U-M launches major humanities initiative focused on collaboration

September 28, 2015
  • umichnews@umich.edu

University of Michigan seal on a glass door.ANN ARBOR—Humanities faculty at the University of Michigan will be given the resources to experiment with a collaborative, team-based approach under a new initiative launched by the Office of the Provost.

Under the Michigan Humanities Collaboratory, several teams will work on large-scale projects that create new models for humanities research, its communication to the broader public and training of the next generation of scholars. Led by humanities faculty, the teams will include other university faculty, librarians, and undergraduates, graduate students and postdoctoral fellows.

The university is investing more than $5 million over four years in this effort, which is distinctive in the U.S. in its focus on fostering collaboration led by humanists in higher education. Following review of its work, funding for the collaboratory may be renewed for an additional three years for a total of $10 million in support.

“The humanities are critical to understanding our complex, challenging, interconnected yet sometimes inaccessible world, and to appreciating our place in it,” Provost Martha Pollack said.

The humanities are disciplines that study human culture and thought, including language, literature, philosophy, history and the arts.

“The collaboratory will help scholars at Michigan articulate the value of collaboration as a humanities practice, while meaningfully advancing the work of the humanities for the broader public,” Pollack said.

The collaboratory will provide financial support, training opportunities and a framework for faculty as they assemble teams to raise questions on a larger scale, and develop new ways to share their work widely with the public. It also will enhance the student experience by providing a deeper integration of students into humanities research.

Dedicated space within the Hatcher Graduate Library will allow team members to engage in cross-project conversations, interact closely with other members of the campus community and make the work of humanities scholarship more visible.

The provost selected Peggy McCracken, professor of French, women’s studies and comparative literature, to serve as the collaboratory coordinator.

“The collaboratory will help us build an infrastructure that will support humanists as they design and pursue collaborative projects; it will also facilitate their use of a whole array of new research tools,” McCracken said.

Examples of the kind of large-scale projects the collaboratory seeks to support might include study of the way our culture constitutes ability and disability, understanding inequalities in the digital world or confronting the challenges of translation across language, cultures and communities.

“The barriers to collaboration in the humanities have been long standing,” said Sara Blair, vice provost for academic and faculty affairs and professor of English language and literature.

“Traditionally humanities research has taken the form of one project, one scholar, one product. The image is of the lonely scholar in a dimly lit archive bent over a manuscript. Humanities work in the 21st century includes that kind of patient study, but it is far more varied and expansive. We want the collaboratory to show our campus, and the broader public, that humanists have extraordinary questions, ideas and methods to contribute to the richer understanding of our world.”

Opportunities for project development and seed funding will be available this fall and winter to support faculty as they build projects and teams, with selected projects to begin in fall 2016. A humanities faculty advisory board will assist in the recruitment of initial participants, the creation of project development guidelines and the selection of funded projects.