New Humanities Initiative Proposal

Yesterday in The Battle between the Sciences and the Humanities I blogged about Natalie Angier’s NYT’s article on the interdisciplinary New Humanities Initiative being created by David Sloan Wilson and Leslie Heywood at Binghamton University. I contacted both of them about the article and the post, and also offered to put up their proposal here as the Initative does not yet have its own website. Sloan Wilson assured me that a website will be up soon as part of the EvoS site at Binghamton. But he also sent me the proposal and letter of support for our readers to look at.

So here is the proposal itself: new-humanities-proposal

And the letters of support for their NEH grant: new-humanities-letters

It is heartening to read in their opening:

It is important to emphasize that integrating the humanities and the sciences is not a matter of making the humanities more “scientific.” It is genuinely a two-way street, in which intellectual perspectives and subject areas currently associated with the humanities occupy center stage as part of the study of what it means to be human from a scientific perspective, and where the humanities are instrumental in articulating the transformative power of the imagination, a perspective that, for the first time in a very long time, is again taken seriously by science.

Still, as I wrote yesterday, I do think there need to be concrete projects and people in the middle to work the synthesis. I am all in favor of building an evolutionary approach that can reach across the table, as I’ve done that sort of work myself. Similarly, imagination and meaning can also reach out to science, as my research with drug abuse has shown me.

But the reaching out approach still leaves the synthesis on the table, and here is where I think endeavors like neuroanthropology can step in. Evolution and imagination meet in the everyday behaviors and sociocultural and neurological processes that shape how we live and what we experience.

So, in the end, I believe we need all three things. Two cultures that work better together, that have a more open orientation and theoretical stance to what creative people are doing “on the other side.” And then the specific work that Leslie Heywood discussed yesterday about wolves—a synthesis on a specific subject, with wolves and people and a real relationship with an actual wolf (well, seven eighths of one) there in the middle.

In any case, I wanted to get these documents out to people for their own perusal. I look forward to hearing what people think.

Also, by happy coincidence, today’s weekly round up fits perfectly with this initiative, with sections on neuroanthropological work, literary trends, language, and evolution. So please check it out!

7 thoughts on “New Humanities Initiative Proposal

  1. Daniel —
    Couldn’t agree with you more — the whole ‘inter-disciplinary’ and ‘trans-disciplinary’ trend seems to mean little without concrete projects. Unless there’s some sort of shared problem to work on, I’ve always found it more difficult to talk to people from other disciplines. It’s not that one party is wrong, it’s just that, as academics, we all have our own interests. I became an anthropologist because the field appealed to me, and I’ve been socialized into its way of seeing the world. This in-depth knowledge is important to academic endeavors — too much scattering, and we tend to lose the ability to be productive. And yet the current administrative interest in interdisciplinarity seems to ignore the value of the specialist.

    The reason I say this, too, is that I’m sobered by the move around me, at least at my university if not all over Australia, toward a research centre approach to intellectual production. That is, the university seems to want to throw resources, not to departments, but to ‘research centres,’ which are somehow seen as more entrepreneurial and productive than departments (although, in fact, the enormous, overwhelming majority of teaching is done out of departments).

    The physical sciences model for building a research centre, at least here, seems roughly similar to that of building a department: attract grad students, build shared infrastructure, attract potential collaborators, make strategic moves to build upon existing expertise by attracting related, but slightly different specialists. In contrast, the model from the humanities and social sciences doesn’t seem to work from this project-basis or from building shared infrastructure. Rather, the idea there seems to be to design a topic, some sort of umbrella grouping, that will herd together enough potential stake-holders so that not too many people are left out (because people who are left out might work against the ‘centre’).

    So the best interdisciplinary ‘umbrellas’ for the purpose of herding potential participants are broad, multivalent symbols, buzzwords which can be interpreted in multiple ways even, so that a big roster of ‘research associates’ can be assembled. There’s no shared project though, except the centre itself; there’s no sense that one person’s gain (like getting an equipment grant) is going to ripple on through the group; there’s no concrete shared agenda. Even with good leadership, great personnel, and a nifty unifying theme, there’s just no concrete way to collaborate, no inherent incentives, and very little way to produce outcomes.

    The result is that there’s not core to the centre, if you no what I mean. It’s a hollow centre, with nothing but good will to hold it together. The folks involved just have too many demands on them, too many of their own requirements to stick with it for long if there’s no tangible outcome or incentive. It’s ‘interdisciplinarity’ as an end, not as a means, and it hardly looks sustainable to me. Without projects and people specifically positioned ‘in the middle,’ as you put it, with a vested interest in seeing the collaboration function, it can’t survive for too long on a steady diet of good will.

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