New Humanities Center directors want to focus on research


As David Marshall and Carla Nappi get ready to take over as directors of Pitt’s Humanities Center on May 1, they are focusing on how to support ambitious research and foster a sense of intellectual community.

David MarshallMarshall, an associate professor in the Department of Communications who has been serving as interim director while founding director Jonathan Arac has been on leave, said the center has traditionally supported faculty by giving them “time and space to do high-level research.”

While the center has sponsored many public-facing events, the mission since its founding in 2009 in the Dietrich School of Arts & Sciences has been to promote research in the humanities.

“There's an assumption that when we gather as scholars … it is in the service of attending an event — where somebody is talking at you, you are listening at them. There is then the performative Q&A, and then we go to our lives,” said Nappi, a professor in the Department of History. “That's a very limited and a very limiting model for what scholarly, intellectual and just personal engagement can look like, and I think it's it can be a very deeply unsatisfying shape. … If you ask colleagues and I have, … what they really feel like they're missing in their experience as academics and as academics at Pitt, it's consistently, a sense of intellectual community.”

One of their goals at the Humanities Center is to create forums for working together that aren’t just “the talk,” Nappi said. “Part of what I think we're trying to do at the center is to think about different communities, different shapes to help engage, support, and speak with different communities, rather than thinking about a kind of directed download at something that we could call the public.”

“We're going to be thinking openly and experimentally about how collaboration happens between people at the university and beyond with a particular emphasis on the humanities,” Marshall said.

Marshall and Nappi first began thinking about collaborating together after participating in a reading group last summer on Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s book “Generous Thinking: A Radical Approach to Saving the University.”

“It was a really exciting challenge to us to think about what a university is ultimately for,” Marshall said, including what universities’ ambitions and responsibilities are in both research and teaching.

One of the ways colleagues have suggested building intellectual communities is through co-teaching, he said. “There's a kind of skepticism about co-teaching, because it seems like it would be professors gathering in a classroom talking to each other and enjoying it and what would students get out of that. … The kind of research community that you could also build in a classroom with students and with other faculty is one of those really exciting intellectual communities that we want to foster.” 

To help promote co-teaching, the Dietrich School has funded a pilot program, which Marshall and Nappi will be developing this fall to implement in fall 2021.

Carla NappiCollaborative work has often not been given as much value in the humanities, Nappi said. “If you want to be promoted to associate professor and get tenure, you still need to have that single author monograph.”

While there are more efforts to support collaborative work, she said, the structures are not in place to value that at the same level as individual work. “When we're thinking about programs and kinds of gathering and the ways that we can support a humanities community at Pitt, we're also very much thinking of ways that we can help support a scaffolding where that work is valued,” she said.

For publications this is a specific problem, Marshall said, and before they could encourage that type of collaboration, they’d need to work on a system that supports joint publications. But, he said, there are other forms of collaboration that they are actively cultivating.

“The role of the center is to bring scholars together to make certain forms of experimental collaboration possible,” he said. Some of those include digital humanities, medical humanities and environmental humanities.

They also are working on public humanities, which encourages distribution of university research out more broadly to the public. Humanities Engage, a new project within the Dietrich School, thinks about research possibilities with local cultural groups that are not just about doctoral dissertations.

“The thing that I think Carla and I are really kind of interested in and excited about is making sure that the Humanities Center is a kind of incubator that allows new cross-disciplinary thematics of that kind to emerge,” Marshall said.

One way they are encouraging this is through new Transdisciplinary Research Seminar Fellowships that would “give faculty members materials to propose new thematics, like the four we just mentioned, to continually allow waves for faculty to come together in an innovative cross-disciplinary way.”

They’ve also launched Graduate Student Summer Research Fellowships, which Marshall said would be one of the first programs at the center that would be explicitly targeted to grad students. They are looking at providing a similar opportunity for undergraduate students.

Marshall said they also want to look at the diversity of both students and faculty who engage with the Humanities Center. That includes looking beyond tenured and tenure-stream faculty to engage with appointment-stream faculty as well.

They want to “make sure that the kind of community building that we're doing is both thoughtful in terms of the format that we use and thoughtful with regard to how we imagine the room being a kind of place where different kinds of people can gather happily,” Marshall said.

Nappi said she’s seen many university humanities departments, including Pitt’s turning to a very applied approach, with scholars co-opted as a labor pool to help solve problems that are not necessarily located in the humanities, such as in politics and ecology.

“What I'm interested in doing is re-centering the humanities as something that can be useful to lots of people wherever they're located, but that's not simply reduced to a practical tool or a labor pool, but rather a world of scholarship and scholars who are generating approaches to problems in their own right,” she said.

Marshall has a little bit of a different opinion, which he said helps balance them as co-directors. While he agrees that “the value of the humanities is precisely not its orientation immediately to the job market. It asks really big and deep questions, precisely because it's not trying to land a first job.” But he said, “I'm also interested in trying to think about how we can bring some of our research orientations and ambitions to some of those more practical concerns.”

He points to work by Shelome Gooden — former chair of the linguistic department who is now Pitt’s first-ever assistant vice chancellor for research for the humanities, arts, social sciences, and related fields — in exploring different types of internships for undergraduates. Marshall said they should be working with those students when they come back to the University “to develop good humanistic questions that come out of those kinds of experiences that are intimately related to the world.”

The pandemic has forced Marshall and Nappi to think critically about how to move forward in the fall and to remain flexible. For instance, a retreat for incoming fellows in the fall is on hold right now. Many of the activities that had been schedule for March and April have been postponed to either this fall or next spring, Marshall said. Even before the current situation, he said they were looking into ways of bringing people together digitally, “which is, after all, more respectful of the time commitments that those people have and more respectful of the environmental costs of flying people around the world.”

“We are very conscious of the importance of thinking critically and creatively about the forms of gathering,” Nappi said. “And that means, when people are physically gathering in the room together or someone is physically flying across the country or from another country, … there should be a reason.”