After a decade on the English faculty of the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, Amanda Anderson knows about humanities at a large public university.
After 12 years at Johns Hopkins University, where she was the Caroline Donovan Professor of English Literature, she knows about a small, stimulating humanities department surrounded by a private university research enterprise.
She is coming to Brown as the Andrew W. Mellon Professor of Humanities for the excellence of its humanities environment, to be sure, but more importantly because of its larger size. Bigness isn’t often a selling point at Brown.
“I’m interested in conversations and discussions about the condition and direction of the field and about the humanities more generally,” Anderson said, “so I was drawn to the robust size of the department here and Brown’s extraordinary scholars. In English, comparative literature, modern culture and media — there are scholars who have been instrumental in thinking through larger disciplinary questions and the direction of the field. There’s the Pembroke Center, the Cogut Humanities Center, public humanities — there’s a lot of exciting programming and collaboration. I’m very drawn to that.”
Faculty and concentrators in the arts and humanities are familiar with recurring — if not perennial — questions about the utility of the humanities. What can you do with them? They are also familiar with recurring answers: critical thinking, habits of lifelong learning, self-cultivation, creativity, ethical living.
All true and valid responses, Anderson said, but never quite enough to put the questions to rest. “There is a sense that the humanities are on the defensive. People feel frustrated; they don’t want to launch into pious statements about the love of literature or learning. These are hard questions, but the questions themselves may be misguided. The humanities may exceed the realm of utility.”
It does not help to think of humanities as a thing apart. The humanities address areas of inquiry that are vital across all disciplines. “Scientific practice inevitably encounters questions of ethics,” Anderson said. “When people stress the attention the humanities pay to questions of value, it’s simply a way of pointing out that this is a direct focus of inquiry for the humanities — not a suggestion that others aren’t constantly having to negotiate ethical questions.”
One of her own areas of specialty, Victorian literature, has led her to a persistent interest in the category of character. “My second book, The Powers of Distance, examined how for many Victorians character became a site of value in a culture where traditional frameworks — especially religion — were losing their force,” she said. “Character became the place where often a lot of ethical emphasis was invested.”
She notices issues of character arising subtly even in theoretical and philosophical discussions, she said, as observations about how a given position would affect one’s life, values, and perspectives. An exploration of this issue informs her widely read 2006 book, The Way We Argue Now. She sees character also as an important part of teaching.
“One of the most important elements of pedagogy is engaged dialogue with the students. I really want that privileged in my teaching,” she said. “In teaching we are always listening to the thought of another, always taking in the other person’s way of being in the world, the values they project. Character is a crucial dimension in pedagogy. I’ve always been fascinated by that interplay.”
Brown is a supportive place for anyone interested in the power, satisfactions, and future direction of the humanities, Anderson said, and she looks forward to teaching and continuing her research in Brown’s dynamic environment. She is currently working on a book exploring the dialectic of hope and skepticism animating many engagements with liberalism across literature and philosophy.