Monthly Archives: November 2016

URI English Department Receives Prestigious NEH Grant

The URI English Department is thrilled to announce that we have been honored with a large grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). The grant, part of NEH’s “Next Generation PhD” initiative, is designed to fund planning for the innovation of humanities PhD programs. URI joins 27 other universities nationwide who received planning and implementation funding, with the goal of better preparing graduate students for today’s competitive array of Humanities career options, both in and outside of academia. As Marcus Cederström has recently urged in an article for Inside Higher Ed, “What’s missing in many humanities graduate programs is the framework that will help us translate the skills we develop, the guidance to do so and the support to pursue employment outside of academe. That has to change. And fast.” This is precisely the exciting opportunity URI’s English Department, University administrators, and both current and future PhD students have in front of them.

Dr. Kathleen Davis describes the grant as “[securing] partnerships, internships, new collaborations, and innovative curricular changes that will prepare our doctoral students to expand their career aspirations and to bring the fruits of Humanities learning to all aspects of civic life.” One of the central objectives of the NEH Next Generation Humanities PhD initiative is to increase cross-disciplinary communication and learning opportunities for doctoral students in five key areas: Coastal Environment, Health & Medicine, Publishing/Editing, Digital Humanities & Big Data, and Cultural Organizations. There are over 40 faculty, administrators, and students working on the grant from at least 10 disciplines (which readers can see here: http://web.uri.edu/nextgenphd/). Generally speaking, then, the task of the NEH committee is to ask two vitally important questions: “Where are the Humanities now?” and “Where are Humanities PhD programs going?” These have been critical questions for the Humanities for decades now, as the death knell for the Humanities has continued to be rung periodically, amidst what seems to be an increasingly Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics (STEM)—and digitally-focused world.

News stories about how the skills of Humanities undergraduate majors and doctoral students align with demands of the current job market have begun to appear. As recently as October 2016, Scientific American published an editorial staff-authored essay encouragingly entitled, “STEM is Vital—but Not at the Expense of the Humanities.” In our current moment, we may despair over the corporatization of the university, which seems increasingly designed to prepare students for jobs rather than encourage prolonged critical reflection about oneself or the world. Prominent politicians have not helped: “All the people in the world who want to study French literature can do so, they are just not going to be subsidized by the tax payer,” said governor of Kentucky Matt Bevin), while former Republican presidential hopeful Marco Rubio declared we need “more welders and less philosophers.” Scientific American supplies a helpful response to such reductive talk:

 

If . . . advocates of a STEM-only curriculum look more closely, they will find that the student who graduates after four years of pursuing physics plus poetry may, in fact, be just the kind of job candidate sought out by employers. In 2013 the Association of American Colleges & Universities issued the results of a survey of 318 employers with 25 or more employees showing that nearly all of them thought that the ability to “think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems”—the precise objectives of any liberal arts education—was more important than a job candidate’s specific major.

 

Contrary to what some parents, students, and politicians may think, the difference between STEM and the Humanities is not “useful v. useless.” As the editors of Scientific American show, a Humanities education offers students the opportunity to acquire skills that are not distancing them from current career demands, but are closing the gap as such skills become more and more necessary in a global business market demanding complex, precise communication between international business communities and divergent cultures.

 

If it is obvious, however, to the editors of Scientific American that the Humanities offers something necessary and, at times, intangible to the success of STEM fields (the “artistic sensibility” of Steve Jobs is the oft-cited example as the captain of industry who knew nothing of the nitty gritty of coding or computer engineering, yet still managed to change an entire technological field), it is still the case that many—like politicians in charge of state education budgets—need convincing of that basic premise. The Scientific American article performs for us, then, a double duty: it shows the value of the Humanities from the perspective of experts and active members in the STEM community (we see the skills that Humanities graduates bring to fields outside of the Humanities). The article also highlights, however, a gap in general understanding about the “usefulness,” importance, and value of Humanities programs and graduates. Recalling our attention to what Cederström writes above, the issue suggests itself as one of “translation.” How can the Humanities translate what we do to outsiders? How can the disciplines of the Humanities ally themselves to STEM disciplines in an effort to make this translation easier? How can we better prepare Humanities graduates to translate their skills more easily to jobs outside of the academy, and show that the depth of our theoretical training asks critical questions? This, perhaps most vitally, is the area where URI and the “Next Generation Humanities PhD” initiative is poised to intervene. With the support of the NEH and the University, we can enlarge the import of the Humanities, endeavor to create a stronger coalition of Humanities and other departments, and look eagerly to a future of the “new” and the “next,” one for which our current and prospective students will be fully prepared to take part in and, ultimately, to shape.

