Patrick Rochelle: A space for humanities collaboration

Ideas are a lot like the flu – they’re contagious. And if you put enough people in a room, someone is bound to catch the bug.

But if you’ve ever spent time in Rome or Phillips halls, which house many of the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences’ departments, a person can’t help but feel a little isolated. Teachers are resigned to their offices, hidden from sight of other colleagues and students. The truth is, there isn’t a space where all the humanities departments can come together to collaborate.

Over the past few weeks, while science professors within the School of Engineering and Applied Science have been deliberating over lab and research space, humanities departments have been left to ponder the aging brick of the Academic Center.

As GW continues to re-organize and change the campus layout, why not consider a small humanities center in the future?

When Rome and Phillips halls were first built in the 1980s, the University needed an academic resource that was functional. Today, at a time when GW is striving to become a world-renowned research institution, it needs something that promotes collaboration.

I’m not going to kid myself, the University won’t be building a new Columbian College anytime soon. But in the meantime, it’s time the University built a humanities center: a space that promotes interdisciplinary collaboration and innovation. This space would allow for partnerships and interaction across departments, putting teachers and students in positions where they can converse with fields outside their own specializations.

The new Science and Engineering Hall will offer its visitors valuable space for labs, space for teaching and space for discussions between students and faculty. A result, of course, is with more space, students and faculty will be further inclined to collaborate, and come to new, department-defying innovations.

But the School of Engineering and Applied Science is not alone in this need for collaborative space. Humanities research is inherently collaborative, because it is primarily through conversation that new ideas are discussed and debated. It sounds silly, but innovation can’t happen in a place that doesn’t incentivize conversation.

A space for collaboration is critical for the future of the humanities, as inter-disciplinary activity will be key for students and faculty in the years to come. GW wouldn’t be the first institution with a humanities center – universities such as Rutgers and Cornell have had humanities centers for the last several decades.

The Rutgers Center for Cultural Analysis creates a sense of intellectual community among faculty and students by bringing them together in conversation from different departments across its college of arts and sciences.

There are some opportunities for humanities collaboration at GW. The Medieval and Early Modern Studies Institute co-sponsors speakers and events alongside other departments such as history, Africana studies, philosophy and Latino studies and helps to further research among undergraduate and graduate students.

Yet opportunity for this type of collaboration is limited due to space constraints, English professor and director of the Medieval and Early Modern Studies Institute Jeffrey Cohen said. Without a central place for the humanities to collaborate, it can be difficult to continue to foster a cross-disciplinary intellectual community. It doesn’t take a multi-million dollar facility to house a humanities center. For example, the center at Rutgers is run out of an old townhouse owned and operated by the university.

It is true that there are other places on campus that are available for meetings and collaboration, but this is simply not the same as providing the humanities their own flexible and personalized area. In order to thrive, it will be critical for the humanities to have exceptional resources at their disposal.

Patrick Rochelle, a junior majoring in English, is a Hatchet columnist.

This article was updated Nov. 19, 2011 to reflect the following changes: The Hatchet incorrectly spelled the first name of Jeffrey Cohen as Jeffery Cohen.

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