‘Values of life’: With support of Townsend Center, humanities students thrive

illustration of person with cogs in brain and lightbulb
Olivia Staser/File

Related Posts

Since its creation in 1987, the Doreen B. Townsend Center for the Humanities has been a vibrant haven for intellectual discussion, interdisciplinary scholarship and research in the humanities at UC Berkeley. 

Nestled away in Stephens Hall, the center has focused on fostering academic scholarship within the campus rather than allocating financial resources to hosting residential scholars.

“It’s one of the great strengths of the center,” said Timothy Hampton, the director of the Townsend Center. “Our job is to bring people together and foster dialogue that might not always take place.”

In addition to hosting lectures and conferences, the center offers a number of fellowship and grant programs dedicated to strengthening and supporting undergraduate and graduate research as well as interdisciplinary discourse within the humanities. The center also sponsors over 70 working groups in which graduate students and faculty collaborate on various projects in the humanities, tackling a wide range of topics such as decolonizing museums and Slavic literature.

Rebecca Egger, the associate director of the Townsend Center, explained that although the center currently offers more formal programs for graduate students than for undergraduates, it has recently been prioritizing new programs that are focused on undergraduate scholarship.

Last year, the center launched a workshop for undergraduate honors thesis writers. Writers meet monthly from December through April to workshop their writing, learn how to conduct research and watch presentations by different visiting faculty members and graduate students. The program culminates in a mini-conference where students present their work to each other.

“The program is a really great opportunity for (humanities students) to meet each other,” Egger said. “A student from art history might learn about the thesis of someone in Near Eastern studies, and they really wouldn’t meet each other and learn about each other’s work otherwise.”

The Townsend Center is also involved in developing new initiatives to improve writing instruction within the campus. One of these initiatives is the Art of Writing program, which offers a variety of humanities research seminars taught by faculty and graduate student teams from across the humanities, sciences, social sciences and professional schools.

The program allows graduate student instructors to develop their professional teaching skills while also providing undergraduate students across academic disciplines an entry point into researching and writing in a small, collaborative setting.

“Each Art of Writing seminar allows students to find and write in their own voice,” said Ramona Naddaff, the director of the Art of Writing Program. “Students learn to communicate with clarity and style, attentive to their audience and listeners. They learn to develop and enrich their own individual vocabulary, born of their own individual life experiences and readings. … Each seminar is a discovery process.”

For students who are not majoring in the humanities, the program is an opportunity to explore and develop academic links between the humanities and their own areas of study. Egger emphasized that “studying the humanities gives students skills that are always going to be in demand and complement whatever else they’re studying.”

Naddaff expressed that programs such as the Art of Writing are increasingly important in a world in which “humanities have become more marginal and peripheral.” At elite research universities alone, the share of humanities degrees has fallen from 17 percent a decade ago to only 11 percent today.

At elite research universities alone, the share of humanities degrees has fallen from 17 percent a decade ago to only 11 percent today.

Within UC Berkeley, Hampton explained that a lot of resources are being allocated to STEM, often at the expense of the humanities. He emphasized the importance of funding UC Berkeley humanities programs and research because of the campus’s long tradition of excellence in the humanities, especially considering that several humanities programs are consistently nationally ranked.

“It’s indisputable that the skills that the humanities teach are in great demand in the workforce,” Hampton said. “The skills that we teach — skills of reading and writing and sensitivity to language, a sense of history — those are all things that develop the ability to think critically.”

As the role and practice of humanities in the campus shifts, the Townsend Center has also been moving its focus outside of the Western canon to embrace a wide variety of thinking and theoretical frameworks. Naddaff said the Art of Writing program, for example, has offered seminars on subjects ranging from the autobiography in Chinese literature to various American cultures. Hampton emphasized that the new curriculum has opened up “new kinds of dialogues in a global culture that were not available before.”

The center is also thinking critically about the place of humanities in today’s political climate. Humanities, they believe, provides a perfect environment for starting these conversations and thinking critically about political problems in a changing world.

As brought up by Egger, the humanities are especially critical to how we communicate in today’s world, and in order for a democratic society to function, people must be able to understand and communicate with one another.

Hampton stressed that political engagement is central to the humanities curriculum at UC Berkeley, noting how “it’s in the DNA of the place.” He believes that by combining intellectual exchange with political discourse and civic engagement, the humanities at UC Berkeley will continue to thrive.

“I think the humanities are about learning to understand what the purpose of life is, what the ethics and values of life are,” said Hampton. “This is not a moment where we can neglect the humanities.”

Get “The Weekender” in your inbox!

Creative writing, deep dives, cultural commentaries and art delivered every Saturday.

Contact Elizabeth Neoman at [email protected].