Making of the Mandel Center

The Mandel Humanities Center:
An Interdisciplinary Vision

Written by Dean of Arts and Sciences Adam Jaffe and faculty members
June 10, 2010

Brandeis has long had a profound commitment to scholarship and learning in the humanities, but until now has not had the means to integrate the diverse fields of humanistic inquiry. The Mandel gift to build a designated Humanities Center represents an extraordinary opportunity to bring together those different disciplines, thereby generating new curricular and research activities that will transform the intellectual climate at the university. Thanks to a challenge grant from the National Endowment from the Humanities, the Mandel Center for the Humanities will make important contributions to scholarship, stimulating the faculty to rethink research questions, methods, and connections to other core and affiliate disciplines in the humanities.

The central vision of the Mandel Center for the Humanities is a commitment to integrate interdisciplinary work across the humanities and humanistic social sciences. Interdisciplinarity is, without doubt, the central challenge in higher education today; the key task is to promote interdisciplinarity, not as a substitute, but as an essential complement to the powerful drive toward specialization into narrow disciplines. Most problems, from poverty to power, from religion to race, far transcend the conceptual tools, methodology, empirical data, and accumulated scholarship of a particular discipline. Interdisciplinarity should be “interactive disciplinarity,” whereby disciplines engage one another, critically and constructively, in assessing the strengths and weaknesses of their individual theories and methodologies.

This interdisciplinarity, it should be emphasized, corresponds to the evolving nature of scholarship and teaching at Brandeis. Interdepartmental programs are a large and growing part of our curriculum. Many faculty are actively engaged with such programs, serve on oversight committees and teach courses sponsored by such programs; and most faculty teach one or more courses that are cross-listed in another department or program. In fact, 55 percent of the full-time faculty in the sciences has a non-science predoctoral degree (either a B.A. or an M.A.), and this liberal arts background contributes to the unique Brandeisian collaboration across disciplines. For example, a classicist and a physicist have recently come together to design and co-teach a new course on ancient Roman technology and archeology. A number of research institutes and centers also enrich the dialogue across disciplinary lines, such as the Mandel Center for Studies in Jewish Education, and the Center for German and European Studies which will also be located within the new Mandel Humanities Center.

What has been unavailable to us until now is a central organization to foster connections between and among the disciplines, and this is why the new Mandel Center for the Humanities is so important to our intellectual development. The urgency of this project seems particularly pressing in our current world, in which the humanities are under increasing threat of appearing irrelevant or even obsolete in a culture dominated by the hard sciences and the valuation of empirical data. We believe that the humanities have in fact never been more important and that only through engaging in humanistic discourse can we make sense of the challenges that scientists now raise. Without the tools of philosophy, religion, and literature, how can we train our students to be ethically and civically responsible citizens? Without the perspective offered by history and our study of the past, how can we help our students understand the turmoil and crises of our increasingly globalized relation to the world? Without knowledge of the arts, how can we guide our students so that they appreciate the beauty and meaning that they encounter in books, paintings, and music?

Rather than building a fortress around the humanities in a hostile world, the Mandel Humanities Center will be a hub of interaction. In addition to bringing together people from different disciplines, it will provide a distinctive framework in which faculty, undergraduates, graduate students, visiting faculty and emeriti faculty will all come together to study and teach. And while the humanities, broadly defined will be the organizational focus, we also envision the Mandel Center as a place for dialogue with scientists and others over topics that touch both the scientific and humanistic worlds—questions, for example, about the role of pharmacology in altering personality and performance; the meaning of the human genome for our understanding of identity; the impact of the so-called visual turn in all forms of cultural and scientific knowledge.

To achieve this integration across disciplines and across constituencies the Center will be organized as a large umbrella that will bring under itself different activities that will vary in size, scope, duration and complexity. The director of the Mandel Center will be appointed by the Dean of Arts of Sciences for a fixed term, and the director will work with a faculty executive committee, also appointed by the Dean, to determine the overall direction and priorities of the Mandel Center. The Dean of Arts and Sciences has begun discussion with the faculty about the specifics of Mandel Center organization and activities. Based on these discussions, a number of directions have emerged:

