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’
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
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
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
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.