On July 1, Professor of Philosophy Michael P. Lynch was named director of the UConn Humanities Institute. Lynch is the author or editor of several books, the recipient of the Medal for Research Excellence from the University of Connecticut’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, and has held grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Bogliasco Foundation. He is also a frequent contributor to the New York Times “The Stone” Weblog. Lynch discussed his new role with Inside CLAS.
What is the purpose of the Humanities Institute at UConn?
There are two aspects of the Institute’s mission. The macro aspect is to be a public voice for the humanities not only at the University, but also within the state and the world at large. The micro aspect is to support basic research in humanities by graduate students and internal and external faculty. We do this in two ways. The first way is through our fellowship program, which is awarded on a highly competitive basis and gives recipients course release time to write and pursue research projects. The second way is by providing support for humanities-orientated research throughout the University—for example, by sponsoring conferences, speakers, and study groups.
Can you talk more about the macro aspect—being a public voice for the humanities?
I think there is a perception in the culture at large that people do not value research in the humanities. In fact, work in the humanities is flourishing. And ordinary folks continue to be interested in things like art, politics, history, great and challenging literature, and philosophical questions about the meaning and nature of human existence. Here at UConn, we have extraordinarily strong departments and individual researchers working on these topics. Our Humanities Institute fellows are working on questions related to abstract matters of the human condition, but are also involved in digital media and dedicated to reflective thought in the public sphere.
Can you tell us more about the Humanities Institute fellowship program?
Fellows have the opportunity to put themselves in different contexts physically and intellectually. The Institute itself provides a protected environment in which people can concentrate on their work. Fellows also interact with other bright scholars who approach the world from very different perspectives. It’s almost like going back to college—you are forced to navigate the intellectual landscape with these new, interesting people. It is valuable because it gets you out of your own field and the routine of talking “inside baseball.”
In turn, external fellows are an absolutely essential part of the Institute. It is how we bring in new lifeblood to the University. External fellows are introduced to UConn faculty who work in similar fields, and research flourishes from those interactions. The bigger picture is that that these accomplished academics find out about the quality of research at UConn, and they bring this knowledge back to their home institutions. It is how academic reputations are built.
How were you involved with Humanities Institute before becoming director?
I served on and off of the Humanities Institute’s advisory board and was a Humanities Institute fellow in the mid 2000s. I know from experience how important the fellowship program can be. My research has become more and more interdisciplinary and public-oriented, and that stems in part from my interactions with other academics during my time as a fellow.
What new goals do you have for the Institute going forward?
One of our major initiatives is to align ourselves more closely with the University’s academic plan, in particular supporting the goal related to Artists, Scholars, and Public Discourse. Our society right now is embroiled in cultural disagreements on issues like climate change, evolution, and wealth inequity. The divisiveness is such that we do not simply disagree on values; we disagree on the facts and the methods, principles, and standards that we should use to evaluate the facts. This severely impacts the political process. One of the things that the Humanities Institute can do is to investigate how to positively impact civil public discourse by using history, philosophy, literature, psychology, and other disciplines as our guide.
In line with these goals, we are already pursuing external funding from the Templeton Foundation and the Mellon Foundation and expect to pursue other opportunities. Partnerships of this sort will not only bring exciting research projects to UConn, but also allow us to support projects that are already underway here, and thus bring the fruits of UConn projects to the world.
Do you have any specific plans or activities in place?
One recent accomplishment is UConn’s new partnership with the Folger Institute. This relationship strengthens our fellowship program by helping people at UConn pursue humanities research at this prestigious library. The partnership also demonstrates the University’s commitment playing at the highest level of research in the humanities, and it provides a model for other external partnerships in the future.
The Humanities Institute is also supporting a series of events that will highlight the strengths that UConn has in studying public discourse:
- The first of these is a conference, Dominating Speech, which will take place on November 21-23 and feature keynote speakers from University of Michigan, Yale University, and UConn. The event is being coordinated by members of the UConn Department of Philosophy Injustice League and is also cosponsored by the Humanities Institute, Human Rights Institute, and other campus partners.
- This year we also welcome Richard Sosis as the new Barnett Professor of Humanistic Anthropology. Richard, in conjunction with the Institute, will be hosting an active reading group and speakers series on the subject of religious experience.
- We are also sponsoring a series of initiatives in the broad area of digital humanities including projects by Associate Professor of Literatures, Cultures, and Languages Anke Finger and Associate Professor of Digital Media Tom Scheinfeldt, among others.
And of course we are open to talking about new ideas and new projects. That is what Institute is for: supporting research that expands our knowledge about the whole human.
Learn more about the Humanities Institute at humanities.uconn.edu.