Mellon Looks to the Future of Humanities, With a Keen Eye on the Past

You've got to give the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation credit. They know how to straddle the past and future. Let us explain.

Many of their recent grants have been guided by a hybrid philosophy in which one foot is planted in our fast-emerging digital age, while another stands astride tradition, anchored to tried-and-true institutions that have embraced the same values for generations.

Take their work in the field of higher education, for example.

Mellon understands that for the humanities to be relevant in 20 years, it needs to evolve. And so, as we noted in this post articulating Mellon's "big vision" for the humanities, the foundation has doled out a lot of money to drag universities into the digital age.

For example, Mellon awarded a $2 million grant to Carnegie Mellon University to help its humanities department use "technology-enhanced learning to transform and enhance graduate education" and advance digital scholarship. In practice, this can mean using big data to analyze and improve human rights or recreating early social networks to understand how ideas and knowledge spread.

But at the same time, a purist streak runs through Mellon's giving. A recent gift of $3.55 million to the founding members of the Central New York Humanities Corridor suggests that the foundation appreciates the importance of classic humanities research and scholarly work. And an $840,000 gift to the Yale University Press shows the foundation values good old-fashioned university publishing (albeit with a digital twist).

This philosophical duality is perfectly encapsulated in Mellon's recent two-pronged give, totaling $950,000, to Virginia's Washington and Lee University. The first part, a four-year, $800,000 humanities grant, will enable the school's technology experts, research librarians, and faculty to continue their unique collaboration in developing the university’s Digital Humanities (DH) Studio. The key innovation supported by the Mellon Foundation is the development of DH Studio courses, humanities lab courses in which students learn various DH methodologies that they can use in classes and in the data-driven, collaborative workplace of the 21st century.

All in all, a very futuristic and ambitious undertaking.

Meanwhile, the second part of the gift, a $150,000 history grant, funds new courses, collaborative faculty-student research, and a symposium. Its overarching goal is to study how the lessons of history help us interpret contemporary issues. Nationally respected scholars will participate, examining why history is studied, how it informs society, and how it is appropriated or misappropriated in contemporary debates.

Pretty old-school, right?

And so the lesson here is simple. Universities should certainly embrace technology, but at the same time, remain true to the core tenets of humanities research and education. It's not a "one or the other" proposition. The past can influence the future.

Case in point: Washington and Lee's Digital Humanities Working Group, whose "Ancient Graffiti Project" uses modern technology to study and preserve what is perhaps the oldest stuff we can think of, ancient Roman graffiti.

The symbolism is rich!

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