S7E5: How can studying the humanities benefit society?

For 10 years, the McGillicuddy Humanities Center has bolstered student and faculty creative works and research in history, geography, language, social sciences and the arts. It funds and supports fellowships, lectures, symposia, panels, performances and exhibitions.

In this week’s episode of “The Maine Question,” Center director Beth Wiemann, discusses her team’s work and the benefits humanities scholarship provides to society. 


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Beth Wiemann:  A second responder would be, instead of making it possible for people to physically live, looking at culture is looking at ways that people are living beyond just physical health. You have food, and clothing, and shelter, then this is like, “And what do you have that for? What are you living for?”

Ron Lisnet:  The word “research” conjures up a familiar set of images for many people, scientists in white lab coats, test tubes, perhaps some sort of medical settings studying diseases. It feels like it belongs to the hard sciences in STEM fields.

The discovery, exploration, and new knowledge uncovered in doing research is just as vital in the social sciences, the arts, and humanities. That’s what Beth Wiemann is talking about when she references the term second responders. I’m Ron Lisnet, and this is “The Maine Question” podcast.

Wiemann is a professor of music at UMaine, who has recently taken the helm of the McGillicuddy Humanities Center, named for Clement McGillicuddy, UMaine class of ’64, and his wife, Linda. The center recently celebrated its 10th anniversary.

Aside from the many programs and events the MHC sponsors, it has the ability to fund research and creative achievement in the humanities, art, music, poetry, history, and many other topics. Faculty at UMaine are able to take a deep dive into their fields.

The center also funds research for eight undergraduates begin their research careers. The mission statement for the MHC sums up the work they do this way. The center supports programs that foster intellectual curiosity, critical reflection, and creative innovation.

Central to the center’s work is the belief that study of the humanities inspires compassion across differences, develops empathy, strengthens critical thinking skills, and cultivates the emotional and intellectual agility needed to navigate an increasingly interconnected and complex global landscape.

It’s an ambitious mission. In this episode of The Main Question, we take a closer look at the role of humanities research and programming at UMaine.

Thank you so much for taking the time to join us. We should note that we’re in the class of ’44 hall here. If you hear an aria or somebody playing a trombone, that’s part of the charm of this building.

Beth:  These are my neighbors.

Ron:  McGillicuddy Humanities Center has been in existence for 10 years now. Can you just talk about how it came to be?

Beth:  Sure. Back 10 years ago, there was a strategic plan being put forward by the university called the Blue Sky plan, and they were funding pilot projects for various things.

Then dean of our College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, Jeff Hecker, wanted to put together something that would essentially support the humanities research of the current faculty and students better than what we had been doing so far.

He put together, as I said, a pilot program with Scott See, who was a professor of history at the time, and he led what was called the Humanities Initiative, and it eventually became a center. For the first five years, it did all kind of steady growth.

As we’ve talked before, we change directors every two years, in part just to spread around the perspectives because our particular humanities center also includes the arts, which not all humanities centers around universities around the country do.

For example, they went from a history professor to Justin Wolf, an art history professor. In the interim, we’ve had a couple of English professors be director. We’ve also had another history professor and a communications professor.

All those people had a slightly different perspective, and, therefore, their two years, they might have slightly different priorities for funding. That was just assumed given the background of all these different people.

I’m the first music person to be this director. For the first five years, it was just an unnamed center. At that time, Jennifer Moxley, an English professor and poet, was the director. She was talking to the McGillicuddys, who had been a supporting couple for the initial version of the center.

She had an idea that they should have undergraduate fellows. That became a much bigger deal for us. She started off with having four undergraduate fellows being given funding for undergraduate research in the humanities and arts.

The McGillicuddys wanted to fund the center more permanently, so they made it a named center for the Clement and Linda McGillicuddy Humanities Center.

Ron:  Talk about the core mission. As you alluded to, it’s a way of consolidating, and collating, and raising the profile of work in the humanities.

Beth:  That’s part of it. Raising the profile of the humanities work because lots and lots of people wouldn’t necessarily associate the word research with being an English professor or a music professor for that matter.

The other thing was that we thought that the humanities programs might interact more if they were being funded by a unit that could promote connections between these different departments and between students from these different departments.

Because many times, I know my own students don’t interact with people from other parts of campus unless they happen to be all in the marching band. They’re in their little area. This is a way of getting people to go across areas a bit.

Ron:  Most people think of research, they think of white lab coats, and test tubes, and or medical research. Talk about, you’ve alluded to, but some of the areas that are being explored. Any common themes or just describing the big picture?

Beth:  Some of the biggest ones have started off with the McGillicuddy support, and then gone on to the National Endowment for the Humanities support. For instance, both Margo Lukens and Anne Knowles, Margo from English and Anne from history, have gotten an NEH support for their projects. They started here with little support that we gave.

Margo support is talking about making a digital collection for Wabanaki. Research interests, documents, things, all kinds of stuff that if you wanted to find out where to find these things, you could go through her portal. That’s what the NEH is actually helping her support, is making this portal so that people can actually find stuff.

Knowles is doing a holocaust mapping project where she’s looking at different holocaust sites and mapping them so that people don’t lose the information about what used to be there. She’s getting NEH money for that. She has a team of undergrads and graduate students working with her.

