Humanities writ larger
The humanities at Duke do not always get the attention they deserve from undergraduates. These fields, often maligned as lacking rigor or as vocational dead ends, have seen declining enrollments as scientific and technological knowledge are increasingly recognized as key to economic success. According to the most recent data, no strict humanities departments rank in the top five most popular majors at Duke—the top five fall into the social and natural science categories.
This is not good because the humanities possess a powerful and distinct rigor all their own. More importantly, these fields of study have, and will always be, essential to the education of citizens who are able to interrogate the values and structures that make up our crazy world.
All of this is reason to be optimistic about the Humanities Writ Large Initiative, a five-year effort funded by a $6 million grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, to redefine the humanities at Duke. The initiative, announced in July 2011, has only begun to reassert the importance of humanistic thought at Duke. With more publicity, it stands to correct structural deficits in the humanities at Duke that stand in the way of humanities enrollment and humanities research in the undergraduate population.
The structure of undergraduate research in the sciences provides a good foil. Undergraduates interested in scientific research have available a host of well-publicized and accessible opportunities to work in labs, enroll in summer programs and enter prestigious fellowships and mentoring programs—like Pratt’s flagship Pratt Research Fellows Program. These pathways allow students to turn themselves into proficient and effective scholars.
No analogous structures exist in the humanities. Enthusiastic humanities students can easily grow tired of searching for channels and mentors to develop their talents or, worse, fail to engage with humanities scholarship in the first place. What humanities enthusiasts need at Duke is a way to ratchet enthusiasm into expertise and proficiency.
Three of the programs funded by the Humanities Writ Large—the Humanities Labs, Emerging Humanities Networks and Undergraduate Research grants—are filling this void and could continue to do so. Humanities Labs and Emerging Humanities Networks bring together faculty, graduate students and undergraduate students to work on interdisciplinary projects with connections to the real world. By promoting exchange between expert faculty and novice undergraduates, these programs go a long way in developing knowledge in aspiring undergraduates.
Undergraduate research grants pick up where these programs leave off, allowing students with expertise and an independent streak to develop their own projects. We would like to suggest a fourth area of focus for the grant: a program dedicated to sustained, one-on-one mentoring between an undergraduate student and a faculty member, patterned after the Pratt Research Fellow Program, which would further develop potency in undergraduate researchers.
But to accomplish its transformative mission, the Humanities Writ Large will have to be writ larger. Advertising for these opportunities needs to expand. Right now, applications for undergraduate research grants are currently only available through directors of undergraduate studies, and the program is not listed on the Duke Undergraduate Research Support Office’s website. Getting information out is vital to the vibrancy of the humanities at Duke.