New humanities initiative realigns programs to fit student needs

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A new initiative at the University of Oregon will consolidate numerous humanities programs under focused leadership to better align with the interests and concerns of today’s students.

The architects of the change within the College of Arts and Sciences say it is being driven by some of the most urgent challenges of public higher education in general and the humanities in particular. The goal is to meet the pressing needs of both today’s students and society at large.

The newly formed Humanities Alliance for Interdisciplinary Learning and Public Engagement will serve as an integrated academic effort that brings intellectual communities together to:

  • Enrich students’ knowledge and understanding of the role that the humanities can play in realizing their personal and career goals.
  • Develop undergraduate research opportunities that help students explore academic and professional pathways.
  • Establish partnerships with campus and community organizations to offer internships and real-world experiences in public humanities work.
  • Enhance faculty and student collaboration across disciplines.

Martha Bayless, professor of English and folklore and newly appointed director of the Humanities Alliance, will lead the effort. As director, she will coordinate curriculum, cultivate internship partners, organize events and opportunities for students, and advise undergraduates.

The humanities are fundamentally concerned with difficult problems that confront society, and they place primary emphasis on methods and approaches that bridge divisions, create collaborations and generate new ways of thinking and problem-solving. A basic tenet of the humanities is the value of exploring the human condition from multiple perspectives, making it no coincidence that all of the programs united by the Humanites Alliance cross traditional disciplinary boundaries. Accordingly, all of them are also fundamentally concerned with equity and inclusion.

Students are drawn to humanities minors and majors that reflect their personal experiences and contemporary concerns: popular culture, the digital world and visual communication, as well as timely social issues like gender and racial equity, environmental justice, disability rights and global health. The Humanities Alliance brings such programs together in a coordinated structure to magnify student appeal and career-preparation impact. These fields include:

  • Interdisciplinary humanities —This major examines global culture in arts, letters and music.
  • Comics and cartoon studies — This field is fundamentally international and interdisciplinary, encompassing a huge body of work in the contemporary arts and humanities; it can serve as a gateway to academic literacy for a generation of students deeply steeped in popular culture.
  • Digital humanities — This minor integrates the study of literature and technology, emphasizing the culture of creation and hands-on building of digital projects; it bridges literary studies with the culture of writing, publishing and technology.
  • Disability and deaf studies — This minor is designed to help students gain a nuanced understanding of disability and deaf culture, justice, history and politics, and the concepts necessary to remove barriers that exclude people with disabilities.
  • Environmental humanities — This field examines how humanities disciplines — literature, film, intellectual history, religious studies and philosophy — are deeply relevant to addressing critical environmental challenges. The field encompasses topics such as bioethics, climate change, environmental justice, food justice, indigenous rights, public lands and the role of new media and social movements, among many others.
  • Folklore and public culture — This program offers perspectives on ethnic, regional, occupational, gender, and other traditional identities of individuals in specific societies through examination of expressive forms such as mythology, legend, folktale, music, dance, art, belief, foodways, ritual and ceremony.
  • Judaic studies — This program provides a comprehensive undergraduate curriculum in the history, religion and civilization of the Jewish people and offers two years of instruction in Hebrew language and literature.
  • Medieval studies — This program offers students an extensive curriculum which spans the Christian, Judaic and Islamic Middle Ages, as well as courses in feudal Japanese culture and East Asian art and religious traditions, with a focus on timely issues such as Euro-Middle Eastern religious conflict.
  • Medical humanities — This field examines the meanings of and responses to human suffering and well-being in an increasingly globalized world, analyzing how those meanings are inflected by race, class, gender, ethnicity and national identity.

The Humanities Alliance will serve as an incubator for new ideas and new crossovers between fields, encouraging faculty members to develop innovative programming that continues to evolve with student interests and needs.

“The Humanities Alliance will be a structure for innovative, collaborative learning and incubation of new interdisciplinary programs,” said Bayless, who has a record of advancing humanities initiatives, winning national grants, forging partnerships between disciplines and programs, pioneering experiential learning and fostering equity and inclusion.

Her scholarly work focuses on medieval popular culture. As an example, she gave a campus talk in 2013 on “How to Tweet from Another Century.” From 1999-2008, she was head of the medieval studies program, which she revitalized to attract an influx of new undergraduate majors. Her approach then became a model that the University of California, Berkeley emulated to revitalize its own medieval offerings.

“This is a critical moment for the humanities — locally, nationally, and globally — with students needing ever more flexible thinking, a solid grounding in facts and the deep understanding to know what to do with those facts,” she said.

By Lisa Raleigh, College of Arts and Sciences