The BYU Humanities Center at 5(0)

The BYU Humanities Center at 5(0)

This past weekend I celebrated a milestone birthday: I’m 80. Alright, shave three decades off that number, though in some ways I feel 80. Years ago, when a department colleague turned 50, his friends – or, perhaps, sworn enemies – taped a picture on his door of him lying in a coffin, smiling. I believe his face was superimposed (the prehistory of photo shopping). The image incited laughter, though I also shuddered. Fifty? So today, I must acknowledge, “La mort, c’est moi!” (Happily, this colleague is still very actively and vitally with us. Apparently, then, there’s hope.)

Such birthdays can be a time for reflection, and mine this year corresponds with the near-conclusion of the fifth year of our Humanities Center. So I thought I’d reflect, at 50, on the Humanities Center at 5.

I must begin by acknowledging my perpetual surprise that BYU even has a humanities center. When I began working here in 2000, such a center seemed 12 generations away, not 12 short years. Okay, 12 sometimes very long years. In the August 2011 college meeting, when John Rosenberg announced that it might be time to think about creating a humanities center, I had three virtually instantaneous and conflicting reactions:


  • “A humanities center at BYU? Unthinkable – but perfect!”
  • “Ah, man, how cool would it be to be involved with something like that in some way?”
  • “Wow, great idea. Alas, I won’t be here to enjoy it.”


Let me address, briefly, those three thoughts.

Why was a BYU Humanities Center unthinkable, but perfect? Because it defied an impression that had settled on me that BYU was primarily intent on its teaching mission, and morally fortified in that conviction. Research in the humanities thus seemed to be viewed as a callisthenic for better teaching. Ultimately, in the grandest scheme of things, I think BYU should focus on teaching. But in practice, this vision felt parochial, a product of custom and low ambition and even laziness – an assertion, and false binary, of what matters most, existentially, at the expense of what counts the most, professionally. That mission shortchanged, I thought, the university’s resources – its funding, library, and collective student IQ – to say nothing of the potential of its faculty. And then, with Dean Rosenberg’s announcement that our college was contemplating the creation of a research driver as powerful as a humanities center, I had to admit that my calcified impressions were wrong, and perhaps always had been. Research might be, and perhaps long had been, integral to the university’s mission. Education might mean, and perhaps had long meant, something more expansive than classroom practices. BYU seemed utterly changed to me, in an instant.

What kind of involvement with a humanities center did I envision? None, really, because I never assumed such an opportunity would be afforded me, not at that stage of my career. But at some point, I told myself, it would be “very cool” to hold a fellowship in a humanities center, and perhaps share ideas with other faculty about how to structure it, or propose initiatives it might undertake, or point to trends to which it might respond. Yes, that would be very cool, indeed.

But alas, such an opportunity would never come to me, not at BYU. This is because I had made plans to leave BYU. For the past couple years, I had been jointly appointed at a research university in Scotland, and had made arrangements to begin working there full-time in the fall of 2012 (or, if I chose, winter of 2013). Those arrangements had been finalized the previous April when my family was taking a week’s vacation in Italy. I sent off an email to the “head of school” confirming all the details as I gazed out over the mid-afternoon Mediterranean from the flat where we were staying in Moneglia, a resort town a little southeast of Genoa. I share that detail because it was a dramatic setting for what seemed to be a defining decision. When we returned to the States in the summer of 2011, we knew (and my university in Scotland knew) that we still might choose to remain at BYU; but primarily, we were thinking about how to prepare for a long-term move overseas.

Between late August 2011, when John floated the idea of a humanities center, and late May 2012, when I was offered the position of director (something I remained convinced would never happen), everything changed. I thought a lot about my family’s collective future, the shape of our everyday circumstances, and the arc of my life. (At the request of a friend in the Marriott School, I even subjected myself to a complex “decision analysis.” The verdict, reached mathematically? That we should move to Scotland.) But I also invested a lot of thought in BYU: thoughts concerning friends, colleagues, role models and, more broadly, the university’s students, faculty, administrators, sponsor, mission, vision, and promise. I love the University of Aberdeen, a noble institution founded in 1495. But BYU is unique – less like most other high-end institutions than they are from each other. And that difference matters to me. It speaks to me. It weighed on me.

So, the long and short of it: BYU has a humanities center and it’s now almost 5 years old. I’ve been privileged to be involved with it, and expect to remain so for a few more years. I ask, then: how are we doing?


