The new master of the Humanities Collegiate
Division discusses the role of the master—and the role of the humanities
in undergraduate general education.
Bill Brown, associate professor in English, joined the U of C in
1989 and was named master of the Humanities Collegiate Division
and associate dean of humanities this past April. A graduate of
Duke University, he has an M.A. in creative writing and a Ph.D.
in modern thought and literature from Stanford University. Co-editor
of the journal Critical Inquiry, Brown wrote The Material Unconscious:
American Amusement, Stephen Crane, and the Economies of Play (1996)
and edited Reading the West: An Anthology of Dime Westerns (1997).
What exactly does the master of the Humanities
Collegiate Division do?
Well, I suppose I think of the jobs chief responsibility
as achieving some prospect from which to view the undergraduate
humanities curriculum as a whole. This means overseeing the core
offerings, shepherding through curricular and programmatic changes,
thinking about the concentrations in relation to the rest of the
curriculum, making sure we have the faculty and institutional resources
we need to respond to significant changes.
For example, this coming year, thanks in large measure to philosophy
professor Bill Wimsatt, the College will introduce a very different
kind of core courseso-called big problem
courses, taught not for first-year but for fourth-year students.
Elective, interdivisional, and team-taught, these experimental courses
are meant to challenge students by asking them to think beyond their
concentrations as their education at Chicago comes to a close. The
courses are meant to encourage students to think about issues like
the environment or evolutionissues that must be assessed beyond
the boundaries of any one division or discipline.
If the experiment succeeds, both from the point of view of the
faculty and the students, we might begin imagining a College curriculum
where students start out acquiring general education through the
core curriculum, then specialize, and finally have the intellectual
time and space not only to complete a specialized senior project
but also to pursue a new line of questioning.
This is the sort of experiment that should remind faculty members,
administrators, and students that general education
shouldnt be confused withor reduced tointroductory
core courses. Already, of course, many of our students try to work
toward balancing their concentrations with some diverse electives.
When the art history major takes a course in political science,
for example, this is no less a part of his or her general
education than the divisional core courses.
Its a challenging time to be a collegiate
master. What made you take the job?
Quite frankly, although I was very much a part of developing the
three-quarter core sequence Reading Cultures, my investments at
Chicago had been primarily in my graduate courses and students.
With that background, I wasnt sure Id be the best candidate
for master, but Dean of the College John Boyer [AM69, PhD75]
and Dean of the Humanities Phil Gossett told me they wanted someone
to think about integrating the division and the College, about integrating
departmental and collegiate responsibilities. That sounded sane.
And the new initiatives of the past few yearsthe Center
for Gender Studies, the Film Studies Center, and the cinema and
media studies program, the international-studies center, and the
program in human rights, let alone the host of new interdepartmental
majorsthese make Chicago one of the exciting places to be
right now, a place where you can find yourself excited by the prospect
of being an administrator as well as a scholar.
Im also one of those people who find other peoples
work incredibly engaging, and not just their writing but also their
pedagogical projects. In this office you get to know your colleagues.
In two months, Ive begun to get a new general education, reading
about early Chinese medicine, thinking about the field of Latin
American studies, learning about Jewish music. This is a division
with an extraordinarily diverse range of interests. For three years,
I get to have a new kind of access to those interests.
And you know, the fact of the matter is that when you begin to
think about this institutionby which I really mean this institutionyou
soon realize that its a captivating institution to think about.
