Nicole Anderson says societal problems such as racial discrimination and climate change can be eased by the humanities
COVID-19 has impacted lives across the globe in a variety of ways. Some have lost loved ones, others have lost their jobs or their homes, and many suffered isolation from friends and family. In Nicole Anderson’s case, it meant staying eight months in Australia before claiming her new job at Arizona State University.
Anderson, the new director at ASU’s Institute for Humanities Research (IHR), safely arrived on U.S. soil in March and is about four weeks into her new job, ready to resume her life and career.
She's also ready to share her experience and wealth of knowledge with the ASU community. Anderson's research interests are interdisciplinary and span fields such as cultural theory and practice, art theory, posthumanism, animal and environmental studies, ethics, bioculture, biopolitics, poststructuralism and continental philosophy.
ASU News spoke to Anderson about the past year, what the future might bring and how she can help students understand the importance of the humanities.
Question: You were originally supposed to arrive at ASU about a year ago, but the pandemic struck. What was the past year like for you?
Answer: It has been a challenging year for everyone everywhere in different ways. For me, over the last year my aim was to keep those around me in Sydney, as head of a large school/department, as well as myself — amidst uncertainty around obtaining a visa, challenging government travel restrictions and cancelled flights — focused, motivated and forward-looking. That was helped by the fact that I felt incredibly fortunate and privileged to have the support of ASU in general and in particular my colleagues Dean Jeffrey Cohen and Ron Broglio, associate director of IHR, as well as the patience of the wonderful IHR staff. The empathy and generosity extended to me during this past year is testament to the strong leadership and values of ASU. I look forward to repaying that incredible generosity.
Q: Why are the humanities critical right now in 2021?
A: One way I tried to explain the humanities to my inquisitive young nephew once was to tell him it concerns the way we think about ourselves. I even gave him the idea that if we ever colonize Mars, he could think of the humanities as providing diverse tools — philosophy, history, politics, literature, art, media and so on — to represent, communicate, transform, shape or create the new world we might live in (Mars) and understand the world (Earth) we came from and the history of human endeavor; in other words, our story. What is critical is how and for what purpose we tell those stories.
For this reason, I believe that the problems we face today — such as climate change denial; sexual, gender and racial discrimination; poverty; and the role of technology to name but a few — are not merely technical and economical in nature, but have to do with what and how human beings are taught to value and how they go about interpreting their world. To change values and perspectives it is not enough to present facts: Cimate science denial is an example. What makes the humanities critical right now is that it can provide a narrative that includes ethical and social justice rhetoric and stories around these issues that the general public can understand and that presents another interpretation or view of the world, with which they can interact. Part of what the humanities can do is turn the facts into the compelling stories that need to be told and influence and change the way people view the world.
Q: How can the humanities create just, ethical and sustainable worlds?
A: As we all know in the past few years there has been increasing public skepticism around "facts" and with that an escalation of tensions in many areas of thought. The humanities provides the visual, oral and digital communication skills about who we are and where we are going, and through the myriad forms of story can continue to shape the cultural, social, political and ethical imagination in socially just and inclusive ways. How the humanities can do this is through research and translating that research into our teaching. It comes down to how we collaborate with each other as well as the sciences and industry here, now, today. It is about the relevance of what is learnt in the classroom and in our research and the way we connect, convey or communicate that to students and/or the general public, so that better more thoughtful approaches to issues can be embraced.
Q: Tell me briefly what it is that the Institute for Humanities Research does and what is the scope of its work?
A: The IHR exists to facilitate research in all its varied forms. It supports research projects, it increasingly enables internal and external grants and fellowships that bring visibility to the university, and it puts on events that address the issues we are facing today in order to inspire and generate ideas and further interdisciplinary collaborations. A distinctly modern initiative is working with the sciences because they are impacting our lives more dramatically every day.
Q: What do you hope you will bring to the institute and how will it change or evolve?
A: The IHR has increased research and grown an inspiring program of events — see the newsletters — due to a range of previous directors, including the amazing work of founding director Sally Kitch and Cora Fox. More recently this is particularly due to the strong leadership of both Elizabeth Langland and Ron Broglio. Also the work that has been done by IHR staff: Elizabeth Grumbach, Lauren Whitby, Celina Osuna, Barbara Dente and Sarah Moser, has been incredibly professional and outstanding. My aim is not to come in and simply change things for the sake of it, but to respect their legacy by building on the work they have done and in consultation with them, the faculty and the university.
So it is for these reasons that as director of IHR I would want to continue to promote and support the various ways that humanities research already fosters an understanding of how humans continue to shape, traditions, customs and cultures; foster the values of dignity, agency and equity; and continue to situate the institute as the facilitator in inter- and cross-disciplinary research collaborations; making ASU greater than the sum of its parts. In and through all of this, at the same time the IHR could develop as a provider or facilitator of significant and innovative contributions and solutions to industry, government, community and the real-world problems of our times, and to increasingly engage and involve all ASU students and faculty.
Q: What’s the best thing you think you’ll like about ASU and living in the States?
A: ASU represents the best of the United States in enabling opportunities and possibilities to contribute to effecting positive and socially just changes for a better world for all. Also the inter- and cross-disciplinary work that is allowed to happen at ASU is incredibly exciting because it is empowering and innovative.
Top photo: Nicole Anderson is the new director of ASU’s Institute for Humanities Research. She earned her PhD from the University of Sydney. She recently served as the head/dean of a large interdisciplinary department (Media-Communications, Creative Arts, Language and Literature) at a leading university in NSW, Australia. Anderson is the co-founder and chief editor of the journal Derrida Today, published by Edinburgh University Press, and the founder and executive director of the Derrida Today Conferences. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU News