Liam Adams is an independent journalist in Denver writing for local and national outlets.  

The Humanities’ Place in Research Spending

Originally published for The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Only 93 universities spent more than $1 million on humanities research in 2016.

Here are 3.

At one of the country’s top research institutions, not far from where scientists are working on discovering new treatments for disease, Donald S. Lopez Jr. is hard at work doing another kind of research: tracing the travels of Hyecho, an eighth-century Korean Buddhist monk.

His effort takes place at the Humanities Collaboratory, an ambitious project that the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor began three years ago to support interdisciplinary, intergenerational humanities research with appeal to multiple audiences.

The Humanities Collaboratory was jump-started by then-Provost Martha E. Pollack because she wanted humanists to "be like the scientists and collaborate," says Lopez, a professor of Buddhist and Tibetan studies who is principal investigator for "Hyecho’s Journey." His project has resulted in an app for iPhones and iPads, a book, and a manga booklet. The app and an interactive map are part of an exhibition at the Freer|Sackler Galleries of the Smithsonian Institution. A website on the topic is in the works.

 While humanists at many colleges are still doing what people in their fields have long done — independent research and publication of single-author monographs — other universities have taken the risk of doing more expansive projects. Michigan stands out in that regard. It reported spending more than $23.5 million on humanities research and development in the 2016 fiscal year (see accompanying table), with more than half of that devoted to the research portion of salaries for tenure-stream faculty members in the humanities.

Along with the Collaboratory, the university’s projects include research opportunities for undergraduate students and faculty research designed to have societal impact. Supplementing the support provided by internal funds are external grants from the federal government and other sources, and gifts.

For "Hyecho’s Journey," a team of art historians and Asian-studies faculty members and graduate students at Michigan tried to reconstruct the monk’s travels to China, India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan using fragments of his travel journal, knowledge of Buddhism from the time, and analysis of eighth-century Asian art and architecture.

Several undergraduate computer-science, design, and information students and a graduate student contributed to the project by developing the app that guides visitors through the museum gallery.

The project shows, says Lopez, that "toiling over a manuscript in some big archive writing by candlelight with a quill pen" is not the only way to do humanities research.

Other projects the Collaboratory is supporting include "The Precarity Lab," which studies inequalities created by digital platforms, "Book Unbound," which uses an online platform to present humanities text, data, and multimedia in accessible form, and "From Patagonia to Africa: Voices of Displacement," which analyzes linguistic and cultural relations between speakers of Spanish and Afrikaans in Patagonia, Argentina.

Funds dedicated to the Collaboratory cover researchers’ travel expenses, course releases for the principal investigator, summer salaries for other faculty members, and compensation for graduate students. Each major project gets about $500,000 of university support over two years. If the Collaboratory’s first four years are deemed successful and it is renewed for another three years, total support for the seven years is projected to be around $10 million.

Meanwhile, on the other side of Lake Michigan, an effort to encourage undergraduate research in the humanities is getting underway in the fall at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Susan Poser, the university’s provost, says the project, the Engaged Humanities Initiative, seeks to address the question, "How can we make the humanities interesting and relevant to this generation of students?" 

The effort will receive $1 million in support over four and a half years from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. One of the reasons the foundation chose the Chicago campus was because it was seeking an institution that could become a leader in shaping the future of the humanities, says Poser. With its majority-minority student body, the urban campus is a microcosmic representation of the national demographic shift ahead.

Ellen McClure, the initiative’s director and an associate professor of French and history, says the project will encourage students to "use who they are and where they’ve been and bring it to the table to shape their research interests." The project will begin with two seminars this fall, involving 80 undergraduate students. About a quarter of those students are expected to go on to conduct research during their junior and senior years, and they will be encouraged to make their findings public. The project is housed in the university’s Institute for the Humanities, which focuses primarily on faculty research.

Another institution that is among the top spenders on humanities research and development, Brigham Young University, got nearly 90 percent of the $2.7 million it spent in that area in the 2016 fiscal year from the federal government — the largest federal share for any institution that spent $1 million or more on such research that year. The university has devoted much of its spending to improving the teaching of foreign languages. Many of Brigham Young’s students have returned from mission trips for the Mormon Church to countries where they had to pick up new languages quickly, says J. Scott Miller, dean of the College of Humanities. That makes the university a natural place for research on language learning.

From 2002 to 2014, Brigham Young received a Title VI Language Resource Center grant from the U.S. Department of Education that averaged more than $300,000 a year. In 2006, the university began putting some of that money toward the development of computer programs to evaluate language proficiency. Since the federal grant ended, Brigham Young’s Center for Language Studies has continued to fund development of those and other language tests, and devoted $250,000 to the project last year, using university operating funds and gifts from alumni and other university supporters.

Ray Clifford, an associate dean of the College of Humanities, says the computer tests evaluate not just whether a subject understands the topic of the text or a spoken passage, but also the deeper purpose of the communication.

Based on how well the subject does on one test, the computer offers more-challenging texts or speeches. The tests differ from other language-proficiency evaluations in that they treat language learning as defined steps to master, rather than a continuum to progress along. The tests, says Clifford, have allowed the university to establish "a culture of accountability" with language learning.

The $435 million that American universities like Michigan, the University of Illinois at Chicago, and Brigham Young spent on humanities research and development in the 2016 fiscal year remains a tiny part of overall research spending: under 1 percent. Only 93 universities reported that they spent more than $1 million on humanities research that year, and many research institutions said they spent nothing at all.

But scholars at the universities that do support such study argue that it is worthwhile to make the extra effort to bring researchers and students from different areas together to work on humanities projects that are then shared with the public, like the "Hyecho’s Journey" exhibit that is drawing thousands of visitors in Washington. "If you don’t fund different kinds of labor in the humanities," says Lisa Nakamura, principal investigator of "The Precarity Lab" and a professor of American culture at Michigan, "you get the same product over and over again."

Humanists aren’t seeking to be scientists or to necessarily make their work more "data driven," she says. But interdisciplinary programs like the Humanities Collaboratory provide humanists with the tools to make their field "more thoughtful, more reflective, more nuanced, and also more long-form" than it already is.

Correction (8/27/2018, 4:36 p.m.): The original version of this article mistakenly used the word "run" instead of "writing" in a quotation by Donald S. Lopez Jr., in which he referred to researchers "toiling over a manuscript in some big archive writing by candlelight with a quill pen." The wording has been corrected.

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