Humanities Without Walls: Scholars in the Midwest Partner to Solve Today’s Challenges

Hmong Memory at the Crossroads, a documentary produced under the auspices of the Humanities Without Walls Global Midwest Project, illuminates the region’s dynamic links to the wider world. Photo courtesy of Michigan State University.

How might humanities scholars look at some of the greatest challenges facing the country today, including climate change, political and cultural divides, and ethics surrounding technology?  In the Humanities Without Walls (HWW) project, which has been funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation since 2013 humanities scholars from 15 different Midwestern universities are partnering on research projects which tackle some of these challenges, while changing the conversation about how doctoral-level study of the humanities can be applied to careers outside of academia.

In the following Q&A, Antoinette Burton, a professor of history and of gender and women’s studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and principal investigator of Humanities Without Walls, talks about the program’s origins, how the arts inspire social change, and why the Midwest is a microcosm of complex global issues.

“In a relatively short time,” Burton says, “Humanities Without Walls has become a recognized authority on trends in collaboration and interdisciplinary practice in 21st century humanities studies.”

scholar headshot"[Humanities Without Walls'] collaborative approach demonstrates how versatile and valuable humanities research can be," says Humanities Without Walls Primary Investigator Antoinette Burton. Photo courtesy of UIUC/ L. Brian Stauffer.

Q: How have you seen this initiative grow and change since you became its principal investigator in 2015?

AB: When Humanities Without Walls was conceived, the idea of cross-institutional collaboration at scale was novel.  The Mellon-funded Central New York Humanities Corridor was an important predecessor, but with 15 partnering institutions, HWW was the first of its kind at this size.  Early discussions among founding partners grew out of a sense that the global economic crises of 2008 had made humanities research and teaching particularly vulnerable.

While the world is a different place in 2019, many challenges remain.  Undergraduate humanities majors in four-year institutions have dropped, departments are shrinking, and tenure track jobs for humanities PhDs are in steady decline.  At the same time, the need for expertise to help address current social crises like climate change, racial disparity, health care accessibility, and political polarization has never been greater.

Q: The Midwest provides a unique opportunity to study the complexities of American identity formation, and a wide range of additional topics.  Tell us about the contributions some of the Global Midwest projects have made, and what is the particular importance of having humanities scholars tackle these questions?  What can we learn about the Midwest from humanities scholars that we haven’t already learned from other fields or disciplines?

AB: The Midwest is iconic in the American imagination, as the nation’s breadbasket, as a site of small towns and homogenous populations, and as an unchanging landscape.  The HWW Global Midwest projects illuminate, in contrast, a dynamic set of communities linked to the wider world, and a regionally vibrant environment despite recent economic crises.  For example, Safoi Babana-Hampton of Michigan State University has produced two films about Hmong migration to the region, showing the complex global terrain of the Midwest and the impact the Hmong families have had on local histories.  Indeed, a number of HWW research projects have unearthed previously untold histories of African, Turkish, Senegalese, Lebanese, Mexican, and Puerto Rican communities, examining heritage speaker experience, religious diversity, labor and migration conditions, and the role of diasporic communities in both rural life and urbanization processes.

What’s more, many of the Global Midwest projects are dedicated to making the lived experiences of individuals and communities visible so that their voices and contributions can be appreciated.  If globalization is typically seen as a coastal phenomenon and an impersonal, market enterprise, HWW scholars and their partners are helping to the change the story about how, where, and under what conditions American history and social life can be said to take place here.

satelite view of the Great Lakes regionA Humanities Without Walls project at the University of Wisconsin examined the engineered watersheds of the Great Lakes Basin and the "social flow" between the human and the environment. Photo: NASA.

Q: Despite near-universal consensus among scientists about the existence of human-related climate change, policy-makers and the general public have clashed about how to address it.  How can collaborative research that focuses on “the environmental humanities” bring our society toward greater levels of understanding about climate change?  What are some of the recent and ongoing research projects being undertaken by Humanities Without Walls teams in this area?

AB: There is so much about the problem of climate change we have yet to understand because it has many dimensions beyond the purely scientific.  HWW projects take these contexts seriously by exploring geophysical change through the lens of interdisciplinary humanistic methods.  For example, Rachel Havrelock’s team at the University of Illinois at Chicago illustrated how the perspectives of race, gender, and citizenship can illuminate questions of water supply, and how charting water supply can, in turn, deepen understandings of these social categories.  The University of Wisconsin’s Samer Alatout has led a group to examine the engineered watersheds of Great Lakes Basin and what he calls the “social flow” between the human and the environment.  And Mark Pedelty’s University of Minnesota-based team has produced a truly captivating music video from his “Applied Musicology for a Changing Climate” project, which showcases what’s urgent about noise pollution in the Salish Sea.

