The Little Center That Could: UC Merced’s Center for the Humanities

September 26, 2012 [originally posted on UCHRI’s now-defunct public humanities blogsite]

UC Merced always makes me think of the little engine that could, chugging up an impossibly steep hill, gaining speed and confidence along the way, all the while chanting “I think I can, I think I can.”

Located a few miles outside the city of Merced on a broad flat expanse of agricultural land, the campus is the newest addition to the UC system. There´s a palpable pioneer spirit there, a sense of solidarity that comes from building a university and intellectual community out of scratch – literally.

I was at UC Merced in May 2009 for Michelle Obama´s commencement speech to the 493 members of the first full graduating class, many of them first generation college students from the diverse immigrant and ethnic communities around the Central Valley. These students had organized the campaign to bring Obama to campus, writing letters to her office, friends and family, and even starting a “Dear Michelle” Facebook campaign that sent 900 Valentine’s Day cards to her.

It was beastly hot that day, not a tree in sight and long lines of sweaty people at the dozens of water stations dotting the perimeter of the broad lawn. Sweating bullets myself, my skin sticking to the metal folding chair, I wondered why I had thought this would be fun. Then Obama took the podium.

“Remember that you are blessed — remember that in exchange for those blessings you must give something back,” she told the crowd of 12,000 friends, family and supporters of the new graduates.  ”You must reach back and pull someone up. You must bend down and let someone else stand on your shoulders so that they can see a brighter future.”

Perhaps I´m romanticizing, but I felt a goosebumpy kind of thrill at Obama’s speech and her reminder of the transformative power of education, community, and ideas.

That said, building a new university for the 21st century takes a lot of work. The demands of teaching and service at UC Merced are intense while the expectations of research excellence and productivity remain high. This is particularly true in the humanities, with barely fifty faculty across the entire division of Social Sciences, Humanities and the Arts.

It´s no surprise, then, that the humanities center has become a crucial hub for intellectual community and research engagement at UC Merced. Founded in the fall of 2008, the humanities center has operated on a shoestring, with only a faculty director and one GSR responsible for producing a full slate of programs and events around humanities research.

This year, however, with a little help from some friends, big things are happening for the humanities at UC Merced.

Big Money

Two million dollars big. Thanks to a $2 million gift from an anonymous donor, UC Merced has re-envisioned the humanities center’s role within the university as well as the San Joaquin Valley community. The new UC Merced Center for the Humanities (formerly the Center for Research in the Humanities and Arts) will offer significantly expanded programming to support scholars in conducting interdisciplinary research, engaging the public and addressing issues critical to the San Joaquin Valley and California.

“With this gift, we have the opportunity to create a center with an innovative structure and increased staff to support intellectual creativity among faculty and graduate students, as well as reach out to the San Joaquin Valley community,” said history professor and center director Susan Amussen. “The work of this center will have enormous significance both in the near term and for many years to come.”

Programming at the center will be structured around an interdisciplinary thematic focus. Themes will change every two years to respond to the concerns of the campus and region, and each two-year theme will be studied through four different lenses – literature, digital, creative arts and public humanities. Faculty members will select the first theme this fall.

Big Ideas

Amussen and her colleagues have already hit the ground running with programs for the 2012-13 year.

On October 25-26, the UC Merced Center for the Humanities will host the 30th annual meeting of the Western Humanities Alliance. The conference theme is “Cultures of Research and Inquiry.”

“I think there´s sometimes a perception, particularly among scientists, that scholars in the humanities don´t do `real´ research. We wanted to push back against that perception,” explained Amussen, describing her collaboration with Western Humanities Alliance director Reg McGinnis. “But more than that, we wanted to provoke deep thinking and discussion about how new technologies and changes within the academy have impacted the cultures of research and knowledge formation within the humanities. I think this conference will do exactly that.”

“Cultures of Research and Inquiry” kicks off on Thursday, October 25, with a keynote address by Lianne McTavish. A art history professor at Alberta University, McTavish published a fascinating piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education last year – Muscling Into Theory – on the culture of professional bodybuilders through the lens of her own experience as a competitor in Northern Alberta Body Building Championships.  She has also written on this project in her blog, Feminist Figure Girl, which features the provocative tag line “Look Hot While You Fight the Patriarchy.” McTavish´s conference keynote, “Female Embodiment and the Experience of Muscle Failure,” will explore her application of anthropological methodologies in a comparative framework, juxtaposing her work on contemporary bodybuilding with her research on bodies in the visual culture of early modern France.

The conference continues on Friday, October 26, with two panels. The morning session will explore methodological and epistemological questions as well as substantive research projects around the theme, “Minds and Bodies.” Panelists include Jonathan Marks (Physical Anthropology, University of North Carolina, Charlotte), Shahzad Bashir (Religious Studies, Stanford), Valerie Hardcastle (Philosophy and Psychology, University of Cincinnati), and Thomas Csordas, (Medical Anthropology, UC San Diego).

