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The Humanities Center: Promoting Academic Excellence

With Rex Nielson on board as the new director, the Humanities Center continues to thrive as a cornerstone institution in the College.

The BYU Humanities Center and Its Leadership

Humanities centers are a rarity in the international academic landscape—only 2.5 to 3 percent of the world’s universities even have one. “That we have one at BYU is statistically remarkable,” says Professor Matthew Wickman (Scottish Literature and Interdisciplinary Literary Studies), founding and now departing director of the BYU Humanities Center. “It’s a unique and precious thing that we have.”

But if you're wondering what a humanities center actually is and does, and what it means for BYU, you wouldn't be alone.

In a practical sense, the center provides funding and support for faculty research, colloquia, symposia, professional development workshops, research groups, and public-facing events and focus groups. Faculty in the College of Humanities have opportunities to get involved with the center by applying for center fellowships (College-funded appointments for a fixed length of time pertaining to specific projects such as research, public humanities initiatives, mentoring initiatives, or service on an advisory council). With such a diverse slew of functions, the center’s foci are cause for frequent reflection and discussion within the College, especially for the director of the center and fellows who participate in its various initiatives.

The May 26 Humanities Center colloquium posed a special opportunity to reflect on the impact and identity of the center. Wickman and the incoming director, Associate Professor Rex Nielson (Luso-Afro-Brazilian Literature and Culture), discussed the history of the center, its present incarnation, and future plans. Through their conversation, it became clear that the center is at the vanguard of the ever-evolving landscape of humanities scholarship at BYU.

A Brief History of the Center

Founding director Matthew Wickman

When Wickman became the founding director of the center in 2012, he considered the problem of insularity—the study of the humanities as a cloistered pursuit, isolated from other disciplines and from the larger world—as one of the major concerns to address. Wickman suggested that the issue is ever-present in academia: “Insularity is a built-in problem to our fields and how they are organized; it is a built-in problem to how we work.” He was also concerned about BYU's relative geographic isolation, and he worried that some might see BYU's religious affiliation as a hindrance to the opportunity or even the desire to readily enter into dialogue with other scholars.

To help the center overcome these hurdles, Wickman began scouring websites and publications of humanities centers across the United States and abroad, slowly developing a vision for what the BYU Humanities Center could be. Then he familiarized himself with the work of his colleagues throughout the College of Humanities—sampling their published and unpublished research to get a feel for the scholarship going on in the College. He found fascinating research in all corners of the College, and he realized he could tap into the “tremendous creative energy” in the work of his colleagues.

Wickman realized that “the first thing we had to do is create some kind of circulation: work-in-progress meetings and lecturers coming in. It was very important to get people talking to each other inside and outside the College. Out there in the College, there is stuff happening, and it is happening all the time.”

He focused many of the center’s events and groups on helping the faculty who are involved with the center keep up to date with the current academic landscape and the work of their colleagues. The center also organized Undergraduate Research Symposia where students can share their research with their peers and receive funding through undergraduate fellowships.

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Wickman recording an episode of Faith and Imagination: A BYU Humanities Center Podcast

Wickman suggested that another aim of the center is to create “sustainable structures that allow for us to collaborate with other organizations, institutes, colleges, and universities.” One such structure is On Belief, the center’s annual symposium that deals with issues at the intersection of scholarship and faith—attracting scholars from around the world. Another is the center’s dense colloquia schedule, which features frequent lectures on a myriad of topics from faculty within the College and scholars across the country.

Formative feedback from other scholars was essential for improving the level of scholarship around the College and for identifying projects of special innovation and importance, as Wickman came to realize. One way the center accomplishes that is by hosting research groups and workshops, which have allowed scholars to give and receive feedback on their work and resulted in numerous faculty projects and publications.

Since its inception, the center has flourished into a defining feature of the College, with Wickman at the helm for the countless projects and initiatives the center has undertaken. “The past ten years have been a rush unlike anything I’ve ever experienced,” Wickman wrote in a farewell post on the Humanities Center blog. Yet “the Humanities Center is ready for new leadership, and I’m ready for new horizons.” Rex Nielson became the new director, effective on July 1.

The New Humanities Center Director

Incoming director Rex Nielson

Nielson, having been a Humanities Center fellow himself, attests to the importance of the Humanities Center. “I’ve always viewed the center as a place that breathed life into my own work.” The center has also had an influence on the way that Nielson approaches scholarship. In his own work, he extolls an approach more frequently seen in the sciences: “fail early.” That means presenting one’s early, unpublished research for peers, getting feedback on what works and what doesn’t, and revising accordingly. Nielson admitted that as a faculty fellow, receiving feedback on his unfinished projects was “terrifying, but tremendously rewarding and energizing for [his] work.” Being on the receiving end of funding and feedback from the center provides Nielson with a sensitivity to the needs of faculty as he guides the center’s faculty-oriented initiatives.

Nielson expressed that in addition to continuing to foster scholarly initiatives, he would like to bolster the public-facing initiatives of the center—initiatives such as the Cambodian Oral History Project and the Faith and Imagination Podcast. Nielson plans to continue to seek out and support projects like these, asking, “How can our humanities center engage with the important issues facing the Church and our society? I want us to engage with those issues. . . . We’re not just curators of knowledge. We want to have a transformational impact on the world around us: the local community in Provo and also the broader, Church-wide community.”

The Humanities Center’s emphases and approaches to facilitating excellent scholarship and teaching will continue to evolve with time, but its importance as a cornerstone of BYU’s humanities landscape will undoubtedly persist. As Nielson remarked at the conclusion of the colloquium, “The Humanities Center can change the place we are into the place we want to be.”

Check out Humanities Center initiatives and projects and discover ways to get involved at the Humanities Center website.