An interview with Michelle Stephens, Dean of Humanities
Since becoming Rutgers School of Arts and Sciences Dean of the Division of Humanities in 2017, Michelle Stephens has been working to keep the strong humanities tradition at Rutgers resilient in a time of new challenges. Her initiatives include “Humanities Plus: The 21st Century Learner,” a program that provides support for innovative teaching strategies. Another, the Language Engagement Project, is a multi-pronged effort to build a collaborative culture of engagement with world languages at Rutgers. In the interview below, Stephens talks about the humanities and why they are vital, especially in our current, tech-saturated world.
Q: What is your academic background?
A: Broadly speaking, cultural studies. My Ph.D. was in American studies. Because I am Jamaican, I chose to focus on Caribbean, specifically West Indian, people in the United States. At the moment I was coming out of graduate school, scholars were identifying and studying something called African diaspora culture—studying blacks across the Americas. This broader notion of cultural studies said, in effect, if you’re going to study black people, then you need to approach your questions from a variety of angles: literary, historical, musical, visual, and more. That was my intellectual starting point.
Q: How does that inform your approach to your role as Dean of Humanities?
A: Cultural studies scholars move across the humanities. We don’t believe in academic silos. If you are thinking about what it means to be a Jamaican in this contemporary period, you are listening to Bob Marley and you are studying the work of visual artists, and you’re reading Jamaican gay writers, and putting all those pieces together. So thinking about the conversations across humanities departments is a perspective I bring from my own approach to the study of culture.
Q: What are your priorities?
A: Humanities scholarship has a value for the public sphere and we have to figure out fresh ways of articulating that value. When I say public sphere, I think about students sitting in class. We need to think more about the ways we teach and work harder to grab their attention. The subtitle of the Humanities Plus program is “The 21st Century Learner.” That means both ‘What’s the social world the 21st century learner is living in, and how are the humanities speaking to that world?’
Q: How would you describe the humanities and its role in society?
A: I think of the humanities in terms of communication and meaning—all the forms we use to examine and interpret the human experience and communicate its meaning. In our contemporary moment, ethics is one area that captures these values. Science and tech innovations raise ethical and moral questions once they are brought out of the lab and into the world. Questions of meaning suddenly kick in, and it’s the humanities that can provide the forms and frameworks for thinking through those questions.
Q: What do you like best about your job?
A: Rutgers is a premier humanities institution. That’s a big draw. If anyone can find new ways of teaching the humanities, we can. I also like the movement between looking at the larger initiatives at the university and figuring out where the humanities fit within them. I keep my ears to the ground to learn what matters to humanities faculty, and then try to link that to the initiatives and larger structures that are in play at the university.