Public Release: 

Mellon Foundation awards grant for major project in the humanities and sciences

Penn State

Penn State's Institute for the Arts and Humanities has received a $260,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation for a two-year project, "The Boundaries of the Human in the Age of the Life Sciences."

The project will support a wide-ranging series of events aimed at exploring two compelling themes in the arts and humanities. One involves artists and researchers who are exploring the boundaries of our self-definition as a species and the idea of humanism, and the other involves the increasingly influential hypothesis that we are living in a new geological age, called the Anthropocene.

"A decade ago, Nobel Prize-winning scientist Paul Crutzen suggested that one species -- humans -- has altered the biological, chemical, and geological composition of our planet," said Michael Bérubé, director, Institute for the Arts and Humanities and the Edwin Erle Sparks Professor of Literature. "At the same time, developments in neuroscience and microevolution are challenging long-held beliefs about who we are as a species. Artists and humanists have begun to respond to these developments. As a result, IAH faculty, postdocs, and graduate students will plan and coordinate public lectures, symposia, and a research group dedicated to asking critical questions about humans and the humanities."

The questions include the following:

  • What are we to make of the fact that we are being urged to think of ourselves as a species, in global, universal terms, at precisely the moment when species definition seems to be in flux as never before?

  • How are we to think both contradictory thoughts simultaneously -- to understand ourselves as humans rather than as members of various tribes and clans, and to understand "the human" as a provisional and highly unstable category?

"We hope to build new bridges between the arts, the humanities, and the sciences at Penn State," Bérubé noted. "The idea is to ask what it means to be human -- and what that might mean for the planet as a whole. The IAH/Mellon initiative will culminate in an international, interdisciplinary conference in spring 2017."

The grant will make possible two initiatives. One supports the development of summer workshops for pre-doctoral students in the humanities who intend to pursue careers outside the academy. A second initiative will fund cross-institutional teams of faculty and graduate students pursuing research that focuses on a grand challenge, "The Global Midwest." The latter is intended to stimulate collaborative research that rethinks and reveals the Midwest as a key site --now and in the past -- in shaping global economies and cultures.

The Institute for the Arts and Humanities at Penn State supports and promotes innovative, interdisciplinary work by faculty scholars, artists and musicians, and graduate students in the arts and humanities throughout the University. An interdisciplinary research unit of the Office of the Vice President for Research, the institute is under the sponsorship of the College of Arts and Architecture and the College of the Liberal Arts.

Earlier this year, the IAH joined the new Humanities Without Walls consortium, which was awarded a $3 million grant by the Mellon Foundation. Humanities Without Walls is an unprecedented, ambitious consortium of fifteen universities encompassing the Committee on Institutional Cooperation institutions (Penn State, Michigan, Ohio State, Michigan State, Purdue, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, Nebraska, Northwestern, and Chicago), the University of Illinois at Chicago, and Notre Dame.

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