanities Division of Harvard University released its report, Mapping the Future, commissioned by Dean Diana Sorensen.  The report stressed the importance of teaching in the humanities and it suggested revisiting the canon and rethinking the curriculum.  Since many first-year students express an interest in majoring in humanities disciplines, but later change their minds (usually opting for the social sciences), the report recommended targeting first-year students for greater exposure to the humanities early on in their college careers.

Later in June, a panel formed by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences published its report, The Heart of the Matter.  Written at the request of lawmakers, this report called for the humanities and the social sciences to join forces to study broad issues, such as energy and health.  It emphasized the value of foreign language study and of study abroad.  The report suggested the establishment of a “culture corps” that could transmit humanities and social sciences knowledge to the broader public.

In June, July, and August, reporters, educators, academics, and graduate students responded to these reports, reinterpreting significant data points to challenge the findings.  Many posited that the decline in the humanities actually took place much earlier than now, in the 1970s, and that current enrollment numbers did not support the notion of a present-day “crisis” in the humanities.   Perhaps more important than measuring enrollment numbers is the notion that humanists need to better demonstrate that the competencies that students can acquire through the study of the humanities are truly transferable to any number of professional careers.

We at The Humanities Initiative hope to build on the momentum from this summer and to continue this discussion about the state of the humanities.  A few of the issues raised this summer echo our three main goals for the 2013-2014 academic year and beyond, namely:

  • to connect with undergraduate population at NYU, especially first-year students;
  • to reach out to the broader communities of New York City through our programming;
  • to deepen our connections internationally through NYU’s Global Network.

As Dr. Jane Tylus mentioned in her letter, as an initial step to reach undergraduates, Dean Starr and Professor Tylus are co-teaching a freshman seminar on the humanities titled On Being Human to be held at the Humanities Initiative this fall.  In addition, our extremely dedicated undergraduate student workers at The Humanities Initiative have proposed the idea of establishing an undergraduate student ambassador program in the art and humanities across the University.

This year, we hope to connect with the city more and to deepen our understanding of the urban environment in which we live.  Along these lines, we are pleased to report that Dr. Robin Nagle will be talking about her new book Picking Up: On the Street and Behind the Trucks with the Sanitation Workers of New York City  at the Humanities Initiative on December 5th.   A cultural anthropologist, Nagle provides cogent analysis of the public undervaluing of sanitation workers and then guides us through what is entailed in their work as she herself takes on the job of a Department of Sanitation employee in this compelling study.  Nagle will be collaborating with the Department of Sanitation on building an archive and a museum, thereby forging a new kind of synergy between academia and a city agency.  Other urban projects for 2013-2014 include a Research Collaborative run by Thomas Augst and Peter Wosh called “New York Scapes” and a team-taught course called “Exploring the Archive: New York City and Beyond” by Karen Karbiener and Marvin Taylor.  We at The Humanities Initiative also hope to build on our connections with the New York Council on the Humanities in the areas of Public Humanities and through a potential alliance with the Epic Theater Ensemble which creates theatrical events in the NYC Public Schools to generate productive discussions of social issues.

In order to meet our third goal of increased internationalization, we plan to collaborate with NYU’s Global Academic Centers on programming that raises the visibility of the humanities.  Professor Tylus and I were fortunate enough to witness first-hand the collaborative energy that guides the writers, actors, musicians, and visual artists participating in The Season at Villa La Pietra this past June.  Faculty and students from across the University convened at NYU Florence to act, study, write, perform, sing, and share their enthusiasm for the arts.  This annual arts festival, curated and run by site director Ellyn Toscano and her staff demonstrates in practice how a deep appreciation of the humanities can foster our development as global citizens. In the near future, we hope to build on our international connections at NYU to strengthen our participation in global humanities.

We look forward to collaborating with you this year as we continue our mission to support humanities scholarship at NYU.  Please feel free to reach out to Jane Tylus, Chris Alexander, Deni Valentin, or me, or to stop by and see us at 20 Cooper Square, fifth floor.  We are excited to see you at our events this fall and spring!

With best wishes,

Gwynneth Malin