humanities dean settles in
year after becoming dean of the Division of Humanities, Janel
Mueller has adjusted to her new responsibilities. A veteran of
Chicago academia-she's been teaching U of C students for 33 years-Mueller
is professor in English and the humanities and William Rainey
Harper professor in the College. After earning her Ph.D. from
Harvard University in 1965, Mueller taught for a year at the University
of Illinois at Urbana- Champaign before joining the Chicago faculty.
publications include The Native Tongue and the Word: Developments
in English Prose Style, 1380-1580 (University of Chicago Press,
1984), and Elizabeth I: Collected Works, with Leah Marcus and
Mary Beth Rose (University of Chicago Press, 2000). Winner of
the University's award for excellence in graduate teaching in
1998 and the Quantrell award for excellence in undergraduate teaching
in 1982, she is the first female dean of any of the University's
have you seen the Chicago humanities division develop during your
There has been a considerable amount of opening up of new subject
areas and new methodologies across this division, but this has
occurred at relatively little cost to established programs and
strengths. That result is not automatic by any means, because
you cannot simply multiply degree-granting units indefinitely.
What we have largely seen are transformative changes within a
number of departments.
example is the classics department, which has retained its strength
in historically oriented training in classical Latin and Greek
and a rigorous formal approach to literary interpretation. But
classics faculty have also moved into studies of magic, religion,
popular belief, and gender studies.
example is the English department, where there remains a very
strong historical orientation towards major periods of English
and early American literature. But increasingly within that framework
a cultural studies approach is applied to the interpretation of
literature, bringing to bear a broader perspective from popular
genres and mass culture. This is not an elitist view of literature
but a more participatory and multivoiced understanding of it.
the 1970s the music department decided against going in the direction
of ethnomusicology, but now that is a very fruitful direction.
There is a strong focus and much interest in this area. For example,
Martin Stokes is doing a fantastic study of Middle Eastern popular
romantic crooner songs in Turkey, Egypt, and Lebanon. Thirty years
ago this kind of work would not have found this kind of place.
I don't want to slight our other programs-we have 19 in all-doing
interesting and challenging work in new directions, but it would
take the whole interview to talk about them all.
has humanities as a discipline changed since you've been in the
I won't claim that Chicago has trodden some lonely, idiosyncratic
path; we've been touched, obviously, by currents and trends that
have emerged across the disciplines. Overall, there has been a
loosening up of the concept of a canon of study and of fixed,
prescribed ideas of artistic worth.
don't hold up a pantheon of great artists and authors and imply
that they are the only deserving subjects of study and that our
understanding of art or literature or music should proceed in
terms of the phases of these great figures. For example, a Shakespeare
course today is unlikely to be organized in terms of how the author
matured as an artist; instead, it would tend to look at what kinds
of plays he wrote at given political or social junctures and for
which patrons or audiences. We're getting away from the notion
of transcendent geniuses by inserting these works and their creators
in as thick a context as we can reconstruct for their everyday
life and relations.
like to emphasize that the shift does not mean that we don't believe
in greatness anymore or we think it's irrelevant or impossible
to perform acts of judgment or evaluation-no one is claiming that.
Rather, we have been cultivating a self-consciousness about the
prehistories of our own academic fields in the humanities. We
have a better understanding of how the notions of greatness and
masterpiece themselves have been conditioned by past cultural
elites who made up the terminology, memberships, and criteria
on which the works were judged. This understanding can open our
minds to other ways of ascribing value and admitting other participants
to the judging process.
has a reputation for interdisciplinary study. How healthy is the
relationship between humanities and the other departments-the
social sciences, for instance?
One vibrant connection right now links the English and anthropology
departments, because they have come to recognize their extensive
common interests-in, for example, the use of storytelling and
of role-playing-not only in fiction and drama, but in everyday
life. The humanities become newly interesting and relevant when
one understands that there is some nontrivial sense of humanistic
creativity that goes into living one's life. The production of
narrative in the creation of oneself and the production of narrative
in fiction or drama are quite interrelated.
prides itself on having low to nonexistent fences between the
divisions and the departments. Since I've only taught one year
of my entire career elsewhere, I am not a good person to compare
universities on that question, but I've heard it so often from
people who probably agree on nothing else that this is a defining
characteristic of Chicago. I certainly value it highly.
do you want to accomplish as dean? Anything new you want to do
or old you want to change?
My conception of a dean is not a central authoritarian personage
who makes policy top-down. My understanding of how institutional
change effectively occurs-and this comes from participating in
a number of curricular and program initiatives throughout my three
decades at this University-is that you encourage your faculty
to make judgments about where they think their energies will be
most creatively and constructively applied. As dean I get to question
the faculty's proposals to make sure these are persuasive and
workable, and I also have the difficult job of prioritizing among
worthy initiatives because I have a finite set of resources. But
keeping and getting rid of programs are not matters for my individual
judgment. I'm more like the coxswain on a boat whose team is rowing
mightily, not the Secretary of the Navy or the wind blowing where
predecessor, Philip Gossett, left me with an interesting array
of programs. Cinema and Media Studies, Jewish Studies, and MAPH
[Masters of Arts Program in the Humanities] were new programs
on the docket when I came in, and I'm certainly going to be fostering
them. Again, the challenge is how to find the support that new
programs need, and yet not do this at the expense of longer-standing
programs whose levels and records of training are excellent.
are humanities students faring in a dot-com world, especially
with the boom in M.B.A.s and business-oriented degrees?
Clearly, the development of recent technological means has greatly
increased access to certain kinds of literature, drama, music,
and art. But highly cerebral and technical disciplines may well
find themselves in greater competition for people's attention
and commitment because so much of what goes on in our digital
age is a quick-and-easy, at-your-fingertips kind of approach.
I am concerned that the dot-com world and its habitués not dismiss
the value of the thorny philosophical argument or the subtle,
nuanced linguistic or musical or artistic analysis that can't
easily be reduced to a sight byte or a sound byte.