In the 2020-21 academic year, the Humanities Center, with the rest of the world, continued to face the challenge of operating during the COVID-19 pandemic. In September 2020, the world did not yet have vaccines and the virus was sickening thousands of people across the US and the rest world. People were anxious and depressed.
In these circumstances, the conservative approach to managing the Center would have been to scale down our operations while waiting out the pandemic to conserve our funds. Instead, with the support of the Center’s Advisory Board, I decided to run all the Center’s normal programs remotely, some via Zoom and others electronically. My vision was to make the Center a beacon of humanistic resilience by providing a space for WSU’s humanities scholars and artists, even in the face of this scourge, to continue to share their research and art, to have intellectual fellowship, and to compete for funds to support their projects. Specific Covid-19 projects included the following:
1. We titled our annual 2019-20 report “Resilience and Change” with the maxim “To Fight for Change Tomorrow, We Must Build Resilience Today”. Throughout the report we inserted pictures of Detroit-area and national buildings, activities, and people which all show that we Americans are resilient and thus will recover from the pandemic and learn from it.
2. Creating a mini-grant program with the following title and description:
CREATIVE RESPONSES TO THE COVID-19 PANDEMIC MINI-GRANTS
Deadline: October 15, 2020.
Wayne State University’s Humanities Center is sponsoring a one-time mini-grant program to invite graduate and undergraduate students and part-time faculty in the humanities, arts, and social science to reflect in creative ways, via humanistic expressions, on the COVID- 19 pandemic and its outcomes. The competition attracted 24 applications from which the Advisory Board selected 11 for funding. The project was financially supported by the deans of CLAS, Honors, Education, FPCA, Social Work, and Law. The results of this competition can be seen here:
3. CONFERENCE ON CREATVE RESPONSES TO THE COVD-19 PANDEMIC
Ten of the recipients of the Center’s COVID-19 mini-grant competition were presenters at a virtual conference sponsored by the Center. They shared the results of their projects with a virtual audience on February 27, 2021. Presenters were affiliated with a range of disciplines, including English, History, Communication, Art and Art History, and Music. This was a wonderful afternoon of music, dance, poetry, stories, and demonstrations to show that our students and faculty are warriors against the virus and are optimistic that we will overcome it. I consider this small conference one of the highlights of our 2020-21 season. We recorded the conference and posted the video on YouTube. The video can be accessed here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mPjRUdq9V5o.
4. The Center published on our website a statement on the role of the humanities in times of crisis that appeared on the website of the Consortium of Humanities Centers and Institutes (CHCI), to which our Humanities Center is affiliated. https://chcinetwork.org/ideas/a-statement-on-the-role-of-humanities-research-and-education-in- times-of-crisis
The purpose of the statement is to assert the importance of the humanities in providing ideas and skills needed to assist universities and colleges in times of crisis like the current pandemic. The statement also reminded readers of the inherent value of the humanities and arts to human civilizations. I received favorable reactions about the statement from faculty and administrators in the humanities and arts.
In the fall of 2020, the University and the country were still pulsing from the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd by a police officer. In response to the national protests against racism and police brutality, WSU president Roy Wilson issued an eloquent and unambiguous declaration of support for the Black Lives Matter movement and organized a town hall meeting on the topic. Additionally, the Office of Diversity and Inclusion, which reports to the provost, held at least three university-wide meetings to engage university citizens on the subject of police behavior and social inequities that negatively affect African Americans.
I felt that the Humanities Center should have a response to policeman’s horrible, inhumane behavior. To that end, with the assistance of the Center’s Advisory Board members, I sought out faculty who are experts in the field of police behavior towards African Americans to recruit them to give Brown Bag talks on the subject early in the fall 2020 semester. As a result, we identified sociology professor, David Merolla and his student Jason Smith who volunteered to speak on September 22, 2020, on the topic “Black, blue and blow: the effect of race and criminal history on perceptions of police violence”.
Despite the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic and the social unrest in our country around the issue of social justice for African Americans and other minorities, the Humanities Center had a good year in 2020-21. We can be proud fact that we hosted a total of 47 Brown Bag talks remotely during the academic year. These talks are interdisciplinary events that draw together scholars and artists from a variety of disciplinary backgrounds. The audiences for these talks were boosted numerically by the virtual format that allowed national and international attendance.
I am particularly proud of the resilience demonstrated by the participants in the Center’s Resident Scholars’ Program. A vital feature of the program was the monthly “roundtable” meetings. When they come together to discuss the work of one of the scholars, all residents provided “tough love” to help that scholar improve the project and absorb the interdisciplinary input of colleagues. Undaunted by the virtual nature of these meetings, the resident scholars assembled over Zoom each month and delivered scholarly evaluations of each other’s work and some developed collaborative projects. The attached Annual Report documented the success of these conversations and the virtual residencies.
The body of the attached 2020-21Annual Report also reveals the successes of our Working Groups program, the Marilyn Williamson Distinguished Faculty Fellowships Competition, the Humanities Center Doctoral Dissertation Fellowship, the Faculty Fellowships Competition on “Transitions” and the Faculty Fellows Conference on “The Future of Failure.” Held virtually on April 9, 2021, the latter conference was keynoted by Harvard Professor Robert Putnam and his co-author Shaylyn Garrett. They had collaborated on the very influential 2020 book The Upswing: How America came together a century ago and how we can do it again. (Simon and Schuster). The book and their talk provided evidence and arguments that propose that by moving from an individualistic to community-oriented ideology, Americans can become a stronger and more unified society just as we did a century ago after the gilded age when the emphasis was on “I” rather than “we.”
Also described in our Annual Report is a new initiative, our Virtual Book Launch Program,
that debuted in January 2021 and modeled on similar programs at some major universities.
The Program was brought to the Advisory Board’s attention by board member Elizabeth Lublin and was enthusiastically adopted in November 2020.
Here’s a link to the Call for Proposals and the promotional flyer:
I am happy to say that the Center had two very successful and well-attended launches of new books by William Lynch (History) and Stephen Chrisomalis (Anthropology), respectively. By July 2021, there had already been submissions from faculty requesting that the Center launch their new books in the fall 2021 semester. This augur well for the program in 2021-22.
In general, the 2020-21 academic year was a challenging one for the Humanities Center and for me as its director. However, we were able to be successful in our work mainly through the dedication of my very small staff: Tiffin Carter, (our Administrative Assistant), Kennedy Cockrell (part-time student assistant, Brown Bag coordinator) and Jiayun Zhou (part-time student assistant, webmaster); the support of key personnel in the Provost’s office, particularly Sharon Almeranti and Nicole Johnson; and the assistance and support of the Center’s Advisory Board.
In July 2021 the university happily welcomed a new provost, Dr. Mark Kornbluh. He comes to Wayne highly recommended and has already been impressive in meetings and through his written communications. The Center reports to his office so I am looking forward to working with him and using the Center to help him accomplish his agenda in the university.
As always, it is an honor and privilege to serve as the Director of the Humanities Center.
Walter F. Edwards, D.Phil
Director, Humanities Center