KALAMAZOO — The provost of Western Michigan University is calling it “a living room for conversation.”
A professor of Islamic studies says it can “help us come to grips with the social and economic challenges we face today in the U.S.”
Its founding director sees it as “kind of an incubator for ideas and projects” and a way to “take up intellectual and social questions that can’t be answered by any one discipline.”
All three say they want it to bring together faculty, staff, students and the broader Kalamazoo community.
They’re talking about the new University Center for the Humanities, which is scheduled to have its grand opening Oct. 5 and whose official founding is up for a vote by the WMU Board of Trustees on Sept. 28.
The center is in Room 2500 of Knauss Hall, a renovated space that was once the Space Gallery. Its organizers already have a full slate of lectures and other free events planned for the new academic year.
“Our speakers will be talking about big issues of interest to the community and to the wider world and showing how the humanities has an impact on real-world issues,” said Katherine Joslin, a longtime WMU English professor and the center’s founding director.
For example, prominent bioethicist Arthur Caplan will discuss health-care rationing, and New York University professor Richard Arum will talk about his study revealing that some undergraduates on the nation’s campuses are learning very little during their college years.
Humanities centers have grown in number at colleges and universities, and the WMU center was proposed two years ago by three new faculty members:
* Blain Auer, who teaches Islamic studies in the Department of Comparative Religion
* Natalio Ohanna, of the Spanish Department
* Lofton Durham, who teaches theater history.
They went to Provost Timothy Greene with the idea, and he was very supportive, Joslin said.
Greene said Joslin is being modest in not taking some credit for the idea. She made a similar proposal several years ago, he said. Joslin and two other employees — one full time and the other part time — are staffing the center, which also has a 10-member advisory board composed of faculty members. The center is funded through the Office of Academic Affairs.
Joslin said she was thrilled the new faculty members “were energized to bring the humanities back to the fore at Western.”
Discussing, solving issues
The term humanities refers to subjects such as literature, philosophy, ethics, history, religion, archeology, anthropology, geography, economics, political science and sociology. But no matter what area you might be working in, “the minute you step back to ask why you’re doing it, what the implications are, what the social impact is,” that is when you are dealing with the humanities, Joslin said.
Humanities events at WMU
These events planned by the University Center for the Humanities are free and open to the public:
David Carrasco, of Harvard University — “Borderlands and Cultural Encounters: Stories and Rhythms of Latin(o) American Lives,” a multimedia presentation on the cultural encounters among Spanish, Aztec and African people that formed the Mexican Americas, 4 p.m. Oct. 27, Room 2008, Richmond Center.
Jim Torczyner, of McGill University — “Fifteen Years Creating Engaged Citizenry in the Middle East: Building Strong Communities in Jordan, Israel and Palestine through Rights Advocacy,” 4 p.m. Jan. 26, Room 2008, Richmond Center.
Amanda Katherine Rath, of Goethe University, Frankfurt, Germany — A talk on “Artworld(s) in Indonesia,” 5:30 p.m. Sept. 22, Room 2008, Richmond Center. Related to an exhibit called “Installation Arts: Indonesia” at the Richmond Center.
Opening reception for University Center for the Humanities — “Barbecue and Books,” Room 2500, Knauss Hall, 4-6 p.m. Oct. 5. WMU humanities scholars and writers are asked to donate signed copies of their books and articles for the center’s collection.
Film: “Alambrista” — About a Mexican man who enters the United States to find work to support his family, 7 p.m. Oct. 7, Little Theater.
Richard Arum, of New York University — An analysis of four years of student data by the author of “Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses,” and a look at how students are faring in the current U.S. economic crisis, 5 p.m. Nov. 3, Room 2000, Schneider Hall.
Claudia Stevens, of Boston University — “Pigeon,” a theatrical performance and discussion about famed environmentalist and animal-rights champion Dame Miriam Rothschild, 7 p.m. Nov. 8, Dalton Center Lecture Hall.
Arthur Caplan, of the University of Pennsylvania, health care talk on “The Inevitability of Rationing and How to Be Fair About It,” 4 p.m. Feb. 23, Room 2008, Richmond Center.
Sonya Bernard-Hollins, journalist and WMU graduate — “How to Uncover the Hidden Treasures in Your Archives and Bring Them to Life,” 4 p.m. March 22, Room 2500, Knauss Hall.
Merze Tate Exhibit — Photographs, letters and tickets that document Tate’s travels and accomplishments, March 1-30, Room 2500, Knauss Hall.
Jen Bervin, poet and visual artist — “Small Infinities — Emily Dickinson’s Manuscripts,” 4 p.m. March 28, Meader Rare Book Room. Her large-scale works will be on exhibit at the Kalamazoo Book Arts Center, Suite 103A, Park Trades Center, 326 W. Kalamazoo Ave., where she will present her own poems at 7 p.m. March 29.
At WMU, about 4,000 of approximately 20,000 undergraduates major in the humanities, but all students take humanities courses as part of general education requirements, Auer said.
The humanities “contribute greatly to critical thinking and creativity and provide a basis for common discussion,” Greene said.
Auer voiced a similar view. “The humanities provide a grounding for a civil and civic society,” he said. “ ... They can provide the kind of forum that is essential to democracy. It’s not just the five-minute sound bite you get in a newscast. It’s deeper, more concerted efforts to understand the core issues of the day and how we can solve these, not just in the short term but in the long term.”
Auer said he would like the center to facilitate discussions on issues such as the economy, globalization, politics, democracy and representation, the media and information technology. And he’d like to see discussions about providing adequate education for all American citizens and preventing environmental catastrophes like the oil spill in the Kalamazoo River.
In October, the center is planning a free screening of the film “Alambrista,” which is about a Mexican man who slips across the border into the United States to find work to support his family back home. Auer said he has been talking with Hispanic organizations, farm workers and immigration-rights lawyers to let them know about the event.
Last year, when about 10 people were working on getting the humanities center started, they brought Martha Nussbaum, professor of law and ethics at the University of Chicago Law School, to WMU to talk about why democracy needs the humanities.
“That was an excellent example of an activity that the center would host that drew a very large crowd into the Bernhard Center, with people from the community and faculty and staff attending,” Greene said.
The center also is involved in two work groups, one planning a two-day conference for medical professionals and the other planning to teach humanities classes to low-income people for free.
Joslin said to have the center up and running just two years after it was proposed is quite unusual.
“Normally, it’s hard to make things happen that fast at the university,” she said. “I think it indicates a pent-up desire for it.”