Humanities Initiative Produces Astonishing Results

NEHShortly into the new millennium, Stuart Riggsby, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at the time, and Associate Dean Bill Dunne started a conversation with the heads of the humanities departments that has had remarkable—one might say astonishing—results at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. The conversation led to the establishment of what has come to be known as the Humanities Initiative, a multipronged effort to provide support for college faculty members working in the humanities disciplines.

If the number of recent fellowships and award-winning publications is a fair indication, the return on this investment has been enormous. During the past few years the College of Arts and Sciences has helped foster a collaborative environment that has elevated UTK’s humanities scholarship to the topmost level.

“In the past five years, UT has had nine National Endowment for the Humanities fellowships, while during the preceding twenty-three years we had only seven,” says John Zomchick, associate dean for academic personnel and former chair of the Humanities Initiative. “Only five other schools—Notre Dame, Michigan, Ohio State, Harvard, and Princeton—have had more in those five years. Last year, we had two new NEH fellows. Only the University of Michigan had more.”

Impressive as the past five years have been, 2009 may be even more impressive. In the month of March alone, UTK faculty members won an NEH fellowship, two American Council of Learned Societies fellowships, a Guggenheim, a Fulbright, and an American Academy of Arts and Sciences Visiting Scholars fellowship.

So what happened? Zomchick can point to several factors, but he gives most of the credit to the Humanities Initiative.

Facilitating research collaboration

At a meeting in 2003, Riggsby and Dunne charged the department heads to come up with a program to promote interdisciplinary scholarship in the humanities, says Zomchick. “What they came up with was the Humanities Initiative.”

“We didn’t have a coordinating body to promote interdisciplinary scholarship at that time. While we did have interdisciplinary programs in the college, such as women’s studies and Africana studies, their main function was pedagogical—teaching. They weren’t designed to encourage collaborative research.”

The humanities department heads collectively developed an array of programs, all designed to support interdisciplinary collaborations while at the same time helping individual faculty members with their personal scholarly projects.

“We decided early on that our main goal would be to give faculty modest funds to improve their scholarship,” Zomchick says. “We would give them materials, a venue for meeting and presenting their research, and support in writing grant proposals.

“We put together a number of interlocking activities. The three main activities from the outset were the Tuesday lunches—actually, they were ‘Wednesday lunches’ initially—the research seminars, and grant development.”

The Tuesday lunches are held twice a month. A member of the faculty presents current research to humanities scholars from other departments, and time afterward is reserved for discussion and critique. The purpose is to promote research and develop scholarly relationships with researchers in other departments.

The second set of activities—the research seminars—are formally organized groups of scholars working in the same particular field, such as the late antiquity period, which spans the period from about the third to the sixth century of the common era. To qualify as a Humanities Initiative research seminar, a team must comprise at least three core faculty members from at least two departments. The seminars meet at least three times a semester, and the core members present their work at least once a year. Other faculty members and graduate students may also present research at seminar meetings, but they are not obligated to do so.

The longest-running seminar is the one focused on late antiquity. Other seminar research topics are Renaissance humanisms, modern Germany and Central Europe, the history and philosophy of science and technology, and American biography.

As Zomchick, explains, “The seminars are exciting. The participants are highly committed, they have great topics, and they engage in a lively exchange of ideas.”

Funding new efforts

A third key activity of the Humanities Initiative is grant development. Associate Dean Bill Dunne was instrumental in engaging the talent of Alan Rutenberg, now in the Office of Research, to help humanities researchers learn how to produce more effective grant proposals. Rutenberg provides one-on-one training in proposal writing, and he brings in program officers from the ACLS and the NEH to talk about what a successful grant proposal looks like and how the review process works.

“The outcomes prove the value of the program,” says Zomchick. “I’m very impressed with all the awards and the superb publications that have come out of the college in recent years.”

Tom HeffernanTom Heffernan—a professor in the English Department, an NEH fellow in 2006 and 2007, and a participant in the Seminar in Late Antiquity—agrees. “The seminar is extremely useful for us all,” he says. “It brings together people with different points of view to focus on a singular issue. The issue gets refracted through the lenses of an architectural historian, a literary historian, a political historian, and religious studies people. It allows us to see an issue from so many perspectives. It’s brilliant.”

