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Collaboration key to humanities' relevance in 21st century higher ed

The Next Idea

When most people think of university researchers, they think of scientists. They imagine people wearing white coats and plastic goggles, conducting experiments in a lab or making observations in the field, often working with a team of colleagues and students. Eventually, the results of that research might go into producing new computer technologies, performing life-saving medical treatments, or passing informed environmental policy.

However, not all researchers are scientists. And it’s not just science that makes innovative contributions to our communities.

Humanities research is the study of human culture and thought, including history, literature, the arts, and philosophy. Humanities research teaches us what it means to be human, how our values shape our world, and how change becomes possible. Through the humanities we learn to dream about what the future can be.

But humanities research is invisible to most people outside of universities. Unlike scientific discoveries, produced by lab teams, most new knowledge about the humanities is produced by scholars working alone at desks or in archives. Findings are often published in specialized journals or books. Humanities scholars do talk to each other—they exchange ideas, they argue, they agree or disagree—but these interactions rarely translate into collaborations, and they don’t often translate into ideas that can be consumed by the general public.

What would happen if humanities scholars came together to work collaboratively and then published their results in a variety of media for multiple audiences?

So what’s the Next Idea?

The University of Michigan has staked up to 10 million dollars to find out.

The newly-founded Michigan Humanities Collaboratorywill bring together new research teams of faculty, librarians, postdocs, graduate and undergraduate students together to work on specific research questions in the humanities. Research teams will demonstrate the vitality of humanistic disciplines by asking large-scale questions such as:

  • How does our culture define ability and disability?
  • What can the humanities contribute to understanding climate change?
  • How do understandings of inequality change in a digital world?
  • How do we translate ideas across different cultures, communities, and languages?

You don’t need to be an academic to ask these questions, and their answers are relevant well beyond the Ivory Tower.  
The Humanities Collaboratory borrows a laboratory model from science and social science disciplines, and tailors it to the kinds of research humanities scholars pursue. It provides funding for salaries and stipends, materials and travel, and it also provides an innovative work space. The Collaboratory will be designed to facilitate working in teams and working with library staff specialists in research methods and tools.

We know that bringing different perspectives to bear on a question generates more complex answers to that question, and it is often the case that face-to-face conversations generate ideas. The Humanities Collaboratory aims to promote the vitality of exchange among scholars with diverse perspectives and expertise.

The Humanities Collaboratory will not only enhance human knowledge in the long run: it will offer a new model of humanities education. Whereas in science and some social science fields, faculty regularly work with postdocs, graduate students, and often undergraduates on research projects, the integration of students into humanities research is rare. This new initiative will change that, providing hands-on research experience to young college students in our state.

This new model will also insist that new knowledge move outside of the academy. Results from Collaboratory projects will address the general public as well as specialized scholars; they will be publicized in forms as diverse as digital media, exhibits, or performances.

The Humanities Collaboratory aims to inspire and support cultural change. While the work produced by scholars laboring alone in their studies will always be an important component of humanities research, this is no longer the only way to do important scholarship.

Through large-scale projects that involve diverse teams producing results that are more accessible and relevant to the public, the Collaboratory’s ultimate goal is to help more people dream bigger dreams.

Peggy McCracken is the Domna C. Stanton Collegiate Professor of French, Women's Studies, and Comparative Literature at the University of Michigan. 

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