Humanities assert their relevance despite cuts

The humanities are in a state of flux — and not just at the University of Minnesota.

by Adam Daniels

The humanities are in a state of flux âÄî and not just at the University of Minnesota.

As funding and grants continue to make their way to the sciences, faculty in the humanities, such as languages, literature, history and philosophy, face a balancing act. They must preserve the liberal arts cornerstone while helping bring these academic fields into the 21st century.

Harvard University recently received a $10 million gift to study the role of the ailing field, Brandeis University is dedicating $22.5 million toward the Mandel Center for the Humanities and Cornell University plans to hire 100 new humanities faculty members by 2020.

The outlook is bleaker at the State University of New York, Albany, where Italian, Russian, French, classics and theater were all completely cut.

While things are not nearly as dire at the University of Minnesota, early measures are being taken to ensure it stays that way.

Suggestions in the recent CLA 2015 report act as a guidepost and advise departments to revamp and merge through interdisciplinary collaborations.

“The way we were doing history or the classics, say, 30 years ago, is not quite the way we ought to be thinking about doing it today,” CLA Dean James Parente said. “Maybe we ought to think about ways in which we can provide a richer and deeper understanding [of the humanities].”

According to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the number of students majoring in the humanities has been steadily decreasing for more than 40 years.

“[Institutions] have to be careful how they interpret that data âĦ They need to be very clear about who they are as an institution,” Parente said. “WeâÄôre a public research institution; we have a deep commitment to the humanities. ItâÄôs not something weâÄôre going to back off on.”

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While the CLA second language requirement helps sustain foreign language departments, thereâÄôs a new focus on making them more pertinent and useful post-graduation.

The CLA Work Group on Foreign Languages, Literatures, and Cultures was commissioned and met in July 2010 to draft a set of recommendations that call for the renewed commitment of CLA to educate students in foreign languages and cultures.

“One of the things that I would like to do is go to history and say, âÄòHow can I help the faculty who have research and teaching agendas that focus on Latin America or Spain? How can I help them have bibliographies that students can read in Spanish?âÄô” said group chairwoman and Spanish professor Ana Paula Ferreira. “This can then be duplicated in regard to other disciplines.”

Ferreira said this is an opportunity for department heads within CLA to think about what it is they want for their majors and embrace the need for foreign language.

“WeâÄôre still at the level of discussing the educational, philosophical validity of integrating âĦ the departments in CLA and foreign languages.”

Smaller scale

More University-wide recognition helps keep smaller subjects afloat, which is largely achieved through collaboration.

Parente said this approach helps various fields of study find new areas to address.

“We feel thereâÄôs a lot of energy around these issues,” Sarah Chambers, director of the Center for Early Modern History, said. “We have been traditionally a history center, located within the history department, but increasingly over the past several years have been expanding out and forming ties with other liberal arts and colleges.”

The center is now in its second year of having an interdisciplinary graduate minor that incorporates literature, art history and history of science.

Most of the centerâÄôs annual budget comes from an endowment given around the same time it opened 25 years ago, as well as funding from the history department.

“In some ways, we could have just chartered our own course if we wanted to, because we had that set of funding,” Chambers said. “But pragmatically, by interacting with other centers and departments, we can find areas in which we have interest in common and pool our resources.”