Creating a Space for the Humanities: Colby Center for the Arts and Humanities

Driving the Intellectual Discourse on Campus: the Colby Center for the Arts and Humanities

By Kerill O'Neill, Director & Julian D. Taylor Professor of Classics

When President David A. Greene arrived at Colby College in 2014, he immediately recognized the critical role that the Center for the Arts and Humanities plays in the educational experience and intellectual life of students and faculty alike. As a result, he identified the Center as one of the college’s strategic assets. Since then President Greene has increased investment in the arts and humanities across the board, and has been an extremely generous supporter of the Center. He has replaced expiring grants with college funds, increased our budget so that we can add new programs and expand existing ones, and actively supported our attempts to earn new grants. As I contemplate where the Center is today, I have to remind myself how far we have come over the last decade.

A crisis can often prompt an explosion of audacity, innovation, and collaboration. In 2008, humanistic faculty at Colby College realized that the challenges the humanities had faced for some time at public universities were now laying siege to private liberal arts colleges and small universities. The false national narrative that dismissed the arts and humanities as frivolous pursuits that condemned graduates to poorly paid careers had begun to affect enrollment patterns on our campus, and we were concerned that the financial crisis might accelerate that trend. At the same time, we recognized that constant planning, effective grant-writing, and college-supported fundraising had given fresh energy, strong programs, and impressive resources to the Natural and Social Sciences at Colby. The net effect was that the humanities seemed increasingly forgotten and marginalized. But how could we reverse the decline in our numbers, and find ways to strengthen numerous, disparate disciplines with no tradition of working together towards common goals? At that time, I was serving as the Humanities Division chair, and I created a broadly representative Humanities Steering Committee to craft a ten-year plan for the Humanities (borrowing a practice from the Natural Sciences). Fortunately for us, our then-president, William Bro Adams, immediately offered his support, and drew the attention of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to the work we were doing. Among several other recommendations, we had urged the creation of a Center for the Arts and Humanities, and Mellon asked us to draft a proposal focusing on that goal.

The vast majority of humanities centers and institutes are to some extent designed as sanctuaries where faculty may devote uninterrupted time and thought to research. Without question, that model has facilitated great humanities research, but many institutions must now commit to changing how the humanities are perceived by students (and their parents). At stake is the health or even survival of humanistic departments and programs that have been hemorrhaging students through diminishing class enrollments and shrinking numbers of majors. While matters were not quite so dire at Colby, we received an unequivocal directive from the President and the Board of Trustees that the mission of the center had to be student engagement. We therefore committed to designing a Center that would seek innovative ways to draw students into the study of the arts and humanities, to enrich their experience of classes and events, and to forge an intellectual community with them. As we examined best practices and various center models on other campuses, we were constantly thinking about adapting them to the Colby context, and to our student-focused mission. In this endeavor, we greatly benefited from seeking the advice of CHCI staff, attending a CHCI annual meeting, and speaking with a range of Center directors (at Carleton College, Harvard University, Smith College, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Wake Forest University, and Wellesley College). The counsel we received from these generous colleagues saved us from many potential mistakes and expedited our planning process. It was inspiring to see how their centers, with a diverse range of missions, models, and programs, were helping the humanities to bloom at their home institutions. As we borrowed, adapted, or created our own programs from scratch, we felt excited by the new avenues of opportunity that opened before us.

The Mellon Foundation responded very favorably to our proposal and awarded us an extraordinarily generous, expendable grant for the creation of the Colby Center for the Arts and Humanities. At that point I was named as the founding director of the Center, and, to my good fortune, most of the members of the original Humanities Steering Committee agreed to serve on the Center’s Faculty Coordinating Committee. As a result of their wisdom and collaborative spirit, we successfully made the leap (and it is a big leap) from planning to implementation of programs. Together, we have reshaped the liberal arts experience at Colby with the humanities seizing center stage. Among the most significant programs we now run are the Annual Humanities Theme, Humanities Labs, and the Environmental Humanities Initiative.

Annual humanities themes are offered by many centers, often taking the form of faculty seminars that may or may not include students, and may or may not offer associated public programming. At Colby, our humanities theme is constructed as a campus-wide, interdisciplinary conversation exploring a particular topic through exhibits, speakers, performances, and (critically) course work. In any given year, the curriculum includes up to fifty theme courses in multiple disciplines available to our (exclusively) undergraduate population. We foster this degree of engagement by offering stipends (through a competitive process) for faculty across the curriculum to develop courses that engage with the theme. Even without stipends, many other faculty develop or re-tool courses from their repertoire so that they and their students can become part of the discourse. In addition, we sponsor a Monday-night public lecture series on the theme by visiting scholars and Colby faculty that students may take for one credit by submitting short reflection papers or blogging about the lectures. The net result is that, when we host major theme events (a keynote speaker, symposium, screening, etc.), aside from the faculty and interested community members, we can attract a large, informed audience of undergraduates primed to engage with each other from a variety of disciplinary perspectives. The resulting friction of ideas generates heat, light, and moments of fresh insight that embody the best of the liberal arts experience. In particular, the theme keynote has become the biggest event on campus every year, regularly attracting audiences of 650 to 850. Another advantage of our model is that this big keynote is not just a one-off, transactional event where a well-known visitor causes a stir that lasts only as long as she is on campus. On the contrary, her voice becomes an important part of a conversation that lasts the entire year.

