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Our premise is simple: undergraduates in the humanities and qualitative social sciences have good reasons for confidence about the personal meaning and social value of their educations.

In practice, however, the premise is highly contentious. That’s because “the humanities” has become freighted with under-examined ideas about the value and purpose of an undergraduate degree in general, misconceptions about the economic outcomes of studying the humanities at the undergraduate level in particular, and unreconciled, and perhaps irreconcilable, competing conceptions of usefulness and a good life. These currents are also partly animated by some of the most pronounced partisan, cultural, and class divisions in contemporary American life.

It’s no wonder that, as one of the members of our new class of fellows reminded me at our first meeting, the decision of a major is one the first big decisions that she had undertaken on her own; and it is a heavy one. The academics’ word for this burden of too many intentions and causes is “overdetermined”; if choosing a major were the equivalent of buying a car, we’re now asking undergraduates to act as if they’re choosing the equivalent of their next five vehicles while also pursuing a vision for our collective transit system and committing to biking more.

The Humanities Futures Undergraduate Fellowship Initiative is an intervention in the parameters of that decision. It aims to make undergraduate scholars the agents of changing the conversation, rather than the conversation’s object. The ten fellows selected in the inaugural class—Ivana Devine, Brett Harris, Jiawei Huang, Klaus Mayr, Nate Polo, Elizabeth Russler, Sophia Houghton, Sophia Hutchens, Shawna Sheperd, and Sam Zahn—will show us whether this experiment is viable and scaleable. These fellows are not just smart; they are excellent communicators, adept moral reasoners, and they are not just willing and able but eager to work at the broad intersection of theory, knowledge, and social practice.

And what will they do? Well, here at the Humanities for the Public Good Initiative, our method is, on some level, always the same:  we take a critical approach to the topic at hand through reading and research, at the same time as we name and build constructive tools to take action on our critiques. The undergraduate fellows will have lab-style meetings and discussions as they work on public-facing projects that forward their personal cases for a humanistic education.

More concretely, in this fellowship program we will:

  • Give undergraduate fellows access to tools and research which were mainly built to support their faculty mentors—including the data from the Humanities Indicators project of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, data and anecdata aggregated by the National Humanities Alliance’s Study the Humanities Toolkit, and an array of other studies which have examined quality of life factors beyond income as measures of success.
  • Build a mentorship system which allows the fellows to have both crucial elements of doing public humanities, namely the autonomy to name social problems on their own terms and direct their project energy to them, as well as the support to help them find allies and build concrete project management skills like devising a useful budget.

This combination of education and action has, thus far, been made possible by the work and support of the two graduate fellows working with the Humanities Futures program to forward their own already impressive engaged teaching and program management capacities, namely Smita Misra, a doctoral candidate in Communication, and Michelle Padley, a doctoral student in Geography. Michelle and Smita will report about their own work, broadly and with Humanities Futures, later in our blog series.

We are still at the beginning of this experiment. Smita, Michelle and I know that few people are motivated by “studying the humanities”—we’re motivated, as humans, by our need for the forms of thinking and relationship-building and world-changing that art, literature, music, history, philosophy, language, media, cultural space, and religion make possible, and by our own, individual connections with the people and institutions that make and “do” the humanities. Our goal is to make a space for a critical and practical engagement with those people and institutions, one that clarifies the purposes, forwards the goals, and lifts the intellectual morale of all involved.

The fellows have a range of narrower goals. In naming problems from waste management systems or women’s labor in their own hometowns, to the visibility of institutional racism and the environmental costs of fast fashion on our campus, they want to build their own and others’ competencies, to forward discrete conceptions of justice concretely, and to build communities of trust and mutual understanding, with each other and with the communities they work in and seek to work with. I can’t wait to see how their work moves forward in 2020.

So it’s with warmth, curiosity, and the deep optimism they inspire, that I welcome our inaugural class of UNC/Mellon Humanities Futures undergraduate fellows.

Humanities Futures Inaugural Class of Fellows


Author: Robyn Schroeder is the Director of the Humanities for the Public Good Initiative at UNC-CH. Her teaching, advising, writing, and program administration foster intellectual morale and professional development in the practice of the humanities. She holds an M.A. in Public Humanities and a Ph.D. in American Studies from Brown University.

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