THoR’s Take

Ruramisai Charumbira & Michael Toggweiler

Welcome to THoR, also known as Taking the Humanities on the Road!
THoR is an Ideas-and-Action Lab at the interdisciplinary Walter Benjamin Kolleg (WBKolleg). The WBKolleg is part of the Faculty of the Humanities at the University of Bern. The lab leaders launched THoR in 2018 as a politically and intellectually independent bottom-up working group to increase the visibility of research in the humanities and the social sciences and to demonstrate their continued critical importance of innovation and engagement.

Politicians and certain media circles increasingly question the practical and economic usefulness of the humanities. Technological and other innovations coupled with life changing knowledge production at the dawn of the 21st century, in such discourse, are mostly linked with the Sciences, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (plus Medicine), the STEM disciplines in everyday parlance. At least, on a superficial glance, these natural, physical and health sciences and engineering indeed seem to have harnessed information technologies to make their disciplines applicable to most people’s private and public everyday lives while the humanities have seem to lag behind. This, of course, is not to suggest that all STEM disciplines have found better, or the best, ways of communicating the meaningfulness of their research and have, therefore, entirely eclipsed the humanities as spaces for innovation and making and finding meaning. The humanities are still present in the media, although scattered among many ressorts. It is also not to suggest that the humanities have lost their credit in the opinion of the general public; Philipp Burkard from Science et Cité believes the humanities are still held in favorable view, as the Science Barometer Switzerland, a yearly survey asking what the Swiss think about scientific issues, does not show otherwise.
Rather, THoR notes the irony that the humanities are about how humans drive innovation in pursuit of meaning – in the past and present – yet, the humanities disciplines seem to have found themselves both flatfooted and misunderstood in their responses to some of the loudest cries of the humanities’ irrelevance in society. Markus Zürcher, Director of the Swiss Academy of Humanities and Social Sciences (SAGW), articulated this humanities conundrum for a Swiss academic framework succinctly when he wrote that:

“At least since the turn of the millennium, science and knowledge are recognized as key production factors that contribute significantly to value creation, productivity, economic growth and welfare. However, with regard to the humanities in particular, this … added value escapes the superficial view.”  

— Zürcher, Markus, Gegenstand, Relevanz und Praxis der Geisteswissenschaften, in: SAGW (2016), Swiss Academies Communications 11(5)

Martha Nussbaum, in 2010, took this a step further, articulating an American as well as a global perspective on the importance of the humanities. She wrote:

“The humanities and the arts are being cut away in both primary/secondary and college/university education, in virtually every nation of the world. Seen by policy-makers as useless frills, at a time when nations must cut away all useless things in order to stay competitive in the global market, they are rapidly losing their place in curricula, and also in the minds and hearts of parents and children.”

— Nussbaum, Martha, Not for profit: why democracy needs the humanities. Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press, 2010

These country specific, and general developments in academia emerge within a global academic governance that ties utilitarianism to education and training according to “strategic” institutional aims. This, in turn, raises pressure for humanities scholars to increase their visibility and public outreach in order to attract students and third-party funding, and/or to evaluate their research achievements along quantifiable criteria. All this, it could be argued, is done in order for universities and colleges to be internationally competitive in a market-like situation that conceptualizes knowledge and meaning as commodities with quantifiable value.

Of course, here in Switzerland, there have been responses by Swiss humanities scholars and institutions. For example, some five years ago, the SAGW launched discussions and publications to boost the humanities in Switzerland. There have also been articles in mostly Zurich-based newspapers defending the usefulness and relevance of the humanities in the 21st Century against attacks of right wing media, as well as initiatives such as the Blog Geschichte der Gegenwart, initiated by Philipp Sarasin and others with its decidedly critical stance.

ThoR’s own take is that there are many ripe opportunities for the humanities to respond to explicit or implicit demands and critique coming from internal and external stakeholders. Indeed, THoR argues that though the humanities have sometimes seemed to be at a loss for words when asked to justify the continued existence of anthropologists, historians, philosophers etc., it is imperative that we (humanities and social sciences scholars) tap into our varied traditions of bringing forth the basic questions that all disciplines, old and new, grapple with today. THoR is inspired by, among others, scholars like Mikhail Epstein who call for focused and intentional responses to these demands for pushing back the humanities by turning into “avenues of conceptual creativity” in academic institutions in general. As he puts it:

“Before asking society to embrace, once again, the value of the humanities, we should ask ourselves a simple question: what is it in contemporary humanities that holds special value and promise for society?”

