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Q&A: Democracy in the Humanities

At 32, classics professor Danielle Allen is not only one of the youngest deans Chicago has ever appointed, but also the first African American scholar and the first MacArthur “genius” fellow to hold such a post. Taking over the Humanities Division from English professor and one-term dean Janel Mueller July 1, Allen will oversee 15 departments and six committees covering languages, literature, and culture.

Known for her expertise in ancient Athenian justice and citizenship and their modern applications, Allen studied classics and political theory as a Princeton undergraduate. She earned a master’s and a doctorate in classics from King’s College, Cambridge, and her master’s and doctorate in political theory from Harvard, finishing in 2001—the same year she received a Quantrell Award for teaching excellence from the University, which she joined in 1997. This April Allen organized a conference, Cityspace: The Past of Urban Renewal and the Future of Community Development, to discuss the city of Chicago’s community initiatives. Her forthcoming book, Talking to Strangers: Anxieties of Citizenship since Brown v. Board of Education (U of C Press), argues that building trust between citizens fosters better democracy.

As dean, how do you plan to build on initiatives begun by Janel Mueller?

Dean Mueller has made collaboration with the College a source of meaningful strength for the division: there is the remarkable Paris Center, which had its official opening in May, and also the Center for the Creative and Performing Arts, still to come [see “Bursting at the seams”]. I plan to advance her cooperative initiatives with the College and also with other divisions.

What other goals do you have?

I will maintain our tradition of excellence in hiring, especially our expertise at spotting outstanding young scholars before they make names for themselves. I also hope to relieve faculty workload. Everyone is too tired. I think a lot about the staff support available to the faculty.

What are the major problems facing Chicago’s Humanities Division—and the field at universities nationwide?

Across the country faculty are overworked and experiencing burnout. This relates to being underfunded; most humanities institutions are trying to do a lot with too few faculty and staff. Princeton, Harvard, and Stanford are the exceptions. Given the level of our endowments, we at Chicago are notable overachievers. We consistently do more with less. That’s terrific, and it’s what makes Chicago such an exciting place to be, but it’s crucial that we nourish the financial and infrastructural roots that allow for continued intellectual growth.

The Cityspace conference applied the humanities to real-world problems. How else will you show the humanities’ relevance?

When politicians, policy makers, activists, and other practitioners—including social scientists—discuss real-world problems, they are usually trying to answer the question, “What should we do next?” Their conversations are usually directed toward immediate decisions about actions and outcomes, inevitably making people angry, ratcheting up tensions, and, because outcomes frequently involve distributions in which some people won’t get what they want, creating bases for distrust.

Humanists, in contrast, have conversations that aren’t meant to have immediate practical outcomes. Where nothing has to be decided immediately, conversationalists are a lot less likely to get angry; they can discover convergences of interest or aspects of an issue that won’t come to light when the point is to make a decision. Their shared reflection can often lead to more creative discussion and negotiation when it comes time, once again, to face practical conversations with clear and present consequences. Humanities institutions can give practitioners time out from urgent decision-making to reflect broadly on subjects at the center of polemical debates.

The point of the Cityspace conference was to do just that. I think we achieved what we were after: new ideas, new questions, and new connections among a variety of thinking people. I intend to sponsor ongoing interdisciplinary conversations, some involving practitioners as well as academics, on topics related to timely and complex issues. Potential themes include scarcity, artificial intelligence, and the question of what is possible in public education.

Several recent studies have shown how humanities institutions help stabilize neighborhoods. The Civic Knowledge Project, which I direct, is inventorying community arts and humanities institutions on the South Side to start a networking organization, allowing the institutions’ directors to meet on campus to discuss shared problems, discover where they can pool resources, and seek advice from experts on the Chicago faculty on sustaining their institutions.

How will you expand arts programming on campus?

I hope to strengthen the creative-writing program with a more coherent curriculum. Most institutions with strong writing programs use the now very old workshop model; the main point is for students to read and critique one another’s work. I think Chicago can be at the forefront of devising new approaches to creative-writing instruction. I imagine a program that more regularly pairs reading and writing: for instance, a two-quarter sequence where the first quarter is devoted to broad reading around a writerly theme—say, Experience or Passion or Time—and the second quarter develops into a workshop on members’ writing but again focused on that theme and connected to the earlier reading. Or a course in journalism or creative nonfiction where in the first quarter students learn about the history of Chicago or Hyde Park, and second quarter they write about the area. I want to find a way to connect the academic disciplines to the work of practicing artists.

As we work toward building the new Center for the Creative and Performing Arts, I’d also like to provide opportunities for faculty to weave questions of aesthetics, poetics, and creativity into their research lives. I will be seeking endowments for faculty-research and graduate-dissertation fellowships that would allow scholars to spend a year at the new center, working amidst artists, as they pursue research projects related to the arts. Other humanities institutions like the Getty have already proved how valuable such collaborations are for both scholars and artists.

How does your book Talking to Strangers approach facing distrust in a democracy?

Trust arises only in contexts where citizens are interested in proving themselves trustworthy to others. The main aim of the book is to figure out what makes people trustworthy to each other. Trustworthiness seems to depend on seeing where people are making sacrifices for a collective good, honoring such sacrifices, and reciprocating them. Being trustworthy is, finally, a matter of being equitable, understood as sometimes being willing to take less than one's legal share.



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