That’s an example of someone or some people who took a small amount of funding, built the project up, gotten to a national level. We have a range of faculty stuff where people might need to travel to a library to see documents, to see manuscripts, things like that, to research artists.

Mimi Killinger is doing some research on a painter that she’s actually gotten some support to go to the painter’s hometown and find out how that painter grew up and what influenced her. Things like that would be the faculty stuff.

The students’ stuff would be similar projects but on obviously more undergrad level. Some people are doing versions of what their capstones or thesis thing would be. If they’re also an honors student, they might be working on an oral history project, things like that.

Ron:  From your own department, Phil Silver is involved as well.

Beth:  Right. He’s also doing a holocaust research. His specialty is music that was either shunned or promoted during the Nazi era and talking about what happened to those composers, both those who survived and those who did not. We’re going to bring one of his collaborators, Murry Sidlin, from Catholic University. We’re hoping to bring him in the spring to do a joint project.

Ron:  Funding for research is always a challenge but the McGillicuddy Center certainly helps in that regard. Now eight student fellows?

Beth:  Yes.

Ron:  That’s a prime example of that, isn’t it?

Beth:  Sure. What happens is those people get some funding. We hope it makes it possible for them to do this project and maybe spend less time working at their job. It’s helping them pay their tuition. This is basically the money equals time.

Ron:  Can you talk about the annual symposium?

Beth:  The annual symposium, we have a theme every year of events that we hope are speaking to one another. Now, I mentioned two of them already. Anne’s project and Phillip’s project are both holocaust related. That goes along with our recovery of lost cultures theme for this year.

Darren Ranco was going to, we hope, work with the Bahamas Inland Trust to do something next spring that’s going to be fitting into that particular theme.

Margo Lukens is giving the main heritage lecture this month. We’re not sponsoring it because it’s part of her ongoing project, but we’re the original sponsor. She’s going to be talking about the Wabanaki project during that lecture.

Ron:  Funding for research in STEM fields, especially when you have a pandemic like we’ve been going through, is obviously important to the medical end of things. When you talk about the humanities, I’ve heard the term and you talked about the term “second responders” is sometimes used. What does that mean?

Beth:  Where I saw it was not specifically a humanities thing. It was mentioned to do with people who study culture. That could be broadly speaking what the humanities is. We’re actually doing various aspects of culture, sometimes just history, sometimes just the arts, but culture in general.

A second responder would be, instead of making it possible for people to physically live, this would be a way for…Looking at culture is looking at ways that people are living beyond just physical health. Mental health, ways that we use arts to have memory, things like that. Looking at that, it’s once you have food, and clothing, and shelter…

Ron:  The basics.

Beth:  …the basics, then this is like, “And what do you have that for? What are you living for?” That’s culture.

Ron:  In your message on the website for the humanities center, you talk about how the humanities have contributed to your work, making music and composing. Can you talk about how that has informed your work and helped your work?

Beth:  Sure. I do a lot of vocal music. Vocal music usually has words. [laughs] I don’t usually write the words, although occasionally I edit the words. I’ve worked with people, actually, on this campus, I worked with Jennifer Moxley on an opera that was based on the life of a poet, American poet, who then lived in England for most of her life.

We did an opera on that, and that was using poetry and the history of World War I. Jennifer’s versions of the way those people would talk, and then my music illustrate all that stuff. That’s like three or four different versions of humanities stuff, all built into one thing.

Ron:  We have a lot of majors here at the university, from engineering, zoology, A to Z really. Is the overall education still based in that liberal arts tradition, liberal with a small L?

Beth:  I know that our college, Liberal Arts and Sciences ‑‑ granted, the sciences are there as well ‑‑ but we provide the bulk of what we call the general education courses for the students. All the students at this campus are going to go through our program for something. We provide the foundation.

Ron:  That hopefully yields a student who is well rounded, knows a little bit of history, knows how to speak, knows how to write all the basics.

Beth:  Yeah.

Ron:  You have a two‑year hitch coming. You’re just getting into your groove, one would assume. Once you are done, where do you see this work heading in 5 to 10 years?

Beth:  5 to 10 years, 5 years ago, there weren’t any fellows. Now we have eight. It depends how big we want to get. Do we want to have more than eight or is eight, at least for our current staffing, that’s probably what we can handle?

I would imagine that funding might become more competitive if we stay at eight slots. That means more people might start applying for this kind of funding and this kind of opportunity.

It might be that the McGillicuddy fund could help different departments have their own mini fellowships so that it’s not all centralized, but it’s hard to say, given the fact that we don’t know what the Wall Street’s going to do.

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Ron:  It’s come a long way, though, in 10 years.

Beth:  Yes, it has.

Ron:  Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us.

Beth:  Thanks for having me.

Ron:  Thanks for tuning us in. You can get all of our episodes in a number of spots, Apple and Google podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, and SoundCloud, UMaine’s Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube pages, as well as Amazon and Audible.

Subscribe and rate us on your favorite platform if you like what you hear or not. Questions or comments, send them along to mainequestion@maine.edu. This is Ron Lisnet. We’ll catch you next time on The Maine Question.