On a campus of just 1,850 students, a keynote that draws hundreds of students as part of a year-long series of events, performances, screenings, symposia, and classes, helps to build an intellectual community with the humanities at its core. In the last few years, the Center has welcomed many extraordinary speakers to Colby, including Salman Rushdie, Homi K. Bhabha, Maya Lin, Bill McKibben, LaToya Ruby Frazier, Cornel West, and Roxane Gay. Even our very first keynote, when the Center was in its infancy, was a huge success, and it illustrates another benefit of our embrace of students. In our earliest days, the Center established a Student Advisory Board, and that has proved to be one of the best decisions we have made. Our SAB recruits highly motivated student-advocates who often help us identify the kind of speakers, events, and programming that will pique student interest. For our first keynote, for the humanities theme Comedy Seriously, our SAB recommended that we invite the writer, activist, and comedian Baratunde Thurston, author of How to be Black, a collection of autobiographical essays that confronts racism in America with wit and wisdom. At the time, I was unfamiliar with his work but SAB convinced me and my faculty colleagues that his voice mattered, and that his stint as the head of Digital for The Onion would prove a big draw. They were absolutely right. Hundreds of students (along with faculty and staff) packed into one our biggest spaces and heard Baratunde deliver an astonishing presentation that had us laughing, reflecting, and pursuing difficult conversations with open minds for a long time afterwards. A philosophy major, Baratunde also proved to be inspirational in more intimate groups, talking to Humanities students about the advantages of their disciplines in crafting lives and careers of purpose. Because of that start, and numerous events, programs, and partnerships since then, the Center is recognized as a place that fosters open dialogue, a place where all students and faculty are seen, heard, and respected, a place where the entire community can find an intellectual home.

Another significant part of our engagement with the curriculum is our program of Humanities Labs. We studied Humanities Lab programs around the country (e.g. at Duke, Stanford, and Beloit College). Once again, we identified elements that we could adopt or adapt but crafted a program that suited our particular needs. With our Labs, we aim to preserve the intrinsic benefits of humanistic studies, but also to enhance experiential learning by incorporating observation, hands-on experimentation, and skill-building practices more commonly associated with the natural sciences. Courses across our humanistic disciplines turn museums, archives, and locations on and off campus into laboratories. We are fortunate to have some exceptional resources that have offered a variety of opportunities for our faculty. With 36,000 square feet of exhibition space, and a commitment to supporting research and learning, the Colby Museum of Art has been a regular home to Humanities Labs in a wide variety of disciplines. Within the Library, Special Collections has put its fascinating archives at the disposal of multiple Humanities Labs, too. In addition, there are numerous locations off-campus that have proved equally fertile ground for this type of experiential learning. The Northeast Historic Film Archives, the Redington Museum (local history), the L.C. Bates Museum (home to extraordinary cabinets of curiosities), and multiple other places around Maine (historical sites, artist homes, etc.) have become laboratories that the Center makes accessible to Colby classes.

Our undergraduate students partner with faculty in seeking answers to big questions, and often share their results with a wider public. Since the launch of the Center, every humanistic discipline at Colby has made Humanities Labs part of their curriculum, and we now reach many students who may not have seen themselves as budding humanists when they started at Colby. As part of a communications strategy to attract potential humanities majors to apply to Colby, the Center has made a series of short films about individual Humanities Labs that give some sense of the variety of disciplines, formats, and locations involved. For example, students in The German Fairytale in Popular Culture partnered with fourth graders in a local school to reimagine these stories. By doing so they gained fresh perspectives on the tales, acquired a greater understanding of the learning process, and engaged in a meaningful way with a part of their local community. Others in an American Studies class, Mapping Waterville, performed geographical and architectural fieldwork, and then constructed an online archive of Waterville’s built environment using architectural sketches, photographs, interviews, and archival research. They analyzed and interpreted the town’s material and spatial character, tracked and explained changes across time, and published their interpretations online using innovative digital mapping technologies. Aside from learning the history of their college town, they acquired valuable skills, and created a resource that is informing current revitalization efforts in the downtown area. For faculty and students alike, part of the excitement of these courses is that often nobody knows what the outcome will be at the start. At a recent division meeting, a senior faculty member told our provost that she was having more fun now as a teacher than at any time in her thirty-year career, that she was daring to try things that she never would have before, and that this change was all due to the culture of innovation, risk-taking, and exploration that the Center’s Humanities Lab program has created.

