ASU faculty awarded over $440K in grants from National Endowment for the Humanities

August 27, 2020

In July, the National Endowment for the Humanities announced it was awarding $30 million in grants to support 238 humanities projects nationwide. Among these projects are two initiatives from Arizona State University faculty within The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

Professor Yasmin Saikia and Associate Professor Chad Haines, a husband-and-wife duo in the School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies, are leading one of the funded projects to highlight groups in South Asia who are marginalized because of their religious beliefs and cultural backgrounds. Saikia and Haines were awarded $249,952 toward the project "Unfinished Partitions in South Asia and the Making of Miyahs, Biharis, and Christians into Noncitizens." Left to right: Jason Robert, Yasmin Saikia and Chad Haines. Download Full Image

The couple came to ASU 10 years ago, when Saikia was named the first Hardt-Nickachos Chair in Peace Studies at ASU’s Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict. While at ASU, the couple discovered many opportunities to collaborate in their work like never before. Saikia’s work focuses on combining history with peace in the context of the histories of premodern and contemporary South Asia, while Haines’ work looks at contemporary issues in Pakistan and the Muslim world from a cultural anthropological perspective.

As they continued to find intersections in their work, they developed "Unfinished Partitions in South Asia and the Making of Miyahs, Biharis, and Christians into Noncitizens" as a way to tell the stories of these communities while highlighting their enduring humanity and engaging the larger academic discussions around vulnerable communities, citizenship and belonging in the postcolonial context of partitioned lives.

“This project is part of an ongoing study that I came to as a historian when I started asking the questions, ‘How do you write history without a map?’ and ‘If we were to take up these lines of boundaries on maps that divide up people — what kind of story can we write about that region called South Asia?’” Saikia said. 

“For me, these questions have become very urgent. When you take those borders out, you actually start seeing how challenging the lives of people on the ground are. The states that promised them freedom, dignity and rights have not delivered on this. This is not to castigate anyone, but to make it evident that there's a lot of work to be done for people to be truly free in the region.”

Yasmin Saikia and Chad Haines on a trip to a Miyah village in Assam, India, in October 2019.

Their work will interweave humanistic research methods including archival research, oral histories, field observations and ethnographic research to gather firsthand accounts of precarious communities in South Asia. The grant will enable them to travel to India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, complete research and write a co-authored book on their findings.

“It’s an honor to receive a NEH grant, especially because it's our first time applying for any collaborative research project together,” Haines said. “The award gives validation for the topic and what's happening to communities around the world. What we're looking at is not unique to South Asia — this idea is dominant here in the U.S., across Europe and around the world. So it's just a huge boost both practically as far as having the funds to be able to do this work, but it also comes with great honor professionally.”

Jason Robert, dean's distinguished associate professor in the School of Life Sciences and center director and associate professor in the School for the Future of Innovation in Society, leads the second project that was funded. The project, Our SHARED Future: Science, Humanities, Arts, Research Ethics, and Deliberation, was awarded $192,145.

Robert is a trained philosopher of biology and bioethicist, and has been with ASU since 2004. His teaching and research focuses on the justification of controversial research, most recently in neurosciences and bioengineering. Our SHARED Future will be a four-week summer institute held in summer 2021 for humanities professors that will focus on building capacity to teach and do humanities with impact on emerging developments in bioengineering.

Jason Robert speaking at an event in 2018.

“Typically, when people talk about the need to integrate the humanities with science, technology engineering, and mathematics (STEM), they focus on integrating the humanities into STEM,” Robert said. “In our institute, we will flip the dynamic by integrating STEM into the humanities, and we will do so in a way that helps to realize the ambition of a genuine liberal arts education for the 21st century. Given the current and future potential of bioengineering to impact domains far beyond the laboratory, it is imperative that we all have the resources to participate in well-informed, critically engaged discourse and deliberation about the direction of bioengineering research.”

The institute, which will run in collaboration with the Lincoln Center for Applied Ethics, will be geared toward humanists who interface with a breadth of students across general education curriculum and more in-depth topical courses, and strive to make their teaching examples timely and relevant to issues their students will be faced with. Robert said the institute wouldn’t be possible without the support of the NEH.

“It’s always an honor to have one’s work appreciated by our peers. What’s especially rewarding in this case is that, although I am trained as and work as a humanist, this identity is sometimes overlooked by colleagues outside of ASU simply because I am a professor of life sciences,” Robert said. “The NEH was able to see past this and recognize that — despite my title and the institute’s focus on STEM — the institute is for humanists by humanists.”

“These NEH grants enable these incredibly valuable, innovative and transformative projects to move forward and make positive change in our community and in the world,” said Jeffrey Cohen, dean of humanities at The College. “We are extremely proud of Chad, Jason and Yasmin for this major accomplishment, and we look forward to watching these projects come to life.”

