by Zachary Domach
All the Fox Center fellows quickly adapt to their new lair, delighted by the pleasant workspace and familiar conversation topics (including that one pervasive question: “Where can I find funding for the humanities?”) Every January, however, the fellows emerge, drawn back across North Decatur road to the Carlos Museum’s reception hall by rumors of a cultured dinner. There’s a catch, naturally: to get the food you have to navigate small talk, an over-zealous photographer, possibly an icebreaker or two, and at least a full hour of intellectual conversation (but for academics, that’s often more attractive than the dinner). After you’ve raided the buffet table you face another hour of talk, if not more, before some brave soul announces those suddenly all-important words “It’s getting late” and ventures to end the discussion. Only once it’s over do you realize that the discussion, and not the dinner, was the evening’s highlight. This remarkable evening is, of course, the annual Faculty Response Forum. This year’s Forum centered on the theme “Experiencing Differences through the Humanities” and featured nine discussion tables, each revolving around a subtopic related to the theme. Some tables used a subject area, such as drama or poetry to anchor their discussion; other topics were more abstract. My table, for example, explored the broader idea of “Humanities, Difference, and the University.”
Mark Risjord (Associate Dean in the Laney School of Graduate Studies and Professor of Philosophy and of Nursing) and Lisa Tedesco (Vice Provost for Academic Affairs–Graduate Studies and Dean of the Laney School of Graduate Studies) facilitated our discussion which, over the course of the Forum, ranged considerably. We initially examined the perceived divide between the humanities and pre-professional studies at the undergraduate level, and its parallels at higher levels. There was little doubt that medical, legal, and, especially, the business world need more contact with the humanities; it’s even possible that we could learn from some exposure to them as well. It quickly became apparent to us that much of the gulf between the two worlds stems from the focused, even narrow, mindsets of faculty and students about the role of each. We concluded that – given time – the gulf could be bridged, but only if there is a willingness by both parties to have that conversation.
The humanities often come across as too theoretical, while the health sciences, legal, and business worlds seem to edge too far in the opposite direction, emphasizing application to an extreme. In some cases it might not even be best for a bridge to be built, but in the many situations where it is beneficial to both parties that conversation needs to be a true dialogue. The academic practice of reading papers and focusing on a select audience, even in interdisciplinary seminars, is probably not the most conducive way to build a dialogue; something a like workshop format is ideal to engender a conversation across the humanities and the areas of study which are traditionally considered to be more applied. We looked at initiatives such as the Emory Center for Ethics that use a subject found across numerous fields to create such dialogues. While there will always be certain tensions associated with something so interdisciplinary (after all, what is the philosophy department supposed to think when its ethics courses are suddenly commandeered by an upstart new center?), it nevertheless provides a platform to forge some common ground.
Following a recess for dinner (with such excellent selections as grilled salmon, chicken marsala, several vegetables, and, of course, a variety of cookies), our table considered the role humanities in the digital age. Using the PBS’s program “Downton Abbey” as an example, we discussed how didactic (and more often pseudo-didactic) enterprises are successfully being intertwined with entertainment. We also explored changes in the classroom experience such as initiatives such as Coursera, the online course system out of Stanford University. Finally, we reviewed the cultural impact of the humanities over the last several decades: what had changed and how the humanities may have played a role. By this point in the night the photographer had vanished; with him gone there was no one to document our departure so – once those magic words “It’s getting late” were uttered – we called it a night.