Creating a New Advocacy Strategy for the Humanities

National Humanities Alliance hosts annual meeting and advocacy day at George Washington University.

George Washington University President Steven Knapp addresses participants at the National Humanities Alliance annual meeting luncheon to discuss how GW is teaching students to participate in "engaged liberal arts."
March 15, 2016

By Brittney Dunkins

Humanities research might call to mind nebbish students tucked into library corners reading dusty, leather-bound books and lengthy dissertations on long-buried civilizations.

That image is incorrect, according to the university administrators, nonprofit leaders and humanities advocates who gathered Monday for the National Humanities Alliance (NHA) annual meeting at the George Washington University.

They say that in the 21st century, humanities research offers an increasingly critical cross-disciplinary perspective on nearly every academic discipline, from providing the historical context that builds economic theories to finding new creative expression for poetry in the digital world.

“We need to shift the narrative that what we do is not—and never was—monolithic,” said Dianne Harris, dean of the College of Humanities at the University of Utah and a panelist for the discussion on “Making the Case for Humanities Research.”

“We need to make lots of noise.”

This is the ninth consecutive year that GW has hosted the NHA meeting. GW President Steven Knapp reflected on how the university is guiding students toward “engaged liberal arts” in order to meet the challenge of preserving the study of humanities.

“One of the most profound challenges facing higher education is preserving core academic disciplines that have been responsible for much of the progress of civilizations,” Dr. Knapp said. “Preserving those disciplines and connecting the work of the university with individual, corporate and societal constituencies by ensuring that students receive the full benefits of studying those disciplines.”  

This call to arms characterized much of the discussion Monday, which served as part conference, part strategy meeting for the NHA Advocacy Day delegation that visited congressional offices Tuesday to build support for humanities research funding.

The advocacy effort is a response to the state of federal funding for humanities, which has been on the decline since the late 1990s. Though humanities funding began to tick upward in 2012, expenditures for medical research that same year were 60 times larger.

“We are making the case—not that we deserve funding more than others—but that we deserve funding as communities of scholars who participate in the same level of work that they do,” said Jim Grossman, executive director of the American Historical Association.

Panelists agreed that the future of humanities funding depends on building relationships in STEM—science, technology, engineering and math—to further multidisciplinary studies and to provide rigorous grant writing and administration training to researchers.

For example, Dr. Harris said that while serving as the director of the Program for Research in the Humanities at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, she used a graphic created by graduate students to explain disparities in funding for humanities to administrators and highlight how humanities research positively affects the collegiate and public community.

Pursuing alternative funding channels through collaborations with internal development staff and forging relationships in the community has been a successful strategy for the University of Georgia (UGA), according to Nicholas Allen, director of the UGA Wilson Center.

For example, UGA was able to transform a longstanding gift from Delta Airlines into a visiting chair position. Georgia native and Pulitzer Prize winner Alice Walker was named the first Delta Chair for Global Understanding in 2015. Ms. Walker’s position became a branch to the community and helped to validate humanities studies at the university, Dr. Allen said.

In securing the future of humanities education and research, Rosemary Feal, executive director of the Modern Language Association, said that researchers and faculty members should make their work visible and counted among university priorities.

“We can’t just have science on the homepage, we have to make humanities a point of pride,” Dr. Feal said. “If you want the resources you’ve got to fight for them and raise them.”