At a point in the academic year when decisions that hinge on pragmatic factors like budgets, curricula, enrollments, and staffing fiercely converge, it’s hard for the chair of a humanities department to shelve words like precarious and muster energy for institutional transformation. Yet if 2017 has taught us anything so far, it’s that going forward the pace of change in higher education will accelerate at an unprecedented rate and the development of strategies to address such change will require more collaboration than ever before. Enter the ADE-ADFL Summer Seminar for 2017, “Re-Designing the Humanities—Problems, Solutions, and Seed Projects.”
Almost two years ago when the MLA invited us to host this seminar at the University of Minnesota, we had a long phone call about the chronic problems afflicting the humanities in general and our modern language fields in particular. Already the list was daunting: we worried our way through declining numbers of majors and overall enrollments, undergraduate college readiness, employment opportunities for baccalaureate and graduate students, resource allocation models and budget cuts, faculty shrinkage and conversion of tenure-line positions to contingent labor, shifts away from language requirements and drifts toward STEM fields, attempts to link up across institutional types (from community colleges to universities), and much more. That very long conversation convinced us that it was time to concentrate on problem solving and network building across English and foreign language fields.
We both had been reading about design thinking and in fall 2015 visited a premier location for this approach, the Mayo Clinic Center for Innovation, which has used design thinking to address and change the complex of medical infrastructure, research, and practice. We were persuaded that such design practices as listening to stakeholders, ideating, iterating, and prototyping had the potential to help English and foreign language chairs become change agents in higher education, as it had already those in healthcare, technology, and issue organizations. Though we were mindful that academic scholars might be skeptical of this (or any other) new approach, we felt that the conjuncture of longstanding problems and accelerated change demanded a focus on creating future-oriented projects.
As a result, we decided to organize the seminar as an occasion to apply design thinking to several of the problems that surfaced in our phone conversation. Participants in the seminar will received some pre-seminar readings and have the opportunity to consider a selection of problems in the humanities through pre-seminar workshops, keynote talks, panels, and working groups to analyze problems and design seed projects.
We are fortunate to have secured the participation of colleagues from the Mayo Center for Innovation, the University of Minnesota College of Design, and multiple stakeholders to help guide us through the process. But you will bring the necessary knowledge, energy, and diversity to this work. Please join us in Minneapolis for the ADE-ADFL Seminar, to be held 1–4 June. We hope that the results will be networks, collaborative projects, and publications that will strengthen us all.
Charlotte Melin, chair, Department of German, Scandinavian, and Dutch
Ellen Messer-Davidow, former chair, Department of English