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Institute makes humanities 'real' in today's society

March 28, 2007

“The humanities offer riskful thinking; they ask us to think about things in unusual ways,” says Sally Kitch, who joined ASU this year as the founding director of the Institute for Humanities Research.

“Universities are institutions that produce and engage with complexity, and the humanities are at the core of that mission,” Kitch says. “Things are not always what they seem; what appears new today may have deep connections with the past. As humanists, we pose compelling questions and ask people to think with their imaginations as well as with their rational minds.”

Whether it's seeking common ground between China and the United States, or investigating interactions between urban systems and spaces, making the humanities real in contemporary society forms the basis for the institute's research clusters, seed grants, fellowships and lectures.

Now in its second year, the Institute for Humanities Research in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences (CLAS) will celebrate transformational humanities scholarship at a reception for Kitch from 5:30 p.m. to 6:45 p.m., March 29, at the Lattie F. Coor Building 's east portico on ASU's Tempe campus. The reception precedes a 7 p.m. lecture – “After the Humanities” – given by Marjorie Garber, an author, cultural critic and Harvard University professor.

While Garber will explore the relationship of the humanities today to the sciences, the social sciences and the creative arts, the question “What are humanities good for?” was addressed earlier this year by CLAS faculty in a series of lunchtime seminars.

“One of the things we're doing at the institute is collaborating across discipline boundaries,” Kitch says. “We are not just humanists speaking with other humanists. We're engaging with other fields.”

“Professor Kitch brings years of experience in interdisciplinary collaboration in the humanities – a focus that merges cultural studies, women and gender studies, and that invites scholars in the social sciences and sciences to engage in humanistic inquiry,” says Deborah Losse, dean of humanities in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

“The panel and discussion sessions that she has organized, “What are the Humanities Good For?” demonstrate her gift at bringing scholars from across the university and beyond together to focus on the role of the humanities in civil society,” Losse says.

“The Institute for Humanities Research highlights the significant investment of ASU's Office of the Vice President for Research and Economic Affairs and the college in advancing research in the humanities and to making essential ties between the humanities and scholars in the sciences and social sciences,” Losse notes. “The institute has become a central location where scholars gather, exchange ideas, hone their skills in seeking external funding and engage with leading distinguished scholars from other universities.

“Faculty from across ASU have a place to come together to focus on humanistic inquiry,” she adds, attributing the success to the excellent leadership of Rachel Fuchs, the former interim director, as well as to Kitch and to Carol Withers, the assistant director.

One example of the collaboration taking place at the institute is the research cluster that is investigating interactions between urban values, urban systems and spaces, and inhabitants of cities by bringing together historians, geographers, architects and urban planners to discuss how and why urban spatial systems, designs and practices have varied, both geographically and chronologically. Specifically, the cluster is investigating how cultural and social values, such as the relationship between private and public spaces and beliefs that city design can and should reflect and shape individuals' relationship to their city, shape urban systems and spaces, along with the imperatives of mobility, shelter, trade, health and safety.

“The research that the institute sponsors is research that engages with compelling issues,” Kitch says. “Everything that we do has relevance and importance to understanding the contemporary world.”

Yet, the focus is not just contemporary, she says, adding: “We also provide historical context.”

Illustrating that point is one of this year's fellows symposia – “Trading Values: Money and Culture in Early Modern Europe” – to be held March 31 at the Phoenix Art Museum .

“This symposium is unique because it will focus on the moral and cultural changes that accompanied the rise of the monetary economy from the 14th through the 17th centuries, but it will also allow participants to consider how these early debates still contribute to contemporary notions of money, culture and morality,” says symposium co-organizer Juliann Vitullo, associate professor of Italian at ASU.

The “Trading Values” symposium reflects Kitch's perspective on the humanities, which is not just keeping traditions alive, but examining those traditions and thinking through those traditions into future planning and future social design.

“One of my goals is to help everyone understand that humanities research is transformative, rather than simply a repository of the past,” she says.