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Humanities & Culture


Every expression of human mental life can be understood as a kind of language, and this understanding, in the manner of a true method, everywhere raises new questions.
—Walter Benjamin, “On Language as Such and on the Language of Man” (1916)

Taking Walter Benjamin’s expansive definition of language as a point of departure, the Humanities and Culture concentration challenges students to engage in an inquiry-based study of the human condition that explores creative ways of advancing social justice and engaging difference among individuals and social groups. This is achieved through a critical and methodical examination of how meanings are constructed, contested, and re-constructed within particular socio-historical contexts and traditions.

In terms of content, the Humanities and Culture concentration draws upon selected fields of the humanities (social and political philosophy, history, religious studies, literature, aesthetics) that bear on issues of social justice and cultural difference and that exhibit and/or explore the creative process as such. As a secondary concentration, the humanities are studied more specifically for the insights they bring to the doctoral program’s areas of concentration in Ethical and Creative Leadership and Public Policy and Social Change.

With regard to both its aims and methods, then, the Humanities & Culture concentration emphasizes three interrelated modes of inquiry:

Interdisciplinary Inquiry

The humanities, by definition, are comprised of multiple disciplines. By and in itself, however, this multiplicity of disciplines does not necessarily lend itself to interdisciplinary inquiry. Instead, it often seems to lead a multidisciplinary form of inquiry whereby scholars from various fields investigate the same cultural, social, or historical phenomenon (e.g., postmodernism, feminism, or postcolonialism) through the discrete lenses of their respective disciplines. These concurrent investigations have undoubtedly deepened our understanding of, for instance, postmodern philosophy, feminist literature, and postcolonial history. Conducted within the purview of discrete disciplines, however, even the most concerted effort to investigate a cultural phenomenon from multiple perspectives seems ill designed to explore (1) how common issues and problems cut across relevant fields and (2) how the epistemological and methodological blind spots of one discipline may be overcome or lessened by the insights and approaches of another.

Interdisciplinary inquiry, then, commences by examining tensions and relationships between disciplines so as to critique and redefine existing constructions of knowledge and thereby to extend extant meanings and relationships among facts, theories, and methods. Building upon the insights and methods of established disciplines, interdisciplinary inquiry is nothing more and nothing less than a creative striving toward new or alternative ways of seeing that expand the boundaries of what is humanly knowable and disclose heretofore unrecognized possibilities for human action.

Critical Inquiry

Criticism, broadly defined, is the body of theoretical knowledge that investigates, explains, contests, deconstructs, analyzes and questions the ways in which cultural artifacts as well as written, visual and musical texts create and communicate meanings. Thus, engaging in critical inquiry means conducting the study of human culture through a variety of methods and approaches such as hermeneutics, critical theory, textual exegesis, historicism, discourse analysis, et cetera.

But critical inquiry is more than a matter of sophisticated interdisciplinary methodology. It is also a fundamental academic practice. For while the critical inquirer ultimately makes judgments about culture based on aesthetic, literary, philosophical, and historical criteria, he/she does not do so within the isolated confines of the ivory tower, but within the contested public forum of open debate and intellectual struggle.

Hence, students are both encouraged and expected to actively engage in ongoing intellectual dialogues with texts, artifacts, fellow students, instructors, and the public at large. In this way, students become scholar-practitioners who make their voices heard and whose own concerns and judgments are continually being shaped and reshaped by the concerns and judgments of others.

Creative Inquiry

Closely related to both interdisciplinary and critical inquiry is the human capacity of creative inquiry.

Creative inquiry, here, is understood neither as springing forth from an innate impulse nor as the quasi-mystical revelations of a creative genius. Rather, creative inquiry is seen as a deliberate intellectual process, by which existing meanings and constructions of knowledge are manipulated and recontextualized so that new or alternative meanings and constructions of knowledge become perceptible and/or representable. Put simply, creative inquiry may be understood as a purposely nontraditional or unconventional way of seeing and representing things.

Pressed to explain her “unorthodox” writing style, Gertrude Stein wrote “Composition as Explanation” (1926), in which she observes:

The only thing that is different from one time to another is what is seen and what is seen depends upon how everybody is doing everything. This makes the thing we are looking at very different and this makes what those who describe it make of it, it makes a composition, it confuses, it shows, it is, it looks, it likes it as it is, and this makes what is seen as it is seen.

Stein’s unorthodox reflections on creativity are instructive for at least two reasons. First, in the excerpt above, Stein illustrates that creative inquiry cannot occur in an ahistorical vacuum—in one way or another it must reference those aspects of the past (tradition, the canon, stylistic conventions, etc.) with which it claims to break. Second, Stein remarks highlight that creative inquiry entails an act of creation (a form of re-presentation) that remakes or redefines the very thing it is inquiring about. In this sense, creative inquiry is also always transformative.

Humanities & Culture Faculty


As outlined on the program’s website, all students are required to complete four Interdisciplinary Foundations Seminars as well as the Academic Skills and Research Methods sequences. In addition, students opting for a Primary Concentration in Humanities and Culture will take two 3-credit-hour Core Seminars and four 3-credit-hour Advanced Seminars as well as three Electives and two individualized Studies. The Comprehensive Examination and Dissertation will complete the course of study.

Please note that the content of individual seminars described below is subject to change and that not all advanced seminars are offered during every term. Additional special topics seminars will be offered depending on the interests of students as well as the availability of regular faculty and visiting scholars. Sample syllabi on the program’s website are provided for informational purposes only; they may not reflect the content and policies of seminars currently being offered.