The arts and humanities are a driving force for innovative research and engagement at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. Ranked among the top 10 institutions receiving grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities over the past 10 years, UT has been awarded 17 summer fellowships by the NEH since 2005—more than any other institution in the country during that same period.
“These honors are a testament to UT’s national leadership in humanities research,” said UT Vice Chancellor for Research Deborah Crawford. “Our university thrives on perspectives, partnerships, and innovative research that enhance our ability to make the world better.”
UT arts and humanities faculty have received awards from a diverse range of external funding agencies, including the NEH, the American Council of Learned Societies, the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation, the Fulbright Research Grant program, the Loeb Classical Library Foundation, the American Academy in Berlin, and the Spencer Foundation. Projects range across arts and humanities fields, historical periods, and national boundaries.
Some recently funded projects are in the field of digital humanities, which brings computing approaches into conversation with humanities research. UT faculty currently work on digital humanities research that includes cultural analytics, 3D mapping of archeological sites, educational technology applications, digital film studies, game studies, gamification of learning, data analysis, and artificial reality technologies.
Amy Elias, director of the UT Humanities Center, attributes this success to the university’s creative programming and support of groundbreaking research. “The humanities are centered on paying deep attention to how structures—such as a novel, a set of historical actions, or a belief system—are put together and interact culturally,” she explained.
Grant for Digital Humanities Courses
Last year Elias, along with Associate Professor of English Hilary Havens and Assistant Professor of Computer Science Amir Sadovnik, submitted a proposal to NEH to develop a set of interdisciplinary undergraduate courses integrating the humanities and computer science. The result was a $35,000 grant—one of only three NEH grants awarded in the state of Tennessee this year.
“Our goal is to connect and build bridges with new digital humanities courses between students and scholars from the humanities and those from computers and computational science,” Elias, Havens, and Sadovnik wrote in their proposal. “Because society is structured, assisted, and manipulated by digital technologies including social media platforms, financial trading algorithms, and search engines, our students need to consider technological studies in relation to questions about design, ethics, political justice, and cultural history.”
As described in their grant proposal, Elias, Havens, and Sadovnik will work with other UT faculty to create a series of interdisciplinary courses over the next year that will make up a humanities computing curriculum. Possible course topics include (dis)information studies; systems and sustainability; and designing the virtual, which would focus on design computing, digital morphogenesis, and computational art in relation to questions like “What is beauty and how is it meaningful?”
In the study of digital humanities, Sadovnik explained, it’s important to bring humanistic and ethical questions into computing: “‘How do we get our news? How this is going to affect society? Why is it important for me to understand data science?’ The humanities have always participated in multidisciplinary work. What we are doing is broadening the mission of humanities to include a new form of interdisciplinary work.”
“This program will help develop UT research in digital humanities at the undergraduate level, putting us in the company of the top national programs,” said Havens, who has also worked with Elias to create a new interdisciplinary graduate certificate in digital humanities in the College of Arts and Sciences that will launch in the fall.
“This grant puts UT in the position of developing team-based digital research that can connect us to our region and the nation,” said Elias. “We are poised to work with STEM and other disciplines to bring our expertise to team-based research.”
This was the UT Humanities Center’s second NEH grant in three years.
Both of the center’s recent grant proposals were posted by the NEH Division of Research Programs to guide potential applicants around the country on how to submit a successful application. “It puts UT’s name on the national radar,” noted Elias.
Grant for “In a Speculative Light”
In 2020, Elias won a $50,000 collaborative research grant—one of only 10 such grants awarded in the country—for a symposium to create new knowledge about Black arts history and American late modernism by looking closely at the work of two friends, writer James Baldwin (1924–1987) and Knoxville-born painter Beauford Delaney (1901–1979).
The symposium, In a Speculative Light, was conducted in conjunction with a Knoxville Museum of Art exhibition on Baldwin and Delaney and the Delaney Project. “It won international acclaim and connected UT to the Delaney and Baldwin families, diverse communities in Knoxville, and international scholars,” said UT College of Arts and Sciences Dean Theresa Lee. “The symposium exemplified UT’s commitment to humanities research.”
Humanities Center Activities
Each year, the UT Humanities Center awards 10 fellowships that enable faculty members and PhD students to complete books and large research projects. Last spring, in partnership with UT Libraries, it awarded its first one-semester Digital Humanities Fellowship. The center also helps administer the Digital Humanities Community of Scholars, hosted by the university’s Office of Research, Innovation, and Economic Development.
The center supports humanities assistantships and research education for UT graduate students, hosts research activities for undergraduates, and offers opportunities for humanities faculty to bring renowned scholars to campus. In 2019 it hosted Michael Witmore, director of the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, DC, and Vinton Cerf, a Google vice president and one of the inventors of the internet, for two days of public events showcasing ways in which digital humanities connect the sciences and humanities. Witmore lectured on gleaning insights through digital text mining of Shakespeare and shared a dialogue with Cerf about using computers to analyze literary texts.
“These events led computing science students to email and ask me about integrated learning opportunities with humanities students,” said Elias. “In considering how to create a digital humanities curriculum for undergraduates, I was having conversations with UT faculty from different departments about how they were using, or planning to use, computing methods to enhance their research and teaching.”
The results of this and other initiatives continue to enhance UT students’ engagement with the humanities in multidisciplinary and digital formats. “The humanities teach people how to pay attention to art and literature,” said Elias, “to understand the nuances that breathe life into culture in a way that can be positive and life-affirming.”
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