The afternoon panel will be an equally interdisciplinary examination of the ways that the digital revolution and new media technologies are dramatically reshaping the cultures of research in the humanities, featuring John Dagenais (Spanish and Portuguese, UCLA), Lew Lancaster (Buddhist Studies, UC Berkeley),  Geoffrey Rockwell (Philosophy, University of Alberta) , and Walter Scheidel (History and Classics, Stanford).

“Interdisciplinarity has become a commonplace buzzword in humanities research, but it raises very profound questions about the cultures of research we create and inhabit as well as the kinds of work we produce and the way we engage with each other as knowledge producers. We may say we´re studying the same things – bodies, for example – but the screens are very different for a physical anthropologist, a neuroscientist, and a historian of religion,” said Amussen. “I´m very excited to have this opportunity to engage these questions, and we´ve structured the conference so that there will be plenty of time for discussion and debate.”

The proceedings of the conference will be published in the WHA´s annual journal, The Western Humanities Review.  Previous issues have focused on Economics and the Humanities (2011), Engagements (2010), Nature, Culture, Technology (2009), and The Relevance of the Humanities (2008).

To register for the Cultures of Research and Inquiry conference, click here.

The Center is also co-sponsoring another major conference this month: Caves and Cognition: Exploring the Cave Experience from Multidisciplinary Perspectives will be held October 18-20, coordinated by anthropology professor Holley Moyes.

Big Projects

UC Merced will also host one of this year’s Working Groups in the Mellon-funded Humanities and Changing Conceptions of Work research initiative. Working Class Cultural Labor in the Central Valley, coordinated by literature professor Jan Goggans, revolves around a mix of contemporary and historical modes of cultural expression by working class people and commnities in the Central Valley.

While the Los Angeles area is often cited as the most diverse and multi-ethnic within in the state, 54.0 percent of the population of California´s central valley identifies itself as non white. Within this population, as economically diverse and ethnically rich as it is, exist multiple variations of work, the working class, and its varied expressions of existence at both the individual and communal level. Understanding class as a subjective position as well as an economic position is particularly relevant to work on California´s central core since it opens working class studies to a wider range, one that includes economics but engages more broadly with questions about daily life, subjectivity, and material culture.

Bringing together UC humanities scholars with diverse research interests – trucking culture, country music, literature and poetry, fashion, prison education, farmworkers and food cultures – the working group will work at defining a new cutting edge of labor, working class and cultural studies, an intersection made especially rich through material culture in this diverse and understudied region of California.

Participants include faculty from the UC´s two central valley campuses: UC Merced professors Jan Goggans (Literatures and Cultures), Nigel Hatton (Literatures and Cultures), Mario Sifuentez (History), and Ray Winter (Merritt Writing Program), and UC Davis professors Glenda Drew (Visual Communication), Jesse Drew (Cinema and Technocultural Studies), and Susan Kaiser (Performance Studies and Women and Gender Studies). Duskin Drum, an MFA candidate in Theater and Dance at UC Davis, will also participate and contribute posts about the group´s activities in the UC Humanities Forum this year.

Currently, the group is planning two exhibits for Fall 2013, one to be held on UCM’s campus and another debuting downtown, at the Merced Multicultural Center.  The exhibits will showcase the work of the scholars, including Glenda Drew´s project on restaurants and truckers, Susan´s Kaiser´s research on fashion and country-western couture, and Jan Goggan´s work on poet Wilma McDaniel, whose writing spans her arrival to the Central Valley during the Dust Bowl to the opening of Buck Owens’ Crystal Palace in Bakersfield. The downtown opening will also feature music, drawing on Jesse Drew´s research on the working class roots of Central Valley music.

Author Gerald Haslam is slated as the keynote speaker on the downtown exhibit’s opening reception. Born in Bakersfield and raised in Oildale, Haslam is often credited with having created an awareness of “the other California,” and his many books explore the human condition in California’s rural and small town areas, among its poor and working class people of all colors.

Food culture in the Central Valley, California´s major food producing region, is another major focus of the group, drawing on the research of Glenda Drew, Mario Sifuentez and Ray Winter. The group plans a wide ranging engagement around food in the Central Valley, California’s major food producing region.  Proposed programs include a panel on economic and cultural disparities between those who produce and through their labor distribute food, and those who buy and eat it.  But their goal is not simply to point out the disparities of production, distribution, and consumption; they also want to explore what you might call the interstices of this circuit, discussing and exhibiting food workers in a variety of venues.

“The group is a terrific constellation of scholars working on class and culture in the Central Valley from a variety of perspectives,” said Goggans. “All in all, our work speaks to each other in intriguing ways, and we think that will be evident in the panel and exhibits. We’re looking forward to a big, productive year together.”

So, are really big things in the works for the humanities at UC Merced this year? You bet. Can they pull it off? I think they can, I think they can.