Three UMass Amherst Departments Cited for Innovation in the Humanities

AMHERST, Mass. - One dean and three faculty members from the University of Massachusetts will take part in a national conference on the future of the humanities in higher education Thursday Nov. 20 in New Orleans, La. Representing the University at the annual conference sponsored by the Council of Colleges of Arts and Sciences will be: Lee Edwards, dean of the College of Humanities and Fine Arts; Hanlyn Davies, head of the art department; Ann Ferguson,head of the women''s studies program; and Bruce Laurie, former head of the history department.

The UMass panel will showcase innovations that have been put into place on campus at a time when the liberal arts are being increasingly attacked as irrelevant, says Edwards. Participants will discuss creative responses to such issues as shrinking budgets, advances in technology, and trends in interdisciplinary studies nationwide, she says.

"I think this conference will be a great opportunity to show in a national forum that UMass is on the move," Edwards says. "Ten years after our worst year of budget cuts, we''ve come up with creative responses to national trends affecting the humanities."

Edwards says each of the three department heads at the conference will discuss how they grappled with issues affecting their particular discipline or department.

The history department, she says, had to face both shrinking budgets and an increasingly complex approach to the teaching of history. To offer additional courses, while dealing with a decrease in its faculty, the department formalized this past year a long-standing informal relationship with Hampshire, Smith, Mount Holyoke, and Amherst colleges. "With the new Five-College Ph.D. Program in History, the University has not only doubled its teaching capacity," Edwards says, "it has also created a program with much greater depth than we ever could have realized on our own."

Similarly, the art department was working under "tremendous fiscal and physical constraints," Edwards says, especially following severe state budget cuts in 1988. In response, the department reconfigured its curriculum, adapting to changes by making the decision to put more funding into high-technology programs. By establishing a new Center for Research in Art and Technology - a combination art class and laboratory which works in conjunction with major corporations to create such products as special effects for films - the department has been able to generate revenues which are then channeled back into more traditional programs. In addition, these privately generated funds could also be used to support proposed projects such as the Visual Arts Complex, a new building which would bring together various arts-related programs on campus and so allow greater collaboration in the field.

Finally, Edwards says, the women''s studies program faced related but somewhat different issues as it attempted to adjust both to a shrinking faculty and a changing intellectual focus. "Women''s studies is a rapidly growing and volatile field," says Edwards. "Because our program felt a need to do more in the areas of race, diversity, and class, it extended its range beyond the humanities to the natural and social sciences and the professional schools." To accomplish this, rather than rely on new faculty hires, the program reconfigured resources that already existed on campus to create a program with a more interdisciplinary approach, says Edwards.

"Ultimately, morale is very high," Edwards says. "We''re crossing intellectual boundaries between departments, and consolidating many talents so that we can do more with less. These are challenging, but also exciting, times for the humanities, and I think UMass is at the forefront of some major trends."