  • The center will become the administrative home for several of the key interdisciplinary degree programs such as International and Global Studies, Film Studies, Medieval and Renaissance Studies, Religious Studies, and Cultural Production.
  • In addition to the Mandel Center for Studies in Jewish Education, we are examining other smaller interdisciplinary centers and institutes, to determine which ones would best contribute to the life of the Mandel Humanities Center. Two to four of these existing entities will be relocated in the Mandel Humanities Center.
  • The center will be the home for Emeriti faculty who wish to remain involved in interdisciplinary scholarship and dialogue.
  • The center will be the home for a regular Interdisciplinary Seminar that will bring together faculty, students and visitors for ongoing presentation and discussion of interdisciplinary scholarship.
  • Many of the activities of the center will be connected to a topic that will change over time, and provide an organizing and unifying theme. We call this organization around a unifying theme "DELVE:  Dialogue, Engagement, and Leadership through Values and Ethics." The DELVE idea is discussed in more detail below.
  • If we are able to raise the necessary external funds, the Mandel Center will be the home to two to four interdisciplinary postdoctoral fellows, who will be chosen by the faculty Executive Committee in conjunction with the DELVE theme on a biannual cycle.
  • If we are able to raise the necessary external funds, we will also provide fellowships to advanced PhD students to join the center.  These graduate students would participate in the Interdisciplinary Seminar, receive training in interdisciplinary research methods, and offer specialized courses to enrich the undergraduate curriculum.

DELVE: A Unique Humanities Program with Far-Reaching Impact

We envision a unique program that will establish the Mandel Center for the Humanities as a visionary place that explores the central, challenging questions of our time, questions orthodoxies, investigates the ethical dimensions of critical issues, and supports faculty and all students in interdisciplinary inquiry. Building on the University’s historical commitment to ethics and social justice, this humanistic program will be called "DELVE: Dialogue, Engagement, and Leadership through Values and Ethics." Through DELVE, the Mandel Center for Humanities at Brandeis will engage the entire university community in sustained research, teaching and action on a series of major public issues that challenge the citizens of our planet in the twenty-first century.

Within a two-year horizon of planning and implementation for each theme, a leadership team of faculty and students from the center will identify a question of global significance and then engage the campus and the external community in investigating the multiple humanistic and ethical dimensions of that issue. The first year will be a planning year to identify the theme, key questions, scope of activities, and external speakers. The second year will put into practice a variety of activities: an initial symposia with renowned speakers to frame the theme for the year; undergraduate classes across disciplines that will engage with aspects of the theme; new interdisciplinary graduate seminars related to the theme; faculty seminars enlivened by postdoctoral humanities fellows introducing new topics and scholarship on the theme; finally, performances, events sponsored by Brandeis research institutes, club activities, and experiential learning projects all contributing to the thematic ideas.

The public issues that DELVE selects should be contemporary, interdisciplinary, inclusive and action-oriented.  A sample topic is “I, Me, Mine: Individuality and Privacy in the Genomic Age.” This particular topic exemplifies the unique intersection of the sciences with the humanities at Brandeis, and together the “two cultures” would explore complex and important questions. How does genomic mapping affect the concepts of individuality and privacy? Does individuality depend on more than genes? What does it mean to be human? Who should have access to information about another’s genes? This topic would draw upon existing courses in Legal Studies, Philosophy, American Studies, English, Anthropology, Politics and Biology as ideas about cloning, identity, uniqueness, autonomy, individualism, and boundaries between public and private life are explored.

By providing a coherent humanistic and ethical focus around which divergent scholars, departments, programs and centers at Brandeis can come together as a community, DELVE will help strengthen relationships across campus, enabling all levels of the academic community to interact, debate and discuss salient public issues. In a practical way, DELVE will bring the power and methodology of humanistic inquiry to bear on relevant topics, thereby demonstrating that humanities are at the heart of a civil society. In addition, DELVE will bring an ethics-oriented approach into the curricular and co-curricular life of the campus. DELVE will also influence wider public discussion of the issues it addresses, and Brandeis faculty and students will be able to have an impact on the development of these issues nationally and internationally. In these very significant ways, the Mandel Center for Humanities will announce its presence internally to the entire campus and externally to scholars and the public.

Through DELVE, we believe that the center will dramatically change the kinds of discourse held on the Brandeis campus. The strongest possible case to be made for interdisciplinary work lies in the doing, and our aim above all is for the Mandel Center for the Humanities to be a place where interdisciplinarity is visibly at work in a new home that physically and symbolically captures the spirit of the humanities engaging with the world.