Humanities at Large

How Are Humanities Centres and Institutes Worldwide Responding to COVID-19?

Submitted by Sonja Johnston on June 03 2020.

By Kim Yates, Associate Director

The JHI is a part of a worldwide network of humanities centres and institutes that come in many forms, and that do many kinds of work for many very different kinds of communities. In the past couple of months, we have been working to think about our own responses to the pandemic.  The Consortium of Humanities Centers and Institutes (CHCI) meets every year to think together about the role of these offices, and more broadly about the role of the humanities in a rapidly changing world.  This year, the CHCI’s meeting has been provided as a series of large webinars instead of the physical meeting that was planned to take place in Tucson, Arizona.

I participated in two of these meetings: Public Humanities (11 May 2020, available below) and Associate Directors & Administrators (26 May 2020).  Each was presented by a network of colleagues whose work focusses in these areas.

Public Humanities Network Meeting - 2020 CHCI Annual Meeting from CHCI on Vimeo.

The Public Humanities meeting was titled “Community, Communications, and the Humanities During the Pandemic”.  At least 130 representatives from 84 organizations participated in conversations that considered how to maintain public partnerships that honour issues of equity and social justice in contexts around the globe. Shaul Bassi (Ca’Foscari University, Venice) talked about the city of Venice as a site of both climate change in the form of rising seawater, and pandemic response:

If we were thinking of how the city had to be reinvented before, I believe that now, today, even more so, the humanities have a very specific role – ambitious, chaotic, utopian – to contribute to a whole new notion of the city.

Other directors discussed issues of racism that the pandemic has highlighted in their communities.  Many centres and institutes have responded with new online forms of programming that turn out to have a wider reach into their communities; one very popular response was a public poetry forum.  The meeting ended with a reading of Seamus Heaney’s poem, Postscript – a moment that evoked powerful memories of the 2019 meeting, which ended with Seamus Heaney’s translation of the Aeneid Book VI.  A complete list of the responses that were discussed at this meeting will be released by the CHCI shortly; to see some of these responses, you can also search the World Pandemic Research Network (www.wprn.org).

The meeting of the Associate Directors and Administrators is usually an opportunity to discuss the nuts & bolts administrative experience of managing a humanities centre or institute; this year’s webinar provided a greater opportunity to think about our experiences in breakout sessions that considered our experiences and responses in programmatic, institutional, and personal ways. We thought together about how our units were changing and being changed; what we wanted to hold onto, and what we hoped to see in the future.  We shared ways to advocate for our humanities centres and institutes, many of which are facing deep budget cuts and an increasingly steep battle for recognition. The already-sharp divide between offices that rely on endowed funding and those that are budgeted through discretionary funds has been exacerbated by the necessities of COVID-19; many administrators are facing precarity, and the caring functions that we provide in our work are being devalued.  At the personal level, a number of colleagues spoke of exhaustion, and of the necessity to advocate both for one’s humanities centre or institute, and for one’s personal boundaries within the job.

As a final collective act, the group decided as a whole to rename itself, and will now be known as The Humanities Administrators Network. Naming matters: the new name makes it clear that the whole wide range of job titles held by people who participate in these meetings are welcome.

After three months of social isolation in which I have interacted with far fewer friends and colleagues than usual, it was a delight to see familiar faces again, and to think together about what the humanities are, and should be, doing right now. I am grateful to the CHCI for its quick response, and to all of my colleagues at other centres and institutes for their care and thoughts. We are doing this work around the world.