 

If you—readers—are interested in helping to bring to fruition some of the ideas put forth here (and some of the ideas put forth in planning meetings) please contact Kathleen Davis and/ or sign up for Kathleen Davis’s course next semester on the Public Humanities.

 

Of Mood: A Talk by Mary Cappello

cappelloIf mood is something that is induced from the outside, then the performance on November 1st by author and Professor Mary Cappello of the English department and pianist Kirsten Volness, called the audience to participate in an event that could alter and influence mood.

The performance was not in the Hoffman Room of Swan Hall where we typically gather for the Read/Write series events, rather it was held in the Fine Arts Building Recital Hall. And so the very space of the occasion was responsible for creating mood.  As the audience entered, we were met with hues of violet and indigo and a soundscape of speech accompanied by a musical loop: “eyes remove themselves from your body…  and [become] a masterpiece, a work of art…” From the start, this performance rendered an overlapping of thought and mood and posited the necessary connection between our senses and our moods.

Reading from her latest book, Life Breaks In (A Mood Almanack), Professor Cappello gave the audience the opportunity to wonder where mood resides, and to sit with the idea that mood is both of and outside the body.

Professor Cappello brings to her students and the audience and readers of her work, an examination of and reflection on those elements in our lives that we often ignore, that we do not allow ourselves the time to pause and think about. Here we are called by the author to consider mood. This may seem a contradictory exercise, to use our minds to interpret what we feel when mood may be more visceral. For this reason a reading itself is not enough. The multimodal elements of the event created a space for listeners not merely to use their minds to think about what was being read, but color and images and sound, invited us to enter a mood—what Professor Cappello might have in mind when she refers to a mood room.

 

 

Words are one medium Professor Cappello uses to create mood. Words transmit to the audience Cappello’s childhood memories. Her mother’s words and sounds constitute a sonorous envelope—a term coined by Édith Lecourt, which Cappello builds off of, “a common zone…. created by the mother’s voice, which, though originally affiliated with contact, ‘will subsequently exist on its own, without the body contact that accompanies it’ ” (305).  These sounds surround us in our formative year and may continue to reside both in our memories and somewhere outside our bodies throughout our lives.  Words are also the tools of thinkers and writers such as Roland Barthes and William Gass that inform Cappello’s reflections on mood. Thus through the blending of all of these voices, we are left with the recognition that words are a fusion of sound and thought carrying with them the both meaning and mood.

The performance also included the work of Berlin based trumpeter and composer Paul Brody’s sound instillation, “Talking Melodies.” The piece overlays music with recordings from interviews Brody conducted, turning speech into something melodic and musical.  Words and tune combine again invoking thought and emotion to induce mood.

A little over a week after the performance, I am also left thinking of the ethereal nature of mood. By projecting images of clouds behind her as she read, Professor Cappello used these stunning visuals as a metaphor for the transitory and ethereal nature of mood. Clouds shape shift as we gaze at them, the air currents sculpting their form before our eyes. They change color when the angle of light changes.

We are invited into Professor Cappello’s mind by the words she shares with us to describe the studious mood.  We might assume such a mood is fixed. In one of the chapters from which she read, “In a Studious Mood,” we follow her from the initial proclamations of what mood is not, “It doesn’t begin: ‘Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious by this sun of York,’ ” to the study of anatomy books furnished with intricate descriptions of the ear and precise scientific language. We are taken into Cappello’s study, designed to let in more light, imagining this will help in creating the studious mood, influenced as much by the outer as it is by interiority. But in this studying, this dismantling and excavating of ideas that Professor Cappello leads us through, as listeners it is possible that we do not remain in the studious mood. The reading closed with her reflections on three sounds made by her partner Jean: footsteps the “ ‘puh’ ” sound of a wooden door stuck to its frame,” and the laying of keys on a table. And though as she reads, it might be that like Cappello, it is our inhabitation of a studios mood that allows us to stumble upon unknown mysteries—including those related to the people we love—as a listener, hearing this recounting of sounds made by a loved one, I was transported from my own attempt to soak in ideas, to think in new ways, and be engaged in studious reflection, to a mood more akin to wonderment and reverence.  Which may indeed be essential to the studious mood. And so the cloud of mood continues to dance in the currents.

The evening’s performance ended with wordless sound—the music of Kirsten Volness. The audience entered into a space where the music, which lies outside of the body, travels to the body through the ear. We are reminded that our body functions as a type of interpreter. And as the evening’s presentation came to a close, Kirsten Volness’s piano composition with notes ethereal and rooted tones, provided a space in which to give ourselves up to mood—reflective, invigorating, studious, serene.