The story of Chicagos self-fashioning over the past century
is a very good story. All but needless to add, its an ongoing
Real change has taken place and other changes still need to take
place. In part, this means recognizing that some fundamental, structural
alterations will begin to force us out of our habitual ways of doing
and thinking about things. This can be an opportunity to be genuinely
productive, genuinely imaginative, and, ideally, genuinely collective
in fashioning new opportunities for both undergraduate and graduate
students. Now that our College students have a few more electives
to take, we can start thinking more seriously about how departmental
courses for non-majors, interdivisional senior courses, the many
new opportunities to study abroad, can be orchestrated into a dynamic
Thats the vision thing part of this job. It
doesnt depend on my creativity and energy, but on my capacity
to foster other peoples creativity and energy. You dont
get new core courses because a master of a division says, Ah,
there will be new core courses. You get new core courses because
a few people began to think about a certain problem, and get more
people to think about that problem, and eventually it becomes a
The Reading Cultures core sequence is a perfect example. People
from five departmentswho were all very interested in cultural
transmission, cultural contacts, and cultural identitygot
together because of theoretical issues they shared. After two years
of conversation, the course finally emerged. For me, the example
is important, because it demonstrated how people who work in very
different fields, but who share some theoretical concerns, can use
what theyre learning from their research to build general-education
courses. In other words, this is an example of what I take to be
the benefits of being an undergraduate at a research institution.
I think that the master of a collegiate division has an opportunity
to try to catalyze colleagues to recognize that lurking somewhere
among their barely shared interests there may be a new course.
Is there any particular change for which
youd like to be the catalyst?
Yes. I want to help find, or make, a new place at Chicago for
the creative and the performing arts. The success of our University
Theater program is exemplary. But our artists in Midway Studios,
who also have done extraordinary work, are suffering from both a
literal and a figurative marginality. This has a long history, too
It remains a question what place studio art, photography, video
and film production could have at Chicago. The new dean of the humanities
division, Janel Mueller, and I have already begun talking about
this as a shared concern.
I myself would like to imagine a moment where the creative and
performing arts have a bigger place in every undergraduates
life. I dont mean the art history major, I mean the chemistry
major, someone for whom two courses in creative writing or in video
production might provide a completely new opening to the humanities.
Visual culture is something much attended to at Chicago, in several
departments. But when youre asked to draw, to paint, or to
shoot photographs, you gain new insight into the visual world.
How do you balance your own research with
your new responsibilities?
Im at stage two of two stages in writing a book that Im
calling The Sense of Things: Literary Objects in America.
The bulk of the research is done, and much of the book now exists
in draft form. If I hadnt been over that hurdle, I couldnt
have accepted the job, because I wouldnt have been able to
complete the project from this office. Now the frame is there, and
much of the picture. Which doesnt mean I dont have many
late nights of writing ahead of me. Then again, I always write at
It has been some help that this book is related to the Collecting
quarter of the Reading Cultures course. In one section of the book,
Im looking at regionalist writing in America to figure out
the status of the object in that fiction vis-à-vis the status
of the objects in ethnological museums. You know, anthropology at
the timethe 1880s, the 1890swas really in the museum.
Anthropologists werent university professors, they were curators.
The object lesson was the buzz word of the day. People
were supposed to learn from objects, whether in the Smithsonian
or in John Deweys Lab Schools. Displayed objects were meant
to attain a new kind of legibility; they were exhibited so that
a museum-goer could read culture out of them. My question
is how regionalist fiction, especially the fiction of Sarah Orne
Jewett, uses or revises this notion of the legible object.
More generally, though, this book is supposed to be a prehistory
of the modernist fascination with the object, the sort of fascination
you find in the French surrealists, in the dadaists, in William
Carlos Williams No ideas but in things. Its
the prehistory, in America, of the sort of fascination that Miriam
Hansen of the Film Studies Center and I addressed in a course we
taught together this past spring, Modernity and the Sense of Things.
Can you imagine how the humanities curriculum
will look as you end your term as master in 2002?
Id like to imagine that well have some new core courses
that respond interestingly to the new requirements, perhaps some
of the current requirements. Ive heard some fascinating ideas.
I hope that every undergraduate is spending time abroad, that a
majority of students are getting proficiency certificates in a foreign
language, and that the creative and performing arts are creeping
toward the center of undergraduate life.
The humanities will need more faculty. My guess is that, with more
electives, more undergraduates will take more courses in the humanities,
and the existing humanities faculty cannot be asked to take on a
disproportionate amount of the teaching to be done in a larger College.
With the necessary resources, though, the Humanities will be central
in preservingindeed augmentingthe vitality of the College,
and in vitalizing the relation between advanced research and undergraduate