Heffernan adds that all of the core members of the Seminar in Late Antiquity have gotten NEH, ACLS, or National Humanities Center fellowships—two within the last month. Gregor Kalas, in the College of Architecture and Design, just received an NEH fellowship, and Christine Shepardson, in Arts and Sciences, just won an ACLS fellowship.

Christina ShepardsonShepardson, an assistant professor in religious studies, chairs the Seminar in Late Antiquity. As proof of its impact, she notes that three authors—one from UT Knoxville and two from other universities who participated as invited speakers to the seminar—thanked the seminar in recent journal articles.

David Tandy, head of the Classics Department and current chair of the Humanities Initiative, believes the initiative has been conspicuously advantageous for graduate students. “Our graduate students go to an annual medieval conference in Kalamazoo, and lately they’ve been overwhelming students from other universities,” he says “I don’t hear this just from our own faculty; I hear it from people all over who attend.”

Tandy credits the students’ success to the training they get at UTK, sparring with one another at seminars and Tuesday lunches, honing their arguments, and developing presentation skills.

Building success on success

“Of course, all this success can’t be laid solely at the feet of the Humanities Initiative,” Zomchick emphasizes. “The Humanities Initiative is part of an overall environmental change in the College of Arts and Sciences. The Marco Institute, for example, is another important player. Marco’s early and spectacular success has certainly contributed to a change in the culture by helping to jump-start interdisciplinary scholarship.”

Other campuswide programs also have contributed to the cultural shift. The Chancellor’s Grants for Faculty Research, for instance, release individual faculty members from a part of their teaching obligation for a semester so they can use the time for research, writing, and preparing grant proposals. The Graduate School offers professional development awards for a variety of purposes, and the department heads themselves play a critical role in urging their faculty to try for awards and to publish in more prestigious journals.

David Reidy, an associate professor in the Philosophy Department and a recent winner of an NEH fellowship, concurs. In addition to receiving a Chancellor’s Grant and a professional development award that paid his travel expenses for archival research, Reidy says that the Humanities Initiative was a key factor in helping him obtain his fellowship. He also credits the support he’s received in his department.

“The Humanities Initiative is an important part of a cluster of efforts around campus to ramp up faculty research and scholarship and to generate a serious intellectual community of the sort appropriate to a great research university,” Reidy says. “I came to UT in 2000, and I can say with every confidence that the intellectual community, the quantity and quality of faculty research and scholarship, is much better today than it was in 2000. Along with other important institutional initiatives, the Humanities Initiative is both a cause and an effect of that improvement.”

Heather HirschfeldHeather Hirschfeld, associate professor in the English Department and also a recent winner of an NEH fellowship, likewise values the Humanities Initiative. She chairs the Seminar on Renaissance Humanisms and has attended the Tuesday lunches, which, she notes, have been an important part of her intellectual life at the university.

The Humanities Initiative’s grant-development function has also been valuable to her. “I’m especially grateful to Alan Rutenberg for the individual attention he’s given to my grant proposals and his ongoing efforts to bring to campus directors of major funding sources,” Hirschfeld says.

Like Reidy, she too appreciates the support of her department, which encouraged her to accept a fellowship at the Folger Shakespeare Library in 2005. The fellowship, she says, allowed her project to “really take off.”

Pushing ahead

Clearly, humanities scholarship has flourished in the new collaborative environment at the university, but Bruce Bursten, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, has even bigger plans. He hopes to build a Humanities Center that will serve as a think tank and research center for interdisciplinary humanities scholarship.

“Initially, we’d like to get about $5 million in private funds to build the center,” Bursten says. “It’s one of our major strategic initiatives in the Campaign for Tennessee.

“The new center will serve as an attractor for scholars around the world who are doing collaborative research. I’m convinced it can take UTK scholarship to an even higher level. And when you consider that we’re already producing some of the best humanities research in the nation, that’s saying something.”

—Dennis McCarthy