Things everyone cares about

Institute for Humanities Research asks questions that touch the core of human existence

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Banks Elyse

Elyse Banks, one of the IHR Graduate Fellows, working in the History Department. (Photo by Elena Zhukova)

People at UCSC's Institute for Humanities Research like to ask big questions. They wonder, for instance, what role philosophy has in genomics, what ancient people thought about death, and how commodities like salt and silk changed the course of history.

These inquiries touch the very core of human existence by helping us understand who we are, where we come from, and where we are going, according to Irena Polic, associate director of the institute


Or, as she explains, "Theyre things everyone cares about."

Founded in 1999, the IHR is an umbrella organization for innovative thought. Its $1.3 million budget provides incubator grants for interdisciplinary research in subjects like ethics, history, language, labor, and religion. With its help, faculty, graduate students, and even undergraduates have examined issues as diverse as the AFL-CIO's Cold War intervention in Honduras, the integration of Catholic schools in New Orleans, and the relationship between labor and what we eat.

Besides locating grant money to expand research, it also supports a dozen centers that focus on topics like classics, Jewish studies, and the Mediterranean region.

Along the way, notes Institute for Humanities Research Director and Professor of History Nathaniel Deutsch, it also gives students opportunities to develop fundamental skills of research, writing, critical thinking, creativity, and imagination.

Housed in an airy, fifth-floor office, the institute operates at a time when critics are putting humanities on the endangered list as a non-job-generating course of study that has sent students scurrying to science, technology, engineering, and math.

That's not the case at UCSC, argues Deutsch, where one in six degrees were in the humanities last year. But, he believes, it's also a misconception to think humanities and science have no place together.

Deutsch points to several interdisciplinary research clusters being supported by IHR. Among them is one that has brought together biologists, chemists, and philosophers from four UC campuses, Stanford University, and the University of San Francisco, along with mathematical modelers at Google, to look at genomics and race—from race's role in the development of new drugs to the commercial use of DNA to discover a person's ancestry.

While book and journal articles are expected to emerge from this project, Principal Investigator Rasmus Grønfeldt Winther, UCSC associate professor of philosophy, also hopes "to develop a shared set of concepts, ethical principles, and even metaphors, that scientists and humanities scholars—who often have very different backgrounds—can use when we talk about the political and highly charged issue of race."

Both Polic and Deutsch believe these kind of intellectual products should be shared with the public. Last year, they organized a day-long series of talks and presentations on topics including slavery, cannibalism, and the ethnography of disasters that drew 250 members of the public to Santa Cruz's downtown Museum of Art and History.

This year, they also are discussing town-gown collaborations like the possibility of having UCSC faculty and students help renovate the museum's California History exhibits.

"Engaging in the humanities lets us see the world from different points of view, and so helps us better understand ourselves," says William Ladusaw, professor of linguistics at UCSC and dean of humanities.

It is also at the heart of a liberal arts education, which, he says, "prepares students for productive and creative careers as lifelong learners."