THR Blog   /   November 19, 2016

An Academic Haven Under Fire

Guest Blogger

George Peabody Library, Johns Hopkins University. Camera Obscura via Flickr.

Growing up in Rio de Janeiro, I was (to my parents’ despair) an undecided teenager. I wanted to be a writer. I loved physics and cosmology.  I wanted to get involved in several forms of activism. But  when it came to college, I had to make a decision. So I decided to study journalism, hoping it would help me develop skills for writing and activism. During my first semester, however, I took a mandatory philosophy course. I had never studied philosophy before, and it changed everything. In philosophy I could pursue all of my interests: literature, science, activism, art. So I transferred to a philosophy program at a different university, the Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro (PUC-RJ).

The philosophy program, however, did not allow me to work with literature. So after graduation, I pursued a master’s degree in literature. Now I could write about any topic related to literature and art—but was forbidden by my advisor to speak or write about science. My job, he said, was to pick an author and write about his work, keeping my own ideas out of the way. So I wrote a small book on Jorge Luis Borges, got my degree, and told myself I would never do graduate work in literature again. Instead, I pursued another master’s—this time at Tufts University, in philosophy, hoping things might be different in America. But there, too, the general atmosphere discouraged students from pursuing their own ideas.

By the time I’d left the PUC-RJ, I had over ten notebooks filled with thoughts about the interrelation between science and literature. By the time I left Tufts, I had lost all desire to pursue an academic career. I found a part-time job at a telemarketing company and decided to do my writing and research on my own time. Around this time, however, a friend told me about the Humanities Center at Johns Hopkins. The next year, I arrived in Baltimore for my first semester.

What I found there was, in short, everything that I had so long wanted: a vibrant academic community of faculty and students who actively defended creative research and imposed no restrictions on what one wanted to pursue.  Not once did I hear from a faculty member that my project was too ambitious or that I was arrogant for presuming to investigate physics or cosmology without having a degree in the field. On the contrary, for any research interest, I was directed  to a vast bibliography of relevant sources and to people who had pursued similar projects. For the first time in my academic life, I felt that what I had been passionate about throughout the years had value.

But this year, after two years of struggles between the Humanities Center and her administration, Dean Beverly Wendland of the Krieger School of Arts & Sciences declared that the department would be closed “effective June 30, 2017,” unless a “neutral committee,” selected by the Dean herself “in consultation with the Provost,” decided otherwise.

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The Humanities Center has been a part of Johns Hopkins since 1966, when it was established, in part, through the support of president Milton S. Eisenhower, who wanted to promote the study of the humanities in an academic environment that had shifted significantly toward the sciences. The inauguration was celebrated with a now-famous symposium entitled “The Languages of Criticism and the Sciences of Man.” Some of the most influential scholars of the twentieth century, including Jacques Derrida, René Girard, Jacques Lacan, Georges Poulet, Tzvetan Todorov, Jean Hyppolite, and Roland Barthes, participated.

Even though the Center has undergone many transformations over the years, it has remained true to its mission of being a degree-granting program that admits new graduate students every year. The Center has consistently filled important gaps in the humanities curriculum at Johns Hopkins, offering courses on continental philosophy, intellectual history, and comparative literature—which would be unavailable otherwise. It has been committed to original research in interdisciplinary studies while maintaining philosophical and scholarly rigor, allowing researchers to pursue creative projects that other academic departments would not support. In its commitment to interdisciplinary work, the Humanities Center has included students and faculty from neighboring departments in its many seminars, conferences, and events, reaching out even to the sciences. Last but not least, its alumni have thrived in the academic job market.

So why would a fully functioning and thriving component of the university be threatened with closure when that same university has declared its commitment to promoting  the humanities?

Quite astonishingly, in the words of Dean Wendland, because doing so will support the study of humanities at Johns Hopkins. In her most recent communiqué, directed this time at the Krieger School of Arts & Sciences and responding to ample demonstrations of support for the Center,  she charged that the Center's scholarship was “driven more by the specific interests and specialties of its individual faculty than by a defined academic field or by an overall academic mission.”

The Center is, by definition, an interdisciplinary department—which, before the current administration, was always a reason for praise—and so cannot have a “defined academic field.” Moreover, it is impossible and arguably undesirable for a department not to be shaped by the various interest of its faculty. This becomes a problem only when the faculty leaves no room for the contribution of the researchers it collaborates with and mentors, which is what happens in the vast majority of academic departments, and is precisely what makes the Humanities Center an exception among them. The Humanities Center has the same mission it has always had—promoting intellectual freedom, collaboration, and exchange—though perhaps it is a mission that the administration struggles to appreciate.

The dean's arguments come two years after she proposed that the the Humanities Center change its name (which the department agreed to do), develop an undergraduate program (which was created), and make a greater effort to collaborate with neighboring departments. During this period, she refused to allow the Center to hire new faculty, even while ignoring the department’s compliance with administrative requests and the stellar results of  internal and external reviews of the department. Ignored as well are the many statements of support from faculty and students in their departments.  In one touching instance, Stuart Leslie of the History of Science and Technology Department declared that the Humanities Center was “ still one of the best things Hopkins ever did. It ranks up there with the all-time signature moments in Hopkins history. Its legacy is measured best through what it did for other departments by putting them on the map.”

Worrisome, too, is a ten-million-dollar endowment recently given to the university to fund the opening of a “Humanities Institute,” (the Alexander Grass Humanities Institute), which will be not a degree-granting department but rather a virtual “focal point” or “umbrella” for the ten humanities departments of the Krieger School of Arts & Sciences. It is intended to facilitate interdisciplinary exchange and, allegedly, the involvement of the broader community. The shutdown of the Humanities Center, according to Dean Wendland, would help further the humanities at Johns Hopkins precisely because it would prevent people from confusing the Humanities Center—a thriving department with resident faculty, historical importance, and fifty years of existence—with the AGHI—an incipient virtual interdisciplinary organ.

Our fate, however, now sadly lies in the hands of Dean Wendland’s “neutral committee,” which will decide, in December whether we will be allowed to continue doing our work or whether Johns Hopkins University is better off without us. Until then, our future, as a group and as individuals, remains uncertain. Regardless of the committee’s decision, however, knowing that there is a large community of scholars who actively pursue their right to do original academic research and who, in addition, have the courage to fight for what they believe in, is enough to preserve our hard-earned optimism.

Paula Marchesini is a third-year PhD student at the Humanities Center at Johns Hopkins University. She is currently spending a year in Paris, at the École Normale Supérieure, where she is writing about the interrelations between Einstein’s conception of time and modern art.

 To support the Humanities Center, please sign the petition and/or write letters to the administration of Johns Hopkins University. For guidelines on these issues and for access to supporting documents, please visit: http://www.supporthumctrjhu.com.