Future of Humanities Up for Debate

The UC Irvine School of Humanities welcomed Ian Baucom, director of the Franklin Humanities Institute and professor of English at Duke University, to host a two-hour discussion titled “The Humanities: Today and Tomorrow” last Tuesday, Jan. 21.

As director of the Franklin Humanities Institute, Baucom has instigated the growth of inter-disciplinary research projects, which have reflected the utility of humanities in varied fields. While these developments bring considerable value, they also raise questions regarding the continued and impending evolution of humanities programs.

After a fleeting introduction of himself, Baucom made his enthusiasm for public discussion clear with an amicable statement, saying, “This is not designed as a talk. I have some comments, and the comments come with an opening request, which is that the sooner you can interrupt me and get me off my notes, the more engaging this will be for all of us.”

In order to examine the field of Humanities, Baucom offered four frameworks regarding development and coming trends: the interplay of humanities disciplines and as interlocutors in universities, the perception of humanities as a division relating to other academic fields, the role of humanities in civic education and  the role of humanities in global research universities.

After presenting these themes, Baucom leaned forward and asked the audience, “My question is, are we in the moment of a paradigm shift, and is that a good or bad thing?”

According to Baucom, this paradigm shift could be the movement toward a new period of humanities studies and increasingly common studies of “something that is incommensurable,” or difficult to measure.

Baucom also revealed the rising challenge of Humanities programs, to be “more than a school for 21st century literacy.” As society demands greater innovation and productivity from STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) related industries, fewer priorities have been given to collegiate studies of humanities. This development has led to a crisis of identity among humanities programs in public education systems, which are increasingly fighting to both retain societal relevance and prevent its instrumentalization for solely vocational uses. As a result, these conversations have brought about new experiments in humanities research.

One such recent development began at Duke University, when Baucom replaced a successful professor seminar series for an experimental initiative called “Humanities Laboratories.”  “The humanities laboratory convenes through four to five colleagues, from different departments of humanities and also different schools, who have spent three years together, working on a collaborative research project that has pedagogical components, and reaches into the undergraduate curriculum,” Baucom said.

Though his decision was not very popular at its inception,  the program continues today as a resounding success for cross-discipline collaboration for Duke University, and especially as an example for other universities to perhaps begin similar projects, according to Baucom.

The success of the program has stimulated conversation regarding the new direction of humanities research. “[Recent changes] could still imply a paradigm shift where older models find it more difficult to find a place in a university,” Baucom said.

“I am by temperament an optimist, and my optimism tells me that for all the conversation of the crisis of humanities, we are also at a truly remarkable moment at which the range and purpose of the humanities research is potentially at a greater moment of expansion than it has been in decades,” he said.