This summer, my academic life changed significantly when, to my great delight, I became director of the Obermann Center for Advanced Studies. However, I don’t think I could have taken the position unless I was also able to remain a scholar of literature.
I teach 19th-century British literature—those novels by Charles Dickens, George Eliot, and the Bronte sisters. Like so many other readers, I enter doorways to the past, to other cultures, and to other perspectives on the world every time I open a book. Being constantly challenged to grasp the stories and perspectives of imagined minds seems to me one of our best hopes for surviving a sadly fractious world.
In recent years, you’ve probably seen headlines announcing “a crisis in the humanities” or “a decline in the humanities.” If that comes to pass, imagine what we would lose.
Studying literature, history, philosophy, languages, archeology, anthropology, religion, and other disciplines that ask us to think deeply about what it means to be human is crucial to understanding ourselves and our communities and to making good decisions—individually or collectively. The humanities are cultural disciplines that investigate the stories members of a group tell themselves to explain the world, to rationalize relationships, to negotiate with the past, and to invent the future.
Technology offers excellent examples. For example, early on, digital communication promised that people could interact without the complications of sexual, racial, class, age, and other distinctions. Yet the popularity of the current film about the creation of Facebook, The Social Network, suggests that we as a society are fascinated by the plots, perspectives, images, and words associated with those networks. Humanities scholars and other viewers are already reflecting on what it means that fantasies of digital “friendships” may have taken root in stories of jealousy, competitiveness, class tensions, and social isolation. The questions raised in humanities discussions ask us to examine ideas and actions as part of complex, tough, sometimes unsettling stories in which we may even find ourselves characters.
The power of digital forms to shape stories and relationships is one reason I feel especially fortunate to be part of a new project. Last month, the University announced plans for a cluster of hires in an area the University is calling “Public Humanities in a Digital Age.”
The Obermann Center for Advanced Studies will welcome the campus to an open house at its new temporary location, 111 East Church Street, early in the spring semester. Watch fyi for details.
This initiative unites two innovative areas of scholarship. On the digital side, scholars everywhere are using technology to connect with each other; to develop innovative, nimble, and collaborative forms to document their discoveries; and also to share their work beyond academe.
On the public side, faculty and students are creating research and teaching projects that serve diverse communities and that can be used in classrooms around the world. In the past, faculty members in the humanities have worked with the UI Museum of Art or the Old Capitol Museum or even the Iowa Children’s Museum to engage the larger community in their research questions. Digital technologies can open scholarly conversations to anyone who has access to a computer.
Fostered by the Office of the Provost and the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, and rooted in the University’s strategic plan, the digital initiative will bring at least six new tenure-track faculty members to the University over the next two years. They’ll join a network that we hope will connect faculty and students in the humanities and the arts, technology, and public engagement.
The Department of Spanish and Portuguese plans to recruit a colleague who’ll take the emerging Spanish creative writing program online and into Iowa’s Spanish-speaking communities. The English department hopes to attract a literature scholar interested in the interaction of text and images in the rich environments of the web. Two departments, classics and religious studies, are taking advantage of the opportunity to collaborate by jointly seeking a colleague who focuses on the emergence of the Christian religion. Scholars in their fields are using tools from GPS mapping to medical imaging to make fragile texts and objects from the ancient world widely available and comprehensible.
Efforts like these build on existing UI projects that emphasize digital and public connections. My colleague in English, Ed Folsom, codirects the Walt Whitman Archive (www.whitmanarchive.org), a web resource used by teachers and students across the country. Thanks to a group of international scholars coming to the Obermann Center next summer to work with Ed, new versions of Whitman’s poetry soon will be available in many of the world’s languages.
Jon Winet, head of the Intermedia Program for the School of Art and Art History, and my cochair on the digital humanities steering committee, directs the Daily Palette (dp.uiowa.edu), an online art and literature gallery. With colleagues and students, he has developed an iPhone application that highlights local literary history. As of Oct. 15, you can download the Iowa City UNESCO City of Literature App from ITunes!
These cluster hires will help us to continue developing new ways to communicate as teachers and researchers. The initiative will not only bring new colleagues to campus but will also draw attention to the UI faculty members who are already leaders in the digital humanities—editing online journals; building archives in which literary texts are woven together with maps, paintings, music, film, recorded performances, and interpretation; or producing digital forms of poetry, music, and scholarly debate.
To support the digital initiative, the University is planning a digital “sandbox” where colleagues and students will build projects we can’t yet imagine. Proximity and necessity can trigger creative collaborations.
Forays into the digital public humanities and other emerging approaches to scholarship will not displace established research practices. Whatever the form, the humanities demand the rigorous inquiry and deep knowledge that universities inspire.
New approaches may, however, expand our reach and help us share ideas, even with people who don’t possess our expertise. Publicly engaged approaches tap our capacity to enrich public dialogue and understanding and, in turn, enliven our work. When we extend opportunities for individuals and communities to connect around our research, we show ourselves and our communities that many of the questions we ask matter—profoundly.
Which brings me back to the joy of recognition and discovery. If there’s anything more satisfying than making a personal connection with a creative work, an original idea, or a compelling argument, it’s seeing a student, colleague, or friend discover that same spark.
The next time someone suggests that the humanities are in decline, remind them that thanks to great leadership and investment in the arts and humanities, a world-class Iowa innovation like the Writers’ Workshop took flight during the Great Depression. Then remember the last book you read or film you saw that rocked your world. My humanities colleagues and I will be waiting to think with you about those stories in our classrooms—and online.
Teresa Mangum is an associate professor of English and director of the Obermann Center for Advanced Studies.