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Human side of today's issues addressed by WMU humanities center

by Mark Schwerin

Sept. 29, 2011 | WMU News

Photo of WMU Center for the Humanities.
WMU Center for the Humanities
KALAMAZOO--A campuswide initiative at Western Michigan University is transforming a former storage area into a bustling center that will address the underlying human element behind the complex social issues of the day.

The University Center for the Humanities will celebrate its grand opening 4 to 6 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 5, inviting the campus and surrounding communities to Room 2500 of Knauss Hall, where people can see the results of an initiative that was conceived five years ago and reborn only recently. That effort has turned a dingy, dark storage room into a sparkling new center with a full slate of activities that will shed light on today's complex issues through lectures, readings and other events.

The grand opening comes just one week after the WMU Board of Trustees officially approved the center at its Sept. 28 meeting. The event is being billed as "Barbecue and Books," with WMU humanities scholars and writers asked to donate signed copies of their books and articles for the center's collection. Carl Ratner from the WMU School of Music will sing, and scholars will talk about their work. The event is in keeping with the center's mission of fostering discussion and stimulating thought.

"We want the center to be an incubator for ideas and projects," says its founding director, Dr. Katherine Joslin, longtime WMU professor of English. "It's like an industrial park for the mind. We want this space to generate and nurture ideas across colleges and across disciplines and, at the intersection of those, to stimulate new thinking."

Though new, the center has been some years in the making. Its inception can be traced back to 2006, when a committee headed by Joslin and working with then-WMU President Dr. Diether H. Haenicke began studying and visiting successful humanities centers. Faculty at such institutions as the University of Michigan, Ohio State University and the University of Illinois were consulted. A report was generated, but the timing wasn't right for creating a humanities center, Joslin says. All that changed three years later with the arrival of several new faculty members who voiced support for a humanities center, not knowing such a center had already been proposed. They shared their concern with WMU Provost Dr. Timothy Greene.

That diverse group of faculty members includes Dr. Natalio Ohanna, a WMU assistant professor of Spanish and native of Argentina, Dr. Blain Auer, assistant professor of comparative religion specializing in Islamic studies, and Dr. Lofton Durham, assistant professor of theatre specializing in theatre history. After learning of the earlier effort, they were led to Joslin and discussions of creating a humanities center began anew.

The center seeks to put the humanities at the center of a university education, Joslin says. That goal is in keeping with efforts both nationally and internationally to provide the tools and critical thinking skills necessary for a well-educated citizenry and workforce able to keep pace with a rapidly changing world.

"The fear is that a good liberal arts education will continue to go on at private, elite schools and be ignored at larger state institutions," Joslin says. "Where WMU can and has made a name for itself is that it's a state-funded university that places liberal education at its core and makes it available to all our citizens."

Jason Aiello has been tapped as center coordinator. Already a slew of activities and presentations have been lined up beyond the center's grand opening. And Aiello and Joslin definitely want the community to be part of it.

"This center is all about collaboration," Joslin says. "We want our humanities events to elevate the lives of everybody."

Another example of the collaborative nature of the center revolves around support for interdisciplinary humanities groups. One such group, Humanities for Everybody, a new pilot course offered free to low-income residents who never had a chance to attend college. Some 18 WMU faculty members, led by Drs. Susan Hoffmann, professor of political science, and Thomas Bailey, professor of English, have volunteered to help teach the course in cooperation with local housing agencies including Open Doors, Kalamazoo Neighborhood Housing Services and the Eastside Neighborhood Association.

Three non-credit classes are planned for the spring semester--a literature course on Jane Austen, a course on the philosophy of education, and a history course on African Americans up to the Civil War.

The center also is collaborating on a second effort, led by Dr. Fritz Allhoff, associate professor of philosophy, that is culminating in the upcoming Medical Humanities Conference Sept. 29-30 at WMU.

The theme for this year is "Convergence of Cultures."

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