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Humanities Writing Group Resource for Faculty

May 04, 2016

${image-alt} Humanities Faculty Writing Group founder Jacob Haubenreich

It’s about using the resources already available on campus and shining some light on the humanities.

Jacob Haubenreich, assistant professor of German in the Department of Languages, Cultures, and International Trade, founded the Humanities Faculty Writing Group as a working group where faculty members can receive critical commentary during the writing process from their colleagues in similar – and sometimes dissimilar – fields. A colloquium series, an offshoot of the writing group, provides a venue for faculty to present their work publicly.

“My goal is to help foster a stronger research community in the humanities here,” Haubenreich says. “It’s vital for the intellectual life of a university to have the opportunity to share ongoing work with interested and engaged colleagues in a public forum.”

Haubenreich started the group last spring and since then it has gathered steam. He invited all faculty engaged in research in the humanities, and he defined “humanities” very broadly. The first semester, the group numbered 16 participants. This academic year, it’s up to 25 members.

The forum part of the humanities group is a series of faculty lectures and discussions based on academic papers, which faculty members plan to present at academic conferences, or as portions of larger works, such as book chapters. It provides a practice arena for faculty to share their research with colleagues before presenting it at academic conferences elsewhere. The forum also gives students the opportunity to hear academic papers on a variety of topics at their home university.

“We’re trying to highlight what we do in the humanities and its value,” Haubenreich said. “With the current budget situation there isn’t always a lot of money to invite guest lectures. This forum makes use of the resources we have right here on campus.”

The topics, as might be expected with a humanities focus, often have interdisciplinary appeal. For example, forum presentations in the fall 2015 semester included: “Learning from Devotion: Problems, Solutions and Conversion in George Herbert and John Donne,” by Ryan Netzley, associate professor of English; and “Color by Numbers: Science Fiction Film and the Nature of Art,” by Walter Metz, professor of cinema and photography.

Netzley focuses on the lyric form of the two poets and their depiction of devotion – a long-term, stable state – and conversion – a more dramatic experience. He applies what he observed there to the philosophy of teaching, urging the cultivation of humanistic learning over a period of time as compared to learning by topic as reaction to crisis.

Metz examines two science fiction films that used as a plot device highly recognizable examples of American oil paintings from 1948 (Andrew Wyeth’s “Christina’s World” in “Oblivion,” and Jackson Pollock’s “Number 5” in “Ex Machina”) to explore why science fiction movies with futuristic sets would rely on seemingly anachronistic artworks from immediate post-war United States.

A recent paper presentation from this semester is “Rebels, Slaves and Human Rights in the Age of Revolution,” by George Boulukos, associate professor of English. He is re-examining the notion that expressions of sympathy for rebelling slaves was the origin of modern human rights, arguing that the expressed sympathy then was very different from modern ideas about rights and what rebellion means to society.

“I think what Jacob’s set in motion with a forum for research presentations is absolutely vital for the college,” he said. I think it’s especially important to treat our scholarly work as something with intramural value, something that has purchase here, on campus, and not just at discipline-specific conferences or specialist journals. . . I’m especially impressed that Jacob’s just done this on his own because he thought it was important for the research mission of the college.”

For the writing group part of the venture, Haubenreich takes the initial sign-up list of interested faculty, then breaks it down into smaller, working groups of three to four. He tries to create working groups that are diverse by career standing, tenure-track and non-tenure track, and by academic discipline. Faculty members share works in progress with the smaller group, soliciting critical feedback and suggestions.

“Most faculty members already know and share work with colleagues in their own departments,” he said. “I try to blend a group from different academic areas, but from ones close enough that they’ll have some interest in each other’s work.”

So far, both sides of the group have been successful. Haubenreich said students attend the forums, particularly if a faculty member they know is presenting a paper. And the faculty response has been encouraging.

Netzley, one of the early members, said he supported the concept even though he wasn’t completely convinced that the writing part of the idea would work.

“Initially, I was somewhat skeptical about the value of an interdisciplinary writing group,” Netzley said, noting that he can usually find someone in his own field to preview his work before he presents it or submits it for publication. “Frankly, I was wrong. I was surprised by how helpful the face-to-face discussion turned out to be.”

Natasha Zaretsky, associate professor of history, said the writing group experience was invaluable for her. She said that she appreciated the “great insight and careful criticism” given by her colleagues in her group, and was excited to have the opportunity to reciprocate.

“But I think that the best thing about the writing group was that it created a system of accountability for me,” she said. “Knowing that I had to circulate a piece of writing to my writing group and submit it by a certain date pushed me to draft an introduction for my current book manuscript. I then sent the introduction out to publishers, and I was able to secure a book contract with a leading press in my field. So I am greatly indebted to the writing group.”