Q&A with Humanities Professor Don Bialostosky

Issue Date: 
August 24, 2015

The 2015-16 academic year will be celebrated as the Year of the Humanities in the University. A range of events and programs will spotlight the importance of the humanities across a spectrum of academic disciplines, including the social sciences, natural sciences, engineering, medicine, and others. Don Bialostosky, professor and chair of the Department of English, leads the steering committee for the year-long celebration. He discussed the importance of the theme with Pitt Chronicle.

What is humanistic thinking, and why should one care about it?

Don Bialostosky

“Humanistic thinking” refers to the kind of thinking that is practiced and nurtured in university humanities departments; that is, thinking that tries to express and embody the complex ways human beings exist in the world. One can see the value of this thinking in medicine. While illnesses may include physical problems, they always occur in human beings who have imaginative, emotional, and rational concerns, which are related to their overall health. Treating patients as merely physical problems to be solved—not thinking “humanistically” about them—is not enough. Similarly, an engineer may not need to consider humanistic concerns when ensuring a bridge will stand, but she will be a better engineer if she remembers that her designs will be used by people whose lives will be influenced by her creation. 

Scholars and artists in the humanities explore and document the many ways we humans interact with one another and with the nonhuman world. They treat questions of meaning and value that the sciences often must put aside to focus on more limited questions with measurable outcomes. But our colleagues in the sciences and professions turn to the humanities to enrich their thinking on important questions that their fields are not built to ask. Humanities scholars and artists investigate the sciences and the professions themselves as fields of consequential and meaningful human activity. 

Humanities in many universities seem to be threatened, as fewer students major in humanities. Is this initiative a reaction to that trend?

Understanding the threats faced by the humanities is not easy. Michael Bérubé, a prominent English scholar whom we hope to bring to campus next spring, has written on the question of the number of undergraduate majors, concluding that the problem the humanities face is not one of undergraduate majors. 

What is clear is that the Year of the Humanities is a reaffirmation of Pitt’s commitment to the core value of the humanities in the University—not only as specialized disciplines but as places that encourage a kind of thinking that can be valuable across the University and beyond.

The Year of the Humanities seeks projects that explore “how studying the arts and humanities can improve creativity and innovation in other fields.” Can you share examples of this type of interrelationship? 

The Year of the Humanities steering committee created a subcommittee to explore what the professions need and want from the humanities. We encourage programs under several topics that emerged from that subcommittee’s discussion: the humanities and health, cultural competency, and creativity and innovation. 

The health and humanities topic is the focus of our kickoff event that will bring author, nurse, alumnus, and English PhD Theresa Brown to Pitt to launch her new book The Shift: One Nurse, Twelve Hours, Four Patients’ Lives (Algonquin Press, 2015), a vivid memoir covering one day in the life of an oncology nurse. She’ll be speaking at 4 p.m. Sept. 22  in the O’Hara Center and meeting with writing students in the English department.

An event in February on the question “The Humanities: Can You Afford to Leave College Without Them?” will feature a panel including CNN commentator and author Fareed Zakaria and Dean of Pitt’s Medical School Arthur Levine, who began his studies in the humanities, which should give answers to this question as well.

What other types of activities and proposals have you seen so far?

Among the activities planned are arts and humanities pop-ups in the professional schools on Friday afternoons and conversations on cultural competency among the professional schools and the humanities scholars who study diverse cultures. 

We’ve had about 30 proposals so far and expect more as the academic year begins. We’ve funded proposals to stage a play called The Mathematics of Being Human; to sponsor a Day of the Digital Humanities; to bring jazz musician George Lewis to campus; to mount an exhibit of contemporary Chinese art; to celebrate the humanities in Salk Hall with the Schools of Dentistry and Pharmacy; and to foster a conversation through Global Studies on “Globalizing the Human.” There are many more, and we still welcome proposals from students,  staff,  and faculty.

What do you hope that the Pitt community will learn from this year’s theme?

Part of what we’re trying to do is turn the story around. I’d like to see students get beyond the thoughtless “You-won’t-get-a-job-if-you-major-in-the-humanities” talk. If they hear their teachers in the sciences and professional schools arguing for “humanistic thinking,” perhaps they’ll look beyond jokes about English majors working at McDonald’s. There are more job openings at Google for marketing and communications positions than software engineers right now.

I’d like staff to join in conversations that enrich their investment in the work of the University. I’d like for faculty in the professions and the sciences to participate in conversations and events with colleagues in the humanities over common concerns like cultural competence, health, and innovation. I’d like for faculty in the humanities to discover, as I have on The Year of the Humanities steering committee, how much the humanities are valued by our colleagues across the University and to join enthusiastically in those conversations. I’d like those conversations to continue beyond the year and become part of a sturdy network of interdisciplinary inquiry and mutual respect.