— Epstein, Maikhail, The Transformative Humanities: A Manifesto. New York–London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2012

In that spirit, THoR argues that we should not just be against, or, worse, be passively compliant and bury our heads in the archives or in the field, hoping that budget cuts will not affect our projects and our teaching. Rather, THoR’s take is that yes, we should take the opportunity to confidently reclaim and showcase the humanities’ expertise and innovative potential. We should try to increase the visibility of humanities research outward as well as within the university. We should show not just their usefulness to society, but their foundational nature. We should reestablish society’s emotional bond with the humanities, and increase the legitimacy of the humanities in society by demonstrating the value and meaning of our work, which, in turn, strengthens the humanities image and value in individual and collective lives.

However, the big caveat is that we should respond in a way that is not simply complying with market-driven ideology. Rather, we should and will do it in styles that fit each unique humanities program and project, and in ways that highlight the humanities’ strengths of, among many others: verstehen, deep description, analysis, differentiation, self-reflexivity, critical thinking, classification of information and facts, critique, as well as the creation and discussion of value and meaning.

Given the foregoing, the following two questions at the core of THoR are formulated offensively rather than defensively to illustrate our confidence in the humanities:

  • How can we make our research more meaningful for ourselves and for others? For example: What is the meaning of being an anthropologist, historian etc.? How do we make sense of what we are doing to ourselves and to others? How do we justify our professions? How do we reclaim expertise of and for the humanities – an expertise which is crucial to society?
  • How can we communicate the meaningfulness of our research? For  example: How do we, and others, benefit from the fruits of our labor? How do we explain what we are doing? How can we manage conversation – inside and outside academia, with experts and non-experts?

At the WBKolleg Bern, THoR is an independent bottom-up working group aimed at establishing a discussion of concrete and tangible ways to build bridges between academia and the public, between individual research and participation, as well as analytical and embodied or engaged scholarship. As an Ideas-and-Action Lab, THoR is part seminar (conceptualizing), part lab (doing), part marketplace (showcase & disseminating), and part life (rigorous intellectual engagement and fun!).

THoR put out a call for participation at the beginning of 2018, and responses came in from MA-students, PhDs, postdocs and faculty members. During our first gathering, participants were asked to bring their own ideas and/or projects of works in-progress as the goal of the first two Ideas-and-Actions Lab gatherings were to crowdsource ideas for data visualizations, performances, exhibitions, innovative presentations, artistic and engaged interventions, all showcasing the vitality of the humanities at the University of Bern, Switzerland, and beyond.   

During the first gathering, all in attendance collaborated in clustering similar or complementary ideas-and-actions into what THoR leaders had initially dubbed CoLABs (from collaborative labor and laboratory), and which turned out to be the ideal name for these mini labs within the larger lab that is THoR. For now, we have settled on three CoLABs that embody THoR as offered by the current projects of current participants (click for further information):

This all means that while the basic idea of CoLABs will remain a constant, the practice within each of them will (or may) change to accommodate the intellectual growth of its participants, new members, as well as the feedback that participants incorporate within their own work and CoLABs. THoR will remain a living entity, at once steadfast as a platform for the transformative humanities, as well as an adaptive tool for bringing about change at the WBKolleg as new CoLABs popup, while others will disappear, and others merge.

You find the fascinating ideas-and-actions of our current members on this platform. We invite all scholars (from all disciplines, at all levels), as well as artists, teachers, activists, bloggers, para-academics, and community organizers etc., who are passionate about engaged scholarship to participate in a lively conversation about “Taking the Humanities on the Road.” Specifically, we ask you to join one of our CoLABS with a concrete idea-and-action, and/or to write a blog-article, to comment, share our content, visit our events, and contribute otherwise.

Please get in touch with us if you are interested to know more about THoR, join a CoLab, or join with a project or a blog-article! We look forward to hearing from you and to working with you!

Ruramisai Charumbira & Michael Toggweiler

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