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New humanities dean settles in

image: Campus NewsOne 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.

PHOTO:  Humanities dean Janel MuellerHer 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 academic divisions.

How have you seen the Chicago humanities division develop during your time here?
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.

One 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.

Another 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.

In 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.

How has humanities as a discipline changed since you've been in the field?
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.

We 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.

I'd 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.

Chicago 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.

Chicago 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.

What 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 I wish.

My 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.

How 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.



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