What’s the Value of Humanities Research?

What’s the Value of Humanities Research?
Panel Presentations and Open Discussion

Monday, September 8, 2014
3:00 P.M. – 5:00 P.M.
Banquet Room, University Club Building

We in the humanities face widespread clamor for STEM fields, public demand for measurable and monetary value for research and majors, and rapidly changing landscapes of knowledge in the unfolding Digital Revolution and globalized Information Age. With the humanities “in crisis”—yet again—many are effectively defending the importance of the humanities for a college education.

But what about research in the humanities? Does it matter? How and why?

  • What’s the value of research in the humanities in the 21st century? What’s its use or usefulness? How do we define valuein reference to our work?
  • What’s the matter of humanities research? Is our task preservation or creation? Interpretation or discovery? Critical analysis or recovery? Innovations or replications? Instrumentalist solutions to problems or joyful expansions of knowledge?
  • Should our research engage more substantially with the issues facing the world today? Is it sufficient to pursue knowledge as an end in itself?
  • Do the “pure humanities” parallel “pure science” in as-yet-undetermined future value?
  • Can we justify the humanities’ conventional focus on human meaning-making in a “posthuman” age of massive climate change, the declining diversity of species, the rise of robots, cyborgs, and chimeras?
  • Can or should humanities research become more collaborative? What forms of collaboration beyond the model of lab science might work in the humanities? Is there still a role for individual research?
  • Who do we do humanities research for? And to what purpose? A small circle of specialists? A wide range of fields? Our students? The “public”? Ourselves?
  • What’s the value of humanities research for a liberal arts education? For students? For the “public”? For individuals? For familial, communal, and global relations?
  • How do we affirm and communicate humanities research in the face of constant pressure to justify the value and usefulness of what we do?

Panel Presentations followed by open discussion. Come with your ideas!

Biographies of Panelists

Guillermina De Ferrari is Professor of Spanish and Comparative Literature and the Director of the Center for Visual Cultures. Her research focuses on contemporary Caribbean narrative and art. Her first book Vulnerable States: Bodies of Memory in Contemporary Caribbean Fiction (2007) studies the metaphorical power of the vulnerable body in Caribbean narrative from the perspective of postcolonial theory. Her second book Community and Culture in Post-Soviet Cuba (2014), which analyzes contemporary literature and art produced in Cuba since 1991, attributes the extraordinary survival of the Cuban Revolution to a social contract based on deeply ingrained notions of gender, community, and ethics. She is currently curating an exhibit calledApertura: Photography in Cuba Today to be held at the Chazen Museum in spring 2015.


Sara Guyer is Professor of English and Director of the Center for the Humanities. She also teaches in the Center for Jewish Studies and the Department of Comparative Literature and Folklore Studies, and has designed a new graduate certificate in public humanities that will launch this spring. Her research focuses on romanticism and its legacies, on biopolitics and critical theory, and more recently on institutional questions of the humanities. She is the author of Romanticism after Auschwitz (2007) and the forthcoming Reading with John Clare: Biopoetics, Sovereignty, Romanticism (2015). She is currently at work on a collection of essays on “strategic anthropomorphism” and a special issue of South Atlantic Quarterly on biopolitics. She edits the new book series at Fordham, Lit Z and serves on the International Advisory Committee of the Consortium of Humanities Centers and Institutes.

Caroline Levine is Professor and Chair of the English Department. She specializes in Victorian literature, world literature, and literary and cultural theory. Particularly interested in relations between art and politics, she is the author of three books that address this question from different perspectives: The Serious Pleasures of Suspense: Victorian Realism and Narrative Doubt(2003); Provoking Democracy: Why We Need the Arts (2007); and Forms: Whole, Rhythm, Hierarchy, Network (forthcoming, 2015). She is also the nineteenth-century editor of the Norton Anthology of World Literature and co-convener of the World Literatures Research Group and Sawyer Seminar (2015-17).

David Loewenstein is the Helen C. White Professor of English and the Humanities; he is an affiliate of the UW Religious Studies Program. His research has focused on literature in relation to politics and religion in early modern England. Noted Milton scholar and author of many books, he has most recently published Treacherous Faith: The Specter of Heresy in Early Modern English Literature and Culture (2013), a book that studies the culture of religious fear-mongering and the construction of heretics and heresies in early modern England from Thomas More to John Milton; much of the research for this book was done while he was a Senior Fellow at the IRH.

Daegan Miller is a Mellon Post-doctoral Fellow and a cultural and environmental historian of the 19th-century American landscape. His work focuses on how nineteenth-century Americans conceived of alternative, countermodern landscapes, ones that contest the legacy of Manifest Destiny, scientific racism, and the cultural hegemony of capitalism. Besides cultural and environmental history, he draws on eco-criticism, visual culture, cultural landscape studies, the history of science and technology, the various spatial turns in the humanities, and radical politics. He has published work in Rethinking History,Environmental Humanities, the creative writing journal Stone Canoe, and currently has pieces working their way throughRaritan and The American Historical Review. He is completing a book manuscript, Witness Tree: Essays on Landscape and Dissent from the 19th-Century United States.

Lynn Nyhart is Vilas-Bablitch-Kelch Distinguished Achievement Professor of the History of Science, with affiliations in the Holtz Center for Science and Technology Studies, the Center for German and European Studies, and Gender and Women’s Studies. Nyhart’s main research interests lie in the history of European and American biology in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and the relations between popular and professional science. With Scott Lidgard at the Field Museum (Chicago), she is currently working on a history of concepts of biological part-whole relations and individuality in the nineteenth century. She is the author of Modern Nature: The Rise of the Biological Perspective in Germany (2009), and Biology Takes Form: Animal Morphology and the German Universities, 1800-1900 (1996). She is immediate past president of the History of Science Society.

References for the Curious

Sources addressing the “crisis in the humanities” and what we should do about it abound. For the curious, the Institute is making available the following resources located in Room 201 (the Copy Room) for reading in the building.

  • American Academy of Arts and Sciences. The Heart of the Matter: The Humanities and Social Sciences. Report Brief. Summary of Report submitted to Congress. June 2013.
  • Peter Brooks, ed. The Humanities and Public Life. Essays by Appiah, Butler, and many others. New York: Fordham UP, 2014.
  • Helen Small. The Value of the Humanities. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2013.