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The Humanities Center Crisis and What our Voices Mean to Us

By Guest Writers Evan Kim ‘17 and Zeke Goodman ‘17

· Guest Writer

In Dean Wendland’s most recent letter to faculty and staff regarding the uncertain future of the Humanities Center, she wrote, “it is enormously valuable to have the perspectives of the faculty and students in this process.” However, if we can glean anything from the way in which the administration of this university has handled the Humanities Center crisis, it is just how little they regard the voice of undergraduates. Undergraduates have never been officially informed of the possibility that the Humanities Center would cease to exist after this academic year, making it rather ironic that her letter claims to so strongly appreciate our perspective when it was not even sent to the undergraduate student body.

This comes after she had received the undergraduate protest letter with over three hundred signatures, to which she has failed to respond thus far. The fact that our opinions and concerns have not just been ignored, but removed from the equation that go into major decisions should come as no surprise. We have seen it before, most recently with the removal of covered grades. Clearly, the administrators of Johns Hopkins have never considered that we could have the maturity, thoughtfulness, and care to have a say in questions that have a direct effect on our lives as students. Either they never thought to ask, or they have purposefully kept us in the dark. Both possibilities are undeniably deplorable.

One question may be why the proposed closure of the HC should concern undergraduates at all. If you look at Dean Wendland’s main criticisms of the department, you might be under the impression that the HC has very little care for undergraduate education. In our experience this is not the case. In two previous reviews, the HC has asserted its desire to have an undergraduate major program. A proposal for such a program was blocked by the administration, who then used the lack of such a program as evidence of the department’s failure to commit to undergraduate learning. This appears more like a trap than anything else - a move to hold the HC in stasis, and then criticize its lack of progression.

Considering that the administration has been unwilling to move to some kind of solution, many students, like the two of us, who do not want to confine their academic work to one department, have made an effort to involve themselves in the kind of interdisciplinary study offered by the HC. Both of us have taken courses that engage questions few departments are willing to offer to undergraduates (much less take up in any capacity), attended lectures by speakers who have been specifically drawn to campus by the department’s work, and one of us is in the midst of completing the honors program offered by the HC. Though by some standards these opportunities may be “limited,” the experiences we have had with the unique work and ways of thinking that come out of the HC have opened up possibilities of engagement with subjects that we may never have encountered without it.

Based on our discussions with other students, it is certain that we are not alone in the impact we have felt from the HC. What other department would ask us to contend with Dostoevsky in the context of philosophy and critical theory, or the philosophical implications of Obama’s presidency, or questions of authenticity in photography through a senior thesis? Moreover, suggesting that undergraduates are unaffected by the HC fails to acknowledge important relationships we’ve developed with professors and graduate students in the department, who now face an unstable and uncertain future along with an unsupportive administration.

So far, the administration’s response to these points has been to direct our attention to all the ways in which they have promoted interdisciplinary study within the humanities. Much of this claim has centered on the newly created Alexander Grass Humanities Institute. However, as we point out in the undergraduate protest letter, “While the new institute seems like a fine effort to supplement the study of the humanities at Johns Hopkins, it does not provide classes, house the aforementioned one of a kind faculty and course offerings, nor contain the intellectual history that the Humanities Center does.” In other words, besides for some hypothetical fellowships and speakers, the AGHI appears to offer far less than HC does in terms of undergraduate education. It can and should only exist as something supplementary to what we already have.

In a meeting with the graduate students, Dean Wendland recently characterized the petitions and airing of support for the Humanities Center as “the nuclear option.” What other options have we be given? Clearly we are taking the “nuclear option,” because we have never been given a chance to speak about this in any form. The alternative to the current scenario, given the behavior of the administration, would have been for us to remain uninformed, and to accept the likely closure of the HC with a sigh and nothing else. Combine this with the dean’s fixation on a name dispute that has already been conceded, and one is only left with questions about the real adult decisions that are made behind closed doors, without the pesky opinions of us little children, who are only meant be seen, and never heard.

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