Emily Balli

Communications Specialist and Lead Writer, The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences

2020 ASU honors grad winner of prestigious Barry Scholarship

August 27, 2020

Corbin Witt graduated Arizona State University summa cum laude and with honors from Barrett, The Honors College in May and took a job in construction in his home state of Montana.

This October, he’ll be leaving his home and the job behind to study abroad with support from a prestigious scholarship. Corbin Witt Corbin Witt, a 2020 Arizona State University honors graduate, has won the Barry Scholarship to study at the University of Oxford in England. Photo by Samantha Lloyd. Download Full Image

Witt is a recipient of the John and Daria Barry Scholarship, commonly called the Barry Scholarship. It is offered by the Barry Foundation and the Canterbury Institute, an educational nonprofit, and funds two years of master’s, doctorate or second bachelor’s degree study at the University of Oxford in England.

“I never thought that something like this would be available to me, nor did I ever imagine myself being able to afford a graduate degree from any institution,” Witt said.

“My dad is a contractor who grew up on a cattle ranch,” Witt said. “The fact that I can go from a summer job in the construction industry to studying at the oldest university in the English-speaking world is still a little baffling to me.”

Witt’s bachelor’s degree is in human communication with a minor in civic and economic thought and leadership. He is a member of Phi Beta Kappa, the oldest academic honors society in the United States.

Paul Carrese, director of ASU’s School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership nominated Witt for the Barry Scholarship.

“The School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership is honored to be one of the nominators for the Barry Scholarship. As I told Corbin when I suggested he apply, I had benefited from a graduate scholarship to study at Oxford. I joined other faculty in thinking he was an excellent candidate for this kind of intellectual adventure. The Barry Foundation and Canterbury Institute are offering an amazing opportunity for study at one of the world’s great universities, and their distinctive approach to higher learning enriches education in both Britain and America,” Carrese said.

Witt found out he had been offered the scholarship in mid-December last year.

“I was surprised and overjoyed,” he said. “The funny thing about it was that my email was glitching at the time and I was not receiving notifications for received messages. So it took me a whole day to see that I had received the offer, and I was appalled to see that the letter said that I only had 48 hours to accept it.”

He had been spending his winter break preparing applications for law schools and had to immediately change course and apply to Oxford, since the scholarship is dependent on also being accepted to a program at the university.

Witt will begin his first term at Oxford, called the Michaelmas term, on Oct. 11. Each academic year at Oxford is divided into three terms: Michaelmas term from October to December, Hilary term from January to March, and Trinity term from April to June.

He will pursue a second bachelor’s degree in history as a student in senior status, meaning he will be on an accelerated track to complete the program in two years as a master’s degree.

“Hopefully, I will expand my professional network overseas and form lasting connections with my cohort of fellow Barry Scholars,” Witt said.

Corbin Witt talks about his experiences at ASU and the Barry Scholarship. Video by ASU’s School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership

Despite the coronavirus pandemic, Witt plans to set off for England and arrive on Oct. 4, a week before classes start. If necessary, though, he will travel earlier in order to have time to self-isolate at Oxford before the term starts.

He expects that classes will be primarily in-person, with some activities online.

Once Witt returns to the U.S. with his degree from Oxford, he intends to pursue a juris doctorate and become a judge.

“This scholarship, though, can only open doors for me on that road,” he said. “I am studying history, something that Oxford teaches in a very unique way. The method they use for history was incredibly attractive to me and I hope to learn how to see the world with fresh eyes, taking in all of the relevant context for every situation and being careful about which suppositions are fair to make.”

Witt said that the most important factors for him getting the Barry Scholarship were being involved in the School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership and Barrett, The Honors College.

“Barrett also was a major motivator that made me perform better in school,” he said. “It is easy to coast through your degree, but Barrett incentivized me to take honors courses and take on honors contracts in my favorite classes. In fact, in my (Barry Scholarship) application, I made use of an essay that I wrote for an honors contract as my writing sample.”

Common threads throughout Witt’s studies and research are legal issues and the criminal justice system.

Witt’s honors thesis was titled “Perp Walks and Prejudice”, in which he studied the messaging that is communicated by photos of criminal defendants being "perp walked," led into a police station or courthouse in such a way as to enable the media to publicize the event. 

“I have a real passion for those topics, and it shows in the quality of my work,” Witt said. “The papers of mine that I am proudest of are on legal debates for end of life care for infants and experimental medical treatments, and an analysis of how the U.S. government handled a high profile prosecution against a woman accused of aiding foreign terror groups. Those are also the papers that I constantly turn to when I need to submit a writing sample, even though they are quite hefty pieces of work.”

Witt credits his overall ASU experience with leading him down the path to success he is on today.

“It never would have been possible without the support given by ASU faculty and staff,” Witt said. “I chose ASU solely for its affordability, but it seems that it was the best of all places for me.”

Story by Ranjani Venkatakrishnan, who graduated ASU with a degree in journalism and honors from Barrett, The Honors College in May 2020. She is pursuing a master’s degree in journalism at ASU.