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Ph.D. program offers a diverse, global and cooperative approach to Humanities

When the College of Arts and Sciences established its Chinese Humanities Ph.D. in 2006, it represented the University of Louisville’s first partnership with a foreign university to create a program at the doctoral level.

Five and a half years and eleven Chinese doctoral degrees later, the success of the program is just one reason for the overall Humanities Ph.D. program’s growing national stature and prominence.

Dr. Annette Allen, former director of the Humanities Ph.D. Program, and Dr. Xiuje Sun, Senior Program Director Asian Programs, are credited with building the Chinese program. For the first two summers, five UofL humanities faculty, Drs. Annette Allen, Pamela Beattie, Robert St. Clair, Osborne Wiggins, and Chair of the Humanities Division, Elaine Wise, taught 20 Chinese students. During the corresponding academic years, Chinese faculty members at Beijing Foreign Studies University continued teaching the western curriculum to the same students. 

After taking all of the classes, 17 of the doctoral students chose research in the U.S. and the United Kingdom, many of them supported by the Chinese Ministry of Education. Dr. Xiuje Sun was instrumental in navigating their stay in the United States. The program currently has two students completing dissertations in residency at UofL; two more will receive their degrees in August, having completed them in Beijing. Many Arts and Sciences faculty have contributed to the success of the program by serving on dissertation committees or hosting the students in their classes. 

“The program is a tribute to the students and the university faculty who worked with them,” says Dr. Mary Ann Stenger, current director of the Humanities Ph.D. program. “We are continuing to work toward a more global approach to humanities, building on our well-established western foundation and incorporating new faculty with backgrounds in other diverse cultures."  

This global approach has not been limited to the work in China. This past fall, the Humanities Ph.D. program started a new year-long lecture series dedicated to global issues in the Humanities.

A Strong Sense of Community

At a time when economic challenges have led some universities to drop degrees and faculty in the Humanities, the Humanities Ph.D. Program at UofL celebrates more than eight years of ongoing strength and success.

The program is designed to provide a broad range of study to students, combining seminars in interdisciplinary humanities from participating A&S departments and programs like classical and modern languages, English language and literature, fine arts, history, linguistics, music history, philosophy, religious studies, theatre arts, Pan African studies and women's and gender studies.

Not only does the program offer engaging interdisciplinary studies, but it attracts students with quite varied interests. 

Doctoral graduate Todd Edmondson  remembers sitting in Dr. Annette Allen’s seminar on the Religious and Literary Imagination of the South and being struck by the diversity represented at the table.

“Some of us had backgrounds in creative writing; others in the visual arts; some brought an extensive knowledge of American culture and history to the text; others had studied religion at the graduate level,” he recalls. “And so, when it came time to discuss what we had read, we weren’t stepping on one another’s words, jockeying for attention, all attempting to be the first to say more or less the same thing, to offer up the same insight, to impress the professor with some nugget of information that she had no doubt heard, and dispensed, before. 

“Instead, we were free to learn, not just from the text, and not just from Dr. Allen, but also from each other.”

Ph.D. candidate Diane Batts says she was surprised how lectures in the program’s core courses often would “fall on another student’s ears differently than it had fallen on mine, or how someone could take a lesson I had cast aside and use it as the central focus of his or her study.”

Stenger says these kinds of student interactions and contributions enhance the content and critical approaches in the courses—and the professors enjoy the challenge of teaching students with broad interdisciplinary interests and talents. 

“Faculty members work together on three-member committees, set up for each individual student to reflect that student’s particular interests,” she says. “As many of the faculty teaching in the program were trained in particular disciplines, the doctoral students challenge us to become more interdisciplinary as we work with them on their research and dissertations. 

“The result of all the faculty-faculty and faculty-student conversations is a strong sense of community, mutual support and cooperation in the program.”

Aesthetics, Creativity and Culture

The Humanities Ph.D. provides learning, research, and service opportunities in aesthetics, creativity and in studies in culture. The goal of the program is to preserve, explore and enhance humankind’s cultural legacy through study of formal expressions, creative artifacts and philosophical and religious thought. 

Candidates also have an array of opportunities to connect their study with broader communities through internships. Whether directed toward community arts organizations or teaching and research, students are well grounded to serve as professionals in a variety of humanities-based programs.

Candidates also may choose to join scholarship and creativity in a creative dissertation. Several recent creative dissertations embodied such a blending. Sara J. Northerner created an photographic installation, “The Phenomenological Essence of Image,” based on her dissertation research and creative ability; Dale Golden wrote a musical composition, “The Burghers of Calais: A Chamber Ballet,” Michael Williams wrote a novel, "Trajan's Arch," and Amy Tudor used the gifts of poetry and thought in her dissertation: “More Real Than Real: An Anthropological and Phenomenological Exploration of Imagistic Sacred Space.” 

“All students who have chosen the creative dissertation route have been enormously talented and have presented their creations to a larger audience in books, performances or exhibits,” explains Annette Allen, who has served as their mentor. 

Topics for dissertations in Cultural Studies have included issues of human nature, utopia, ethics, spiritual models, and elements of popular culture. 

“Now more than ever, cultural studies and creative expressions can balance an increasingly narrow focus on technology and economic profit,” Stenger says. 

Dr. Simona Bertacco, assistant program director who is chair of the Admissions Committee, says students are recognizing this and looking to UofL.

“The program is being recognized on a national level,” Bertacco says. “The number of applications continues to be strong, despite the economic crisis, and the program is indeed attracting prospective students from all around the country.”

The success of the program is uniquely satisfying to Prof. Elaine Wise.

“The Ph.D. in Humanities is a signature program for UofL,” she says. “Envisioning it 14 years ago, seeing it come to pass in 2003, participating in the teaching of its students and congratulating its 31 graduates—these are among our greatest achievements as a Humanities faculty, and a source of great pride for me as chair of the Division of Humanities.”