Q&A at the Humanities Center

Issue Date: 
May 18, 2017

Assistant Director Dan Kubis (left) and Director Jonathan Arac in the Humanities Center.

The University is a place to explore ideas and cultures. A place where curiosity and intellect merge to create new understanding and advance human achievements. Pitt’s Humanities Center, housed in the Kenneth P. Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences, serves as a focal point for fostering humanistic thought — the spark of imagination and creativity that fuels innovation.

Center director Jonathan Arac and assistant director Dan Kubis shared their thoughts on the many ways the center fosters our innate capacities to create and connect — attributes that make us truly human.

How do you defend the value of the humanities — both in the university setting and in the community — in a time when federal funding for entities such as the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts has been up for debate? What’s at stake? 

Jonathan Arac: The humanities frequently — and understandably — refers to university departments, but the Humanities Center emphasizes humanistic thinking, that is, thinking that prioritizes the human capacity for imagination. No group of departments or programs has a monopoly on this kind of thinking. Our slogan states, “Wherever the human mind leads.”

When forced to defend humanistic thinking, we point to its good effects. The humanities involve reflecting on one’s practices and habits, which can contribute to success in a number of professional fields, including business, law and the health sciences.

The humanities also promote active curiosity, which can produce important political and social benefits. It’s no accident, for example, that former president Obama claimed that the most important things he’s learned about being a citizen have come from reading novels.

People also appreciate the knowledge and understanding that the humanities promote as important contributions to human societies in their own right.

Provost and Senior Vice Chancellor Patricia E. Beeson designated 2015-16 as the Year of the Humanities at Pitt “to highlight the important role that humanistic thinking plays in research and education across the University.” What enduring results have you seen? How is the Humanities Center maintaining the momentum?

Dan Kubis: The Year of Humanities created an active network of collaborators across all Pitt’s schools and regional campuses. The steering committee included representatives from all over campus who didn’t need to be convinced for a moment that the humanities were worth working for — and not just for one year.

That spirit has continued in the All Pitt Humanities Committee, the successor committee to last year’s steering committee. This new committee is sponsoring a series of Pitt Interdisciplinary Humanities Grants that provide up to $2,000 in matching funds for projects that engage in humanistic thinking and bridge two or more academic units at Pitt or reach outside of the University in a significant way.

This year, we were happy to sponsor events that connected the humanities to other units on campus like the Schools of Law and Dental Medicine, and to off-campus organizations such as the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. We look forward to this grant program extending this reach in the future.

How is the Humanities Center reaching out into the community?

DK: This summer we have begun the Public Humanities Fellowship program. These are summer positions for PhD students hosted by local cultural institutions, in this case the Kelly Strayhorn Theater, the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy and City of Asylum.

This program aims to connect humanities students to the world outside of the University by putting to use the knowledge and skills that our students have gained from advanced humanistic study. 

The PhD student who holds the City of Asylum position, for example, will conduct interviews with exiled writers from each of the countries included in President Trump’s recent travel ban. The interviews will be published in City of Asylum’s online magazine, Sampsonia Way.

Our podcast series, “Being Human,” is now in its second year. The series highlights some of the exciting guests who come to campus, and it demonstrates the range and public value of humanities scholarship. The 18 podcasts that we’ve done so far have been downloaded or listened to more than 4,500 times. They are published on the first Friday of every month.

We’ve also partnered with Pitt’s student radio station, WPTS, on an undergraduate Humanities Media Fellow position. Our current fellow, Matt Moret, a senior who is pursuing a Bachelor of Arts in politics and philosophy, has been doing a great job producing the podcasts, and recently published the first version of his podcast “Imprints,” which focuses on ways that the Pennsylvania Humanities Council is using the humanities to help revitalize some of Pennsylvania’s most vulnerable communities.

As the Humanities Center approaches its 10th year, what’s the direction moving forward? What’s on the horizon for its second decade on campus?

JA:  It’s been thrilling for the Humanities Center to establish its core mission of advancing faculty research in the Dietrich School. From that base, we have extended to include cross-school and community activities and to support both graduate and undergraduate students. 

Looking forward, we hope to consolidate that extension and to develop two new emphases. The first responds to the need for Dietrich School humanities faculty to coordinate and deepen existing activities in digital research. 

Second, our new Senior Fellow program gives leading faculty the chance to develop programming in their areas of intense concern.  Over the next several years we anticipate programming in three areas: philosophy and social justice, led by Distinguished Professor of Philosophy Jennifer Whiting; the significance of George Romero’s film “Night of the Living Dead” after 50 years, led by Film Studies Program faculty member Adam Lowenstein; and the sources and effects of creativity, led by Department of Communication faculty member David Marshall.