  • Administrative structure: we’re pretty good and could be better. The center houses a director, an assistant, an intern, a fluctuating number of faculty fellows (usually ten, or so), and three or four student fellows. Each plays a vital role, though I envision even more responsibilities for our faculty fellows going forward. We have no advisory board (composed of people outside BYU), and frankly, that’s probably for the better. As is, we report directly to the dean, who has always been incredibly supportive.
  • Funding: it’s really good and could be better. We haven’t had to seek a lot of external funding, but the college is generous with us, the university is generous with the college, the Church is generous with the university, and tithe payers are generous with the Church (and, as we often preach, the Lord is generous with tithe payers). We’re still looking for a big donor for the center – a sum that would create an endowment and essentially triple our budget. If and when that happens, I don’t see us doing three times more of what we’re currently doing. We might give a couple more fellowships, but mostly, I see us doing more of the same along with some different things, some bigger things in the world of the humanities: forums, symposia, summits, public humanities ventures, etc.
  • Schedule of events: it’s really good and, well, it’s really good. We usually host one or more events every week of the main school year (with the exception of first and last weeks of semesters, amid the chaos), with a few more events thrown in during the spring and, occasionally, summer. Perhaps the biggest myth the center has helped bust is that BYU is a sleepy place where little happens. In reality, all kinds of things are happening, constantly. It’s dizzying, even sometimes anxiety-inducing. That’s good anxiety, folks. Freud calls it Eros, a “life instinct,” an impulse to connect to things outside ourselves, outside our disciplines and departments and fields and narrow specializations. Its opposite is Thanatos, and we don’t want that, not yet.
  • Annual lecture and symposium: these have been really good, period. We’re always looking for ways to make them better, and we’ve introduced some tweaks here and there over the past few years. I welcome suggestions. But we’ve had amazing guests – some of the absolute best and brightest in the humanities – and have made many new friends for BYU.
  • Research groups: these are fantastic and, yes, could still be better. We have great support from the college and have introduced strictures that we think work (e.g., three years of funding, opportunities for renewal, a logic for groups’ composition), though these strictures necessarily remain a constant work in progress. Many faculty take advantage of these groups, and those who do benefit intellectually and professionally. And innovative faculty in these groups have helped us further refine the model.
  • Colloquia, “Conversations” meetings, the Faith and Imagination series, etc. All solid; all can be better. Take, for example, the colloquia, which we hold several times each semester. These meetings bring deserved attention to the work of scholars across the college, but I ask myself how these colloquia might be more useful to our faculty (especially our presenters). What other forms might these meetings take?
  • Serendipitous events: good and … good, I think. We keep a small slush fund to help departments, groups, and individuals host events that pop up on the schedule unexpectedly (that is, without enough notice to budget for the occasion). We’ve partnered with many people from our college over the past few years. I like to think this is an area of strength. Please don’t burst my bubble.
  • Workshops: we’ve hosted a couple, and they’ve been great, but we could host more, and they could be better. We’ve held workshops on publishing and applying for external funding. In the future, I’d like to explore topics like trends in scholarship (how scholars work today, not just the subjects on which they work), maximizing the impact of one’s work, choosing meaningful projects, sustaining a sense of purpose as a scholar, and more. Ideas, please: we’re all ears.
  • Faculty buy-in: really good and … you know the refrain. When the center was first announced and officially launched, I was a little surprised to be approached by some faculty who felt they had not received funding they deserved and by others who feared that the center would poach funding they had received in the past. (In reality, the center was not a new source of funding external to the college, and neither was it taking resources away. So neither group found that the center changed things, for better or worse.) Meanwhile, relatively few people approached me with curiosity about what the center actually intended to do. What this meant, it seemed, is that faculty tend to develop work habits and aren’t necessarily looking for “disruptive innovation” (or its more interesting forebear, “creative destruction”). That said, and without being too disruptive/destructive, our center has tried to make itself an intellectual resource for the entire college faculty, not only for those presently holding fellowships. And most colleagues, in turn, have been gracious, accommodating, and supportive (which isn’t surprising given the generosity of most people at BYU). Many have learned to use the center, while others are still figuring it out. Please help us do better in reaching you.
  • Student buy-in: this fluctuates. We host an annual symposium for ORCA fellowship recipients, and many students are on our weekly email list. We usually have a few (and sometimes many) students at our events, and some of our research groups have discovered how usefully, and beneficially, to integrate students into them. We don’t want too much student buy-in; the point is not to reproduce the classroom ethos. But, still: knowing how many students to involve, which ones, and how best to do so is a constant work in progress. We need your help to do better.
  • Institutional imagination: BYU didn’t invent the wheel when it comes to humanities centers, but we’ve worked to adapt the model to what we are as a college – and, just as important, what we think we can be. As I see it, then, the center should never solely serve the present-day College of Humanities; it should also have an eye on our institutional future. This involves a measure speculation, imagination – and, hopefully, inspiration. And so, for example, we’ve encouraged research groups to structure themselves across disciplines instead of within fields, believing that cross-disciplinary research will become more rather than less prominent over the next couple decades; and we initiated the Faith and Imagination lecture series to sow ideas not about how to be more devout – the job of wards and stakes – but rather about how to be smarter, more creative, and more dynamic in navigating learning and faith. This capacity to negotiate present and future is what I mean by “institutional imagination.” But imagination is often best served by the collective genius, and so we welcome suggestions to, yes, help us do better.


I might list other categories, but you get the idea: five years in, the BYU Humanities Center is off to a strong start. But it can become better.

For that matter, so can I. I view many of you – many, many – as examples of how that might happen. Indeed, and for that reason, if there’s one thought that overwhelms me as I reflect on my first five years as the center’s director, the past seventeen as a BYU professor, and the five decades of my life, it’s gratitude. And that isn’t a bad way to begin my next half-century.

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