One of the jobs of a provost is striving to support all the different fields of inquiry at the university and the educational programs connected to them. Some fields require teams of scholars working to produce research outcomes. Others depend on the quiet and difficult work of single scholars. In all fields, as human knowledge expands and deepens, the work of academic scholars becomes more difficult, as each strives to discover or create something new, something that is a lasting contribution.
As I talk with and learn from our scholars in the humanities, I’m impressed with diverse needs they have for their work. Many require periodic visits to archives in other countries for their work. Many seek increased contact with scholars working in related areas, to use them as a source of new ideas, to seek their reactions to work in progress, and to use the fellowship of like minds to renew their own energy in times when progress is lagging on a given project. All require concentrated time to get into the flow of their creative and scholarly work.
Fields where government research foundations mount peer-reviewed funding programs for supporting scholarship don’t face the same issues. Grant funding can support teams of researchers from multiple disciplines. The camaraderie in the teams acts to propel research progress. The research teams become small families, teaching and motivating each other. Space is often devoted to the project team. It becomes a home for the team, a place to gather both for work and social support.
Scholarship in the humanities throughout the world tends to take on a different form. Most countries fund biomedical research at the highest levels; next, the natural sciences and engineering fields; next, basic scientific research; and last, research in the humanities. Hence, universities that care about the humanities need to pay special attention to building environments supportive of research in those fields.
At Georgetown we are launching a discussion about these issues with a special focus – the feasibility of building a Humanities Institute that would become a home for our faculty and students. It is not a new idea, but we haven’t yet made sufficient progress on it, in my opinion.
In talking with my colleagues, there are several unmet needs. We need space that is a comfortable home for intellectual interchange. We need procedures to give individual faculty precious time to finish-off projects that are important scholarly products. We need a home for students to interact with faculty on the key issues in the fields. The home might also include the possibility of visiting scholars to spend time at Georgetown. The home might be the convener of faculty working in the same domain. These are only a few of the ideas that have been forwarded. There are many other ideas that are possible.
We’ve named a working group, led by the vice-provost for research, to sketch out ideas that are possible components of a Humanities Institute. We hope to collect the various ideas and optional ways forward by the end of the Spring semester. We can’t move forward without good ideas; once we have assembled them, we’ll address how we might find the funds to make the ideas possible.