When the Center opened, we did not have any specific programs in Environmental Humanities but the success of our 2015-2016 humanities theme Human/Nature prompted us to change that. Human/Nature was the first humanities theme to have been led by faculty both within and outside the humanistic disciplines. The co-sponsors, faculty in Art, Cinema Studies, and Environmental Studies, asked our entire community to reflect upon nature, the built environment, and the ways in which our relationship to the natural world has shaped human existence. The scale of the participation in this theme was unprecedented. Fifteen departments, drawn from all four academic divisions, offered an astonishing 63 theme-based courses to over 1,200 students. In the same year, the community was stimulated by over 50 different Human/Nature events: speakers, panels, film screenings, performances, exhibits, readings, symposia, workshops, and the biggest conference ever hosted at Colby. The success of the Human/Nature theme demonstrated that partnering with others beyond the humanities, and engaging in a broad, multidisciplinary conversation is a very fruitful strategy. As the academic year drew to a close, we realized that we did not want the conversations on this crucial subject to come to an end. I was then fortunate to work with perceptive faculty members from Art, American Studies, and Environmental Studies in crafting a proposal to launch an ambitious Environmental Humanities initiative at Colby. Once again, the Mellon Foundation awarded us a very generous grant. We now have a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in Environmental Humanities, and have already offered short campus residencies to three Distinguished Fellows: Winona LaDuke, Kim Stanley Robinson, and Mark Dion. We have maintained our commitment to students by including a program in EH Labs, offering student research fellowships for EH projects, and publishing Fauna, an EH magazine featuring student art and literature. For the first time, however, we are dedicating significant resources to supporting faculty research in the form of a yearlong Faculty Seminar in Environmental Humanities and a Summer Institute for Environmental Humanities.

Multidisciplinarity comes naturally in the intimate setting of liberal arts colleges and small universities where faculty tend to know and interact with colleagues in very different fields. The first three EH Faculty Seminars have drawn faculty from 12 different programs: American Studies; Art; East Asian Studies; English and Creative Writing; Environmental Studies; French; German; History; Philosophy; Russian; Spanish; and Science, Technology, and Society. The breadth of engagement is transforming the profiles of multiple departments. Some of the seminar members have been accomplished EH scholars, but others have been relative novices interested in developing new areas of research and teaching. Some members of these seminars have been accepted into our inaugural Summer Institute for Environmental Humanities (August 2019), a week-long program of workshops, seminars, and lectures led by three eminent academics: Stephanie LeMenager (Barbara and Carlisle Moore professor of English and Environmental Studies at the University of Oregon), Amanda Boetzkes (Professor of Contemporary Art History and Theory at the University of Guelph), and Kyle Whyte (Timnick Chair in the Humanities and Professor of Philosophy and Community Sustainability at Michigan State University). It is a good measure of the burgeoning interest in Environmental Humanities that this first iteration of the Summer Institute attracted 77 applicants of every academic rank, from 64 institutions, distributed across 6 countries.

Aside from involving the humanities in addressing some of the biggest issues of our time, our EH initiative complements in a very strategic way pre-existing strengths of Colby. In 2013 Colby became the fourth college in the USA to achieve carbon neutrality. Our Environmental Studies program is among the oldest and best offered at U.S. liberal arts colleges, and students can take advantage of Colby’s Buck Environment and Climate Change Lab, which supports academic research, internships, and global experiences focused on environmental sustainability and climate change. In addition, Colby has forged strategic partnerships with the Schoodic Institute at Acadia National Park, the Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences, and the Up East Foundation. The latter has transformed Allen Island, off the coast of Maine, into a living laboratory for humanists and scientists alike. With environmental degradation and climate change becoming ever more pressing concerns, it makes a lot of sense for us to find ways to equip our students to confront those challenges with the full range and power of a liberal arts education.

In conclusion, every campus has its own context, needs, and potential but our Center’s role in the revitalization of the humanistic disciplines at Colby may prove inspirational to others. The lessons I have learned from the formation and early years of the Center are:

  • to be bold and dream big
  • to trust the collective wisdom of colleagues
  • to learn from the experience of others even on quite different campuses
  • to take full advantage of everything students can contribute to labs, research collaborations, and advisory boards
  • to think strategically, take what you can get, and then build on your strengths

Having earned a place in the hearts and minds of our students, faculty, and successive administrations, the Colby Center for the Arts and Humanities is eager to continue engaging the entire campus, enhancing the classroom experience of students and faculty, and building an intellectual community centered on the humanities. In the years to come, we will continue to focus on students but we will also seek to expand our support for faculty research, particularly in ways that advance multidisciplinary, collaborative work on the biggest questions facing us today.