Taken together, these projects model a humanities-centered conversation about the human and non-human stakes of climate change in all of its diverse habitats.  At a historical moment when public universities are under continued financial pressure, which can put humanities programs at risk, HWW has provided much-needed resources for humanists to experiment, take chances, learn from mistakes, and develop best practices.  Ultimately, HWW’s collaborative approach demonstrates how versatile and valuable humanities research can be in debates about climate change.

plants arranged in the center of a campusIn Garden for a Changing Planet, a team at UIC proposed a mini mobile ecozone to bring the dynamism of climate change to the heart of urban Chicago. Photo courtesy of Jenny Kendler.

Q: Artists and designers can also play a role in addressing social and political flashpoints, including climate change.  Could you explain how their work is making an important intervention through the “Garden for a Changing Climate” project?

AB: The power of art to prompt awareness and propel social change is tremendous.  In “Garden for a Changing Climate,” Hannah Higgins and her team at UIC proposed a mini mobile ecozone of plants designed by Jenny Kendler, an interdisciplinary artist and environmental activist, to bring the dynamism of climate change to the heart of urban communities in Chicago.  This is one of several HWW research projects involving public art exhibitions aimed at helping viewers grasp difficult, often technical, issues through visual media.  Ryan Griffis of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign created “The Earth Will Not Abide” using video, installation, and painting to tell the story of industrial agriculture and extractive land use in the US, China, and South America.  The University of Chicago’s Justin Richland and his colleagues tackled the history of display of Hopi ethnographic archives held by the Field Museum, grappling with troubling traditions of native imagery and its representational forms.

The range of exhibition material and practice across the HWW research awards is frankly astonishing.  It shows how the freedom to experiment in new formats and genres enlarges our collective imaginations when it comes to what the humanities can look like.

two scholars presenting at a conferenceHarriett Green of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Angela Courtney of Indiana University Bloomington present their research on collaborations and research practices in scholarship in the Global Midwest. Courtesy of UIUC.

Q: In addition to supporting current research on the “applied humanities,” Humanities Without Walls also supports summer workshops that prepare humanities PhD students to explore career pathways outside academia.  How does Humanities Without Walls go about this?  Why are these workshops important now?

AB: The career diversity workshops HWW has sponsored in connection with the Chicago Humanities Festival (CHF) represent “applied humanities” at its best.  CHF has developed a syllabus which combines personal exploration, in which humanities PhD students examine their values and commitments, and how their training has prepared them for a variety of career options.  That they can do so away from their home institutions, in a setting where their professional development is front and center, has proven critical.  We've learned a lot about the culture of graduate programs under pressure to produce results in the academic job market, which can make humanities departments indifferent or even hostile to “alternative” career choices for their PhDs.

CHF organizes field trips to employers in the public and private sectors and so that students get a real sense of what’s available to them.  There are so many spaces—museums, libraries, and cultural organizations of all stripes—where humanists can add immeasurably to the work those institutions do.  Making these possibilities visible is critical to supporting PhD students facing an uncertain job market.  Their scholarly interests are often motivated by ethical and political concerns that the workshop speaks to by exposing them to the range of options available in a civic-minded, social-justice rich metropolis like Chicago.

scholars looking at art printsHumanities Without Walls National Predoctoral Career Diversity Fellows visiting the Stony Island Arts Bank in Chicago. Photo courtesy of UIUC.

Q: What have we heard from government, non-profit, and business leaders about how humanities perspectives and skills serve their industries, and how the humanities might better link to these career paths in the future?  What evidence do we have that they are interested in hiring those who hold humanities degrees?  And what do the intellectual capabilities gained through humanities doctoral study bring to careers outside academia?

AB: If what we have heard and observed directly is any indication, employers are increasingly attuned to the skills that students trained in the humanities bring, including strong oral and written communication skills, critical thinking and analytical reasoning skills, and the understanding of cultures outside of the US.  In this aggressively technological world, the capacity to read and write, to think critically, and to communicate complex ideas—all hallmarks of the work our PhD students are trained to do—are at a premium.  Both the public and private sectors need students of African American life, of early modern indigenous cosmology, of environmental themes in Western literature, and of continental philosophy.  The perspectives that deep knowledge of those subjects bring are critical to all aspects of life in the context of global capital, from how profit is made and distributed, to what the ethics of biotechnology are, to what models of competition and institutional organization work best, and for whom.

As professors in the humanities, we aren’t yet as skilled as we could be in articulating the links between our studies and careers outside of academia.  Nor has this message about the value of the humanities PhD for a breadth of careers reached as many students or faculty as it needs to.  But we are learning from our HWW workshop alums who are taking their experiences into exciting new spheres, some outside the academy and some in direct engagement with higher education.

For those who see the films, visit the gallery spaces, and click through the digital platforms, HWW offers a series of passageways between the academy and the world.  As we continue to move forward into arenas where faculty, students, and the communities they engage come together, we hope to help make the very concept of walls unthinkable for the generations of scholars, teachers, artists, students, and workers to come.