Humanities Without Walls program receives grant, promotes higher education collaboration

By MaryCate Most

The University’s Levis Faculty Center was packed on the evening of Aug. 19 as students from universities around the Midwest prepared to perform the medieval play “Mankind.”

This performance was part of a test-run for the Humanities Without Walls program, a collaboration between Midwestern universities intended to promote research and improve humanities education.

“The purpose is really to bring medieval performing arts to the modern stage,” said Charlie Wright, LAS professor. “It was very successful. We had both performers who specialize in medieval performances and grad students helping design our project.”

A continuation of the Humanities Without Walls project launched officially on Jan. 15. Director of the Illinois Program for Research in the Humanities Dianne Harris said the program is funded by a $3 million grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

“It is really helping to showcase that humanities and arts really matter on our campus, which has been so well known for so long in its research in STEM education,” Harris said. “I hope what people will see is that this is a really excellent time to invest in the humanities in Illinois. I think it really positions Illinois as a leader in the country, trying to think carefully, thoughtfully and liberally about doctoral education in the humanities.”

Uses of Scale in Literary Study, the other pilot project for the Humanities Without Walls program, is headed by LAS Professor Ted Underwood. It works to develop studies of the humanities in a different way — by creating software that can correct optically transcribed texts such as books from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

When researchers search through the pages of an eighteenth or nineteenth-century book, differences between letters used currently and those used during previous centuries can make collecting data from these books more difficult.

Helping collect data and find patterns in these texts is only one of the outcomes from the project.

“I think Humanities Without Walls can play a catalytic role here, encouraging faculty to think about doctoral programs more broadly and imaginatively,” Underwood said. “A lot of important decisions about public policy and about the representation of the humanities in public culture get made outside universities.”

Underwood believes that there can be more emphasis within graduate programs to express the variety of positions in which humanities studies would be useful.

“I am very enthusiastic about the Humanities Without Walls project going forward, although our own pilot project isn’t going to continue as part of it,” Underwood said. “The thing I would especially underline is that the consortium is thoughtfully encouraging innovative approaches to doctoral education.”

During their pilot projects, Underwood and Wright worked with students and faculty from other Midwestern universities who are participating in the program. Underwood worked with the University of Notre Dame and the University of Wisconsin-Madison, while Wright worked with the University of Chicago, Purdue University, Indiana University, University of Iowa, University of Notre Dame and Ohio State University.

“Collaboration across institutions tends to involve a lot of overhead — sometimes, frankly, more than it’s worth,” Underwood said. “So the question was: can a consortium of institutions streamline the process?”

Both Wright and Underwood found the cross-university consortium to be useful to their research.

“It simply increases the means that directors and producers have at their disposal and the variety of approaches that directors and scholars use in their performances,” Wright said.

Both the administration and the Illinois Program for Research in the Humanities have been pleased to see these contributing universities sharing their resources and research, Harris said.

The Illinois Program for Research in the Humanities’ next goal is to get more undergraduates involved in research and involved in the humanities on campus, said Harris, director of the program.

Programs such as the Inside Scoop Series are aimed at attracting undergraduates to humanities research projects and humanity-related careers. Harris feels involvement in the humanities will be key to the careers and lives of students.

“The humanities help us understand our place in the world,” Harris said. “They help us think critically about what is around us, evaluate life choices and they help us grapple with the complexities of a citizen in a global world.”

MaryCate can be reached at [email protected]