Nov. 18, 1999
Vol. 19 No. 5

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    [janel mueller] by jason smith
    Janel Mueller

    Dean strives to foster community, coherence in Humanities Division

    By Arthur Fournier
    News Office

    Janel Mueller, the William Rainey Harper Professor in English Language & Literature, succeeded Philip Gossett, the Robert W. Reneker Distinguished Service Professor in Music, as Dean of the Division of the Humanities June 30. Gossett had served as Dean for 10 years. News writer Arthur Fournier spoke with Mueller, the first woman to be named a divisional dean in the University’s history, about the work that lies ahead.

    You joined the University faculty in 1967 as a Lecturer in English and the Committee for General Studies in the Humanities. In addition to teaching and pursuing your own research, you’ve been involved with the division and the University in numerous administrative capacities since the very beginning of your tenure. As both a witness of and participant in the changes that have occurred since you first arrived, can you reflect on some of the differences you see in the Humanities Division now as compared to 30 years ago?

    Since the late ’60s, profound changes in our society have affected the academy too. One of the most important is the opening up of hiring practices to include women and minorities. We now have new perspectives that are influencing any normative picture of what research in the humanities ought to include. A more global, multicultural embrace still includes the classics of the Western tradition while allowing scholars latitude to look beyond the received canon for contributions from other classes and cultures. In one way, this makes the university system a new enterprise––different not only from its incarnation of 30 years ago, but also regrouping along some very different disciplinary lines than those that originated at universities in the Middle Ages. I am optimistic that the real fruits of these changes have yet to announce themselves. Significant challenges and opportunities lie ahead.

    What are some of the initiatives you have in mind for the division in coming years?

    A primary concern is to raise money to endow graduate fellowships and professorships. There is a great deal to do in our division on both fronts.

    Since you assumed the position of Dean this past July, you’ve been working closely with Bill Brown, the new Master of the Humanities Collegiate Division. Can you comment on your sense of the relationship between the Humanities Collegiate Division and the graduate research programs in the humanities?

    Graduate and undergraduate students have important affinities in the active learning that goes on in the classrooms, and to some extent, in their campus activities as well. Course assistantships, lectorships and other teaching opportunities are important means of contact between undergraduates and their older peers within the graduate programs. Student groups in the performing arts, theater, music, dance, film and video-making have tremendous vitality and a great range of participants. Bill and I are working together to strengthen all these interconnections.

    You’ve expressed publicly that one of your roles as Dean is to communicate the importance of studying the humanities. Do you feel that the humanistic disciplines have suffered from a loss of public recognition?

    Partly, I think, because of certain life-changing breakthroughs in the fields of technology and medical science, there has been some shifting of popular esteem away from fields like philosophy, literature and the arts. ‘The humanities don’t save lives’ might be a formulation of this sentiment. My own hope is that science and humanities will more and more go hand in hand in our life cycle. Since we’re living longer overall, it makes sense for the quality of our conscious lives to advance. The humanities can add a fineness of perception, awareness and response that is rivaled by no other kind of knowledge. Sadly, though, it seems we too often face distortions in the media that feed public misperceptions about the humanities. One example is the yearly sport The New York Times makes of listing the most apparently absurd presentation titles in the program of the MLA convention. You are supposed to appreciate the tipoff that scholars in the humanities care more about catchy trends than useful, meaningful work. I think that if we’re determined to do it, we can reclaim the figure of the scholar-teacher and displace cynical representations of the academic pop-culture icon.

    What are some of the ways scholars can communicate the relevance of their work to a larger public outside their native disciplines?

    It’s important to avail ourselves of accessible ways of talking to one another. Because special vocabularies develop in areas of inquiry, scholars who fail to clarify their messages for a larger public begin to come across as arcane, distant figures. I also feel that it’s important to know how and when to separate political agendas from scholarly commitments. When the public is presented with the two things run together, whether appropriate or not, this tends to erode trust in the validity of the academic enterprise.

    Perhaps particularly in the humanities, the University has a reputation for rigorous interdisciplinary scholarship. What are some of the factors you feel have contributed to this legacy?

    The reputation is warranted––not only do we say that we value interdisciplinary research (as do many institutions), we actually tend to hire scholars who’ve demonstrated an ability to think and relate across disciplines. Many departmental appointments clearly reflect that commitment. A wealth of important work of this kind also takes place in the degree-granting committees of the division. These committees––History of Culture, Conceptual Foundations of Science, Cinema & Media Studies, and of course, General Studies in the Humanities––offer approaches to inquiry that bring together scholars with expertise across a number of disciplines. The workshop system was instituted in the early ’80s to provide graduate students, faculty and visiting scholars with a venue for the exchange of research perspectives.

    It’s done a lot to provide a vital sense of scholarly community that fosters the emergence of new approaches and new knowledge. From an institutional perspective, it’s important to recognize that not every university has a Humanities Division. Elsewhere, the disciplines are typically collected under the comprehensive umbrella of Arts and Sciences. The fact of Chicago’s affirmation that humanistic disciplines are a coherent grouping can inspire and help build a sense of common purpose among faculty in the division.

    I want my deanship to foster these senses of community and coherence.