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Designing UR Humanities 

Facilitator: Nathan Snaza

This FLC would have two goals that are often seen as leading to distinct kinds of labor: collaboratively designing a thematic map of UR’s humanities curriculum across schools, and collectively working through philosophical, historical, and methodological questions about what “humanities” and “design” mean. Our FLC’s work begins from the axiom that the work of program design cannot be separated from philosophical, speculative, interdisciplinary study. Rather than think of these as two moments—philosophical reflection and then the pragmatic work of mapping a curriculum—we see them as co-constitutive. Design is a philosophical, collaborative endeavor. While the FLC’s structure will pointedly not parse these into two distinct moments, for the sake of making our vision clear, I will describe these strands separately.  

As the new Humanities in A&S Coordinator (I’ve been co-coordinating in the spring of 21 with outgoing coordinator Nicole Sackley), my first major proposal is a thematic map of cross-school humanities courses. Instead of adopting a model from another institution, I want our program design to be self-consciously situated in UR’s specific history and present, and explicitly oriented toward the Strategic Plan’s goal of a “an academically challenging, intellectually vibrant, and collaborative community dedicated to the holistic development of students and the production of scholarly and creative work.” Toward this end, rather than a new theme offered every year that can drive course and event development (a model found for example at Colby’s Humanities Center), I would like to gather faculty in an FLC to look broadly at existing UR curriculum across schools to identify three to five questions that already drive our work on campus but in implicit ways. Instead of imposing a curriculum, we will seek to create a map of what is already happening in inchoate ways, making the breadth and scope of our intellectual humanistic life on campus more explicit and intentional. My current proposal is that these themes would be specific enough to offer distinct foci each year, but broad enough that they include courses across departments, programs, schools, and levels. These themes would then repeat cyclically, so faculty, departments, and programs can plan ahead to offer courses and events that align with the yearly theme if they choose to do so. The themes would also be used to organize work in three programs that I will be coordinating: Bridge to Success (a summer program for incoming first-year students), the Humanities Fellows programs (a seminar and intensive research experience for sophomores), and Humanities Connect (a research group of faculty and students working across disciplines). Ultimately, we hope that a thematic curriculum mapping will allow students clear pathways through humanities courses—whether they are humanities majors or not—and offer the entire UR humanities community (faculty, students, alumni, etc.) a shared intellectual conversation each year.  

Key to my proposal is the idea that this design should be inductive and arise directly from the work we are already doing, so the only way to approach the work is collectively. I would like to gather ten faculty, including at least one member from each school, to take up this inductive mapping to design a thematic humanities curriculum at UR that is highly attentive to our specific strengths and needs. While some of this work will be narrowly administrative (looking at course offerings to discern thematic patterns, proposing a structure for deliberating about modifications to the themes in the coming years, etc.), I want to approach all humanities program development through humanities methods. We need not just a humanities curriculum, but humanities-specific ways of thinking about and enacting curriculum. To achieve this, our FLC will entwine these more administrative tasks with reading and discussing cutting edge work on community design practices and the speculative humanities. Most importantly, we will read anthropologist Arturo Escobar’s Designs for the Pluriverse: Radical Interdependence, Autonomy, and the Making of Worlds. Escobar brings work on “codesign” and “transitional design” into conservation with humanities and social scientific work in the “ontological turn” to think about design as an ontological practice of worldmaking. Arguing that “every community practices the design of itself,” Escobar draws on philosophy, Latin American social movements, and design thinking to offer a vision of design that is released from instrumentality and instead fosters particular, locally-specific ways of being and belonging. This allows our FLC to ask: what would a humanities curriculum structure at UR be that allows us to constantly re-create ourselves in thoughtful, collective ways? Put differently, we want to articulate a curricular map that is driven by a desire to understand our unique strengths and needs, and we hope that such a curriculum design will allow our humanist community on (and beyond) campus to flourish in new ways. In particular, we hope to build on existing strengths within departments and programs by creating conditions for sustained intellectual engagement across those contexts, where the conversations in classes and departments feed into the campus-wide conversations; and where the campus conversations spark unexpected new directions for thinking within majors and classes.  

Along with Escobar’s book, we will read scholarship on the future of the humanities, with a special emphasis on two related topics that also appear in Escobar’s work: 1) the necessity of rethinking “the human” by addressing how that concept has been shaped by the forces of colonialism, racial slavery, and patriarchal hierarchies; and 2) the historically fluctuating borders among “disciplines” (and among the larger divisions of “humanities,” “sciences,” and “social sciences”). In this thread of our study, we aim to ponder what vision of the human authorizes UR’s humanities work, and we will read scholarship that challenges easy or traditional understandings of what “humanities” work is. These readings may include books like Kandice Chuh’s The Difference Aesthetics Makes: On the Humanities “After Man,” Lisa Lowe’s The Intimacies of Four Continents, Donna Haraway’s Staying With the Trouble, and Erin Manning and Brian Massumi’s Thought In the Act (which describes the experimental, interdisciplinary work they have been doing for over a decade with SenseLab, loosely affiliated with Concordia University in Montreal, but with significant ties to Scandinavia and Latin America). These readings offer visions for future humanities work that affirm traditional methods and practices of humanistic inquiry, while also being highly attentive to the ways the humanities have been shaped by exclusionary and dehumanizing logics, and often overly defensive relations to scientific and social scientific disciplines.  

Our aim will be to present a draft of a thematic curriculum map to humanist and humanist-allied faculty in A&S, Jepson, SPCS, Law, and Business by April of 2022. This will include a draft list of the 3-5 questions that will recur; a first list of courses that fall under those theme questions (this list will be formatted for a presentation on a redesigned Humanities website); and a proposal for using those themes to also organize programs and events outside of classes, and ongoing deliberation about changes to the themes. The idea is that once the FLC completes its work, the Humanities Coordinator (potentially under the auspices of a proposed Humanities Center at UR) will assume responsibility for administrative maintenance of the thematic curriculum. Knowing what this thematic organization accomplishes, and understanding its relative strengths and weaknesses, will require at least six years and probably more like ten.  

Our second aim of fostering robust, ongoing intellectual and humanistic conversation across departments, programs, and schools is one that we can never “reach.” Instead, we are interested in the FLC’s work as an early iteration of the work we hope a thematic curriculum at UR will ultimately make far more common. In that sense, the work never ends – it will just change form, with the FLC seeding conversations and practices that we hope will guide the humanities at UR for years to come.