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Bill Brown: 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 job’s 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” course—so-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 evolution—issues 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” shouldn’t be confused with—or reduced to—introductory 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.

It’s 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 wasn’t sure I’d be the best candidate for master, but Dean of the College John Boyer [AM’69, PhD’75] 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 years—the 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 majors—these 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.

I’m also one of those people who find other people’s 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, I’ve 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 institution—by which I really mean this institution—you soon realize that it’s a captivating institution to think about. The story of Chicago’s self-fashioning over the past century is a very good story. All but needless to add, it’s an ongoing story.

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 undergraduate education.

That’s the “vision thing” part of this job. It doesn’t depend on my creativity and energy, but on my capacity to foster other people’s creativity and energy. You don’t 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 core course.

The Reading Cultures core sequence is a perfect example. People from five departments—who were all very interested in cultural transmission, cultural contacts, and cultural identity—got 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 they’re 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 you’d 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 long.
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 undergraduate’s life. I don’t 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 you’re 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?

I’m at stage two of two stages in writing a book that I’m 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 hadn’t been over that hurdle, I couldn’t have accepted the job, because I wouldn’t have been able to complete the project from this office. Now the frame is there, and much of the picture. Which doesn’t mean I don’t have many late nights of writing ahead of me. Then again, I always write at night.

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, I’m 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 time—the 1880s, the 1890s—was really in the museum. Anthropologists weren’t 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 Dewey’s 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.” It’s 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?

I’d like to imagine that we’ll have some new core courses that respond interestingly to the new requirements, perhaps some of the current requirements. I’ve 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 preserving—indeed augmenting—the vitality of the College, and in vitalizing the relation between advanced research and undergraduate education.

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