Few concepts in academia carry as much negative weight as the notion of the academic silo. Indeed, would any professor welcome the suggestion or even implication that they work in an academic silo? At the most recent meeting of the Consortium for Humanities Centers and Institutes (CHCI), this phrase seemed to be on the tip of everyone’s tongue: “We need to break down academic silos!” “Too many professors suffer from the silo effect!” “Professors in their silos remain too isolated from the broader work of the humanities!” This group was not alone. The title of a June 2022 blog post at Cornell reads: “Tear Down Academic Silos.” An older article published in the trade paper Inside Higher Ed employs even more destructive language: “Blasting Academic Silos.” The silo metaphor criticizes academic work on the grounds that it is produced in a structure that is insular, compartmentalized, overly protected, and even averse to risk. The metaphor—like its close cousin, the ivory tower—is decidedly negative.
The silo metaphor has gained currency not only within academia but outside as well. Recently, a friend of mine even predicted the end of the university system, complaining: “the university is too cut off from the work of the real world.”
This summer, I pondered this notion while traveling to a rural part of Brazil—Brodowski, São Paulo—the birthplace of one of Brazil’s most important painters: Cândido Portinari.1 Brodowski lies in the heartland of Brazil’s rolling hills of coffee, sugar, corn, and eucalyptus. The earth is shockingly red and wonderfully abundant. In the early twentieth century, this region of Brazil produced an astonishing 80% of the world’s coffee. Today, large-scale agrobusiness remains a critical component of the economy of the region, and though sugar has largely replaced coffee in this specific locale, Brazil continues to be the world’s leading producer, exporter, and consumer of coffee.2
While driving past hectare upon hectare of farmland, I couldn’t help but notice the ubiquity of silos throughout the landscape and reflect upon their significance. Given the importance of silos to agricultural practices, can the silo metaphor be rescued and rehabilitated? Can we imagine living in a society in which the notion of the academic silo implies the kinds of intellectual, moral, ethical, and spiritual reserves that might nourish, feed, sustain and otherwise bring life to the communities we live in? After all, as anyone familiar with farm work can attest, the silo is an essential element of the farm’s existence.
Allow me to belabor this metaphor a little more. Yes, silos are in fact insular structures, but that can be a good thing! By design, they protect grain and other products from water and rain and mold. They preserve food that otherwise would be wasted. But, at the same time, silos only serve their purpose when they remain connected to larger networks of circulation. The silo’s contents must flow both in and out. In fact, the process of distributing grain is just as elaborate as the process of collecting it.
Surely this concept can give us insight in our work at the university. There are many ways to do the work of the humanities, and this has only become more apparent to me after spending a good part of the summer—at the suggestion of our outgoing director—reading scholarship produced throughout the college. Many of us publish single-authored papers and books. Some of us co-publish. But none of us work alone. We publish in many kinds of venues: some assume significant specialization, while others aspire to a broad and diverse reading public. (Some of our scholarship, I will add, is decidedly difficult to locate, and here I publicly thank the Harold B. Lee Library’s invaluable interlibrary loan services).
At the beginning of this new academic year, I invite you to reflect and be intentional about what silo you inhabit. For BYU Humanities faculty, the Humanities Center supports a variety of models and structures to help your work flourish and circulate. Among the many activities of our center, let me draw your attention to just two: 1) We sponsor ten active research groups. If you’d like to join one, contact me and I can connect you; 2) We also organize a weekly colloquium where colleagues from within the college can present their work, try out ideas, receive feedback, and strengthen their scholarship. We also regularly invite guests to campus whose work can inform, enrich, reorient, or otherwise give direction to our own research and teaching.
I conclude with a final thought about the spiritual potential of silos. In Alma 26, Ammon rejoices with his companions and fellow laborers: “Behold, the field was ripe, and blessed are ye, for ye did thrust in the sickle, and did reap with your might, yea, all the day long did ye labor; and behold […] your sheaves! And they shall be gathered into the garners, that they are not wasted” (Alma 26:5). My hope is that our BYU Humanities Center might perform a similar kind of double function, gathering and protecting our work that it be not wasted but also serving as a place where we can gather, find inspiration, and receive support before turning outward to the professional networks and students we serve. Let us continue to reap, harvest, gather, garner, and distribute the nourishment and richness that only the humanities can provide.
This essay was written by Rex P. Nielson, BYU Humanities Center Director.
 I have written about Portinari’s work previously for the Humanities Center: https://humanitiescenter.byu.edu/facing-drought/.
 In 2020, Brazil produced an astounding 58 million 60-kilogram bags of coffee. See https://www.statista.com/statistics/806275/production-coffee-volume-brazil/.
Café do Brasil: Rex Nielson
I enjoyed your first Humanities Center essay as Director. I especially liked the details about Brazil and the redemption of the silo metaphor.
Cynthia L. Hallen