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Humanities faculty criticize lack of admin support

Owen Flanagan, James B. Duke professor of philosophy and professor of neurobiology, discusses a lack of administrative support for the humanities at Duke.

Faculty members gathered Thursday evening to voice concerns about the state of the humanities at Duke.

While the Arts and Sciences Council was voting on whether or not to approve for-credit online courses—a movement that concerned many professors teaching humanities courses—several dozen faculty, graduate students, department chairs and librarians gathered in Smith Warehouse to discuss the role of the humanities at Duke. In particular, professors raised concern about Duke’s “top-down model,” noting a tendency for administrators to make decisions that affect humanities departments without any humanities faculty input.

“Over the past four years, I have become progressively sad,” said Nancy Armstrong, Gilbert, Louis and Edward Lehrman Professor of English, who helped lead the meeting. “I belong to a cohort who feels the diminution of its ability to work. My entire group of people… feels as if their power to act has been somewhat diminished here.”

Such communication barriers have pushed the humanities to the sideline of Duke’s curriculum, said Owen Flanagan, James B. Duke professor of philosophy and professor of neurobiology. He added that there is a need to reiterate the value of a humanities education so that administrators begin taking faculty input more thoughtfully.

“When I came here I wasn’t sure what to think. Sometimes Duke seemed like a corporation where the arts was just a cog in the machine,” he said. “We are not being encouraged to do the work that is typically encouraged by humanists.”

‘A complete afterthought’

Faculty members said there were many areas where administrators could improve communication with humanities departments.

Toril Moi, James B. Duke Professor of literature and Romance studies, said professors need to discuss with administrators more regularly about how current initiatives relate to the humanities. She noted that the existence of “high tension” regarding new forms of technology is indicative of the lack of communication.

“Instead of the administrators telling us about some new technology thing, maybe we could all get together and talk about what these technologies could do for more people in the humanities,” Moi said.

Although the meeting was set-up prior to the Arts and Sciences Council scheduling a simultaneous vote on whether to approve for-credit online courses, faculty members noted their discontent with how administrators discussed the matter with humanities faculty. When political science professor David Paletz announced that the council voted against for-credit online courses, the room erupted with applause.

In addition to a lack of communication about new technology, such as Internet education company 2U’s for-credit Semester Online and MOOCs, faculty should discuss with administrators how donation money should be used to aid the humanities, said Michael Moses, associate professor of English.

He added that many donors come to the University with good intentions but only interact with administrators and the development office. The administration accepts the money without first consulting with the humanities departments about how it should be used, he said. As a result, faculty members are told to develop projects that received funding, which the humanities departments may not even support.

“We should talk to development about the kind of initiatives we would like to see development seek outside funding for, instead of being in a situation where we are always at it last and are being asked to develop a program that is against our goals,” he said.

Moi noted that most programming coming from administrators focuses on cross-department collaboration. The University’s intense focus on interdisciplinary work, however, has in some ways been harmful because such projects are done without the humanities departments’ input.

“I’m looking for a really good Bass initiative theme that is built up from the humanities, rather than tagging us on as a complete afterthought,” she said. “I’m annoyed about this insistence from above on cross-school collaboration.”

Moi advocated for a more “organic” approach, where faculty members take it upon themselves to propose collaborative projects rather than being forced by administrators to do so. She added that as a result of Duke’s interdisciplinary focus, those working to do intensive research in a single discipline are less likely to receive funding.

The humanities stigma

The sentiment that humanities courses are not practical and will not lead to fulfilling careers has also hurt the way the humanities are discussed at Duke, Flanagan said.

To relay this sentiment, Flanagan told a story in which a parent discussed his disappointment that his child chose to be a political science major “instead of something practical.”

“There is a need for us to rearticulate the value of what we do,” he said.

Professors also discussed a waning interest in certain humanities courses, such as English and history, accrediting the trend to a lack of concerted effort by the administrators to recruit interested students.

Michael Gillespie, Jerry G. and Patricia Crawford Hubbard professor of political science, said students are the key to making administrators realize the value in a humanities education. In addition to recruiting students interested in the humanities, faculty members should also work on programs that will engage first-years in humanities courses. He recommended an extension of the Focus program as one possible method.

Sarah Beckwith, professor of English and theater studies, also noted a need to make the humanities a greater part of the Duke education, and suggested a revision to Curriculum 2000, which outlines the requirements Trinity students must fulfill prior to graduation.

“Curriculum 2000 is wildly out of date and deeply prejudicial, certainly to the performing arts departments and the humanities,” she said.

The meeting Thursday served as a preliminary discussion about initiatives to be pursued throughout the academic year. At the end of the meeting, faculty members proposed to facilitate more opportunities for discussion with administrators and to look at ways to garner greater student interest in the humanities.

“There isn’t enough listening and talking at this university,” Flanagan said. “The better we can voice what we do... the better it will be.”


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