L&S, CFH to launch new undergraduate humanities initiative

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The College of Letters & Science at UW-Madison is poised to launch a new undergraduate humanities initiative that draws upon the University of Wisconsin-Madison's long history of experimental education and aims to build a scalable program that will serve as a model for public universities nationally.

This fall, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation awarded the College of Letters & Science and the UW-Madison Center for the Humanities $2.5 million to design a new program for undergraduate students.

The Undergraduate Humanities Initiative responds to recent analyses arguing that studying the humanities has economic, social, and personal value. This new program will make it easier for undergraduate students across UW-Madison to find connections to the humanities and integrate the humanities into their study of fields as diverse as nursing, engineering, law, and global health.

As Chancellor Rebecca Blank affirms, "When I consider my own education — both inside and outside the classroom — some of the most valuable knowledge that I acquired came from my engagement with the humanities. The study of the humanities not only enriches scholarship and research, it yields life-long benefits. The humanities give us a lens for understanding the world, and a blueprint for building a satisfying, fulfilling life."

At the core of the initiative is the endowment of four rotating professorships developed in partnership with donors John (BBA'55) and Tashia Morgridge (BSE'55), who matched $2 million of the Mellon award.

"The humanities give us a lens for understanding the world, and a blueprint for building a satisfying, fulfilling life."
—Chancellor Rebecca Blank

These new professorships will be connected with course constellations, inspired by the extremely successful First-Year Interest Groups (FIGs) program where students explore topics in a seminar setting and engage in project-based learning, out-of-classroom experiences, and research training. While the focus of the initiative is on undergraduate students, graduate students also will play a key role by supporting faculty in the development of robust, cross-departmental partnerships. Additionally, graduate students will gain skills in new fields and pedagogies, including digital media and public humanities, crucial to today's academic marketplace.

While interdisciplinarity and even transdisciplinarity have been key buzzwords in education over the past decades, this initiative issues from the innovative proposition that undergraduate learners are less interested in disciplines than in problems and questions. Those problems and questions — which are foundational and pre-disciplinary— set the stage for a new approach to learning. Whether conceived as grand challenges — like global poverty, the future of cities, and climate change — or deep puzzles — like what constitutes a meaningful or productive life — these are the drivers of knowledge in the 21st century. The initiative is designed to support students who are eager to graduate from college with a sense of their future and their place in the world.

In addition to endowing four rotating professorships, the Mellon award also will allow the Center for the Humanities to create a new HEX Project Lab for Undergraduates. The lab will house a new undergraduate program that builds upon the Center for the Humanities' acclaimed Public Humanities Exchange (HEX), a program that supports graduate students in the humanities who wish to draw upon their research to design community-based projects in partnership with local nonprofits. U-HEX, as the new program will be called, will focus on undergraduates, allowing them to gain experience in the nonprofit sector and undertake research-based projects in public service.

College of Letters & Science Dean John Karl Scholz who with Sara Guyer, director of the Center for the Humanities, is co-PI on the Mellon Foundation grant, sees this initiative as "a model for other large public universities that, like us, are committed to the humanities in and for the 21st century."

Over the coming months, a steering committee will work closely with Dean Scholz to advise on the initiative with a proposed announcement of the initial cohort of Mellon-Morgridge professors by late spring and a program launch in fall 2016.