Highlighting humanities: U of T's Jackman Humanities Institute celebrates 10 years, welcomes new director

JHI directors
Robert Gibbs (left) is the outgoing director of the Jackman Humanities Institute. Alison Keith (right) is the incoming director (photo by Diana Tyszko)

From the undergraduate scholars-in-residence research program to the creation of a digital humanities network, the Jackman Humanities Institute has much to celebrate over the last decade. 

Jackman Humanities Institute (JHI) was established in 2007 thanks to significant donations from the Hon. Henry N.R. “Hal” Jackman, former lieutenant-governor of Ontario and former U of T chancellor. In 2002, he donated $15 million to support the humanities at U of T and then doubled that donation in 2007 with another $15 million – making it the largest gift to the humanities at a Canadian university. The gifts were double matched by the university, spurring increased investment in U of T’s humanities departments.

As JHI marks its 10th anniversary this year, U of T's Kim Luke spoke with outgoing director Robert Gibbs, who has led the institute since its inception, and incoming director Alison Keith about the institute's achievements and what’s ahead.

What have been key achievements for JHI over the past ten years?

Robert Gibbs: The short answer is that we have expanded both the range and the kinds of humanities research activities at the U of T. 

The U of T’s humanities departments and centres are world leaders and have exceptional researchers, ranked very highly on all accounts. JHI had no need to duplicate or distract from that. Instead, we aimed to support research that would augment and often complement the traditional and disciplinary research.  So, we always looked for ways to forge connections and engage across disciplines, units, faculties and campuses. 

No single department could host the research that we have sponsored. For example, the undergraduate scholars-in-residence research project involves faculty from seven different disciplines and five faculties and reaches 50 students from all of the colleges and all three campuses. The chance for our undergraduates to explore humanities research, even at this relatively small scale, is enhanced by the multiple methods and approaches at play. It also creates a cohort of faculty who otherwise might not know each other. 

Each year, we bring together a group of scholars – a Circle of Fellows – to explore a theme from their various perspectives. The annual themes – such as Translation and the Multiplicity of Languages; Humour, Play and Games; and Time, Rhythm and Pace – help forge connections across disciplines and generations. Because we do not have a core discipline or approach, the JHI has been open to greater latitude, and this openness allows the different methods and topics to proliferate. 

The digital humanities network is one of the most important communities of research to emerge at U of T in the last years.  With 215 members, including 150 faculty, it is changing the digital humanities landscape at U of T. Scholars are finding out about new methods, finding new collaborators and creating new projects. There is a huge desire to learn from each other and the JHI is playing a key role by bringing people together.

Why did you decide to take on the role of becoming JHI's next director?

Alison Keith: I was excited to be offered an academic administrative post in which humanities research figures centrally. There are very few administrative positions in the contemporary academy in which we have the opportunity to nurture and celebrate the research conducted by scholars across the full range of humanities disciplines – from the study of languages, linguistics and literature to art, history, philosophy and religion. 

The JHI is also an ideal environment for the kind of multidisciplinary research that I do. As a classicist, I work daily with texts written in Latin and ancient Greek (and scholarship in French, German and Italian) and try to assess the historical events that shaped the philosophical and religious commitments and artistic goals of classical authors. So, the opportunity to foster and participate in theoretical and methodological conversations across the humanities disciplines that the JHI supports excites me very much.

What do you hope to accomplish during your term as director?

Alison Keith: The JHI has achieved a great deal in its first years, and I hope not only to maintain the momentum of the established programs but also to consolidate the innovative developments in international, digital and undergraduate humanities research initiated this past academic year. 

My top priority is to raise the public profile of humanities research in general and the research undertaken at the JHI, in particular.  We have a long way to go get the word out on the street – or even across our huge university – about the most basic questions driving humanities research at JHI. 

Social media offers some terrific opportunities, and I hope to launch a weekly blog to showcase the innovative research questions and cross-disciplinary dynamics at the institute. I’m also excited about the idea of a podcast to showcase humanities scholarship in the public sphere. 

Raising our international profile is important, and I hope to explore the possibility of targeting specific areas for new streams of postdoctoral fellows in journalism or public humanities research and also for scholars-at-risk.

What do you wish people understood better about the humanities disciplines and their role in today’s world?

Alison Keith: I wish that people understood that humanities disciplines aren’t studied in a vacuum but interact with today’s world in so many ways. 

Reading books and visual images and being able to analyze narrative and argument are skills that we use all the time in our lives and workplaces to make sense of our personal as well as the larger social contexts in which governments and institutions act. 

Historical interest in how a given society approaches different issues also informs our own understanding of the different forces that influence today’s social policies and inform global conflicts. 

The arts we enjoy in our leisure – music, visual art and theatre – can also be enriched for us by critical reflection about their origins and techniques, which are again part of humanist study.

What would you advise students who want to study humanities but are concerned about how well their studies will prepare them for the job market?

Alison Keith: As a scholar and chair of classics, I always tell students that in the uncertain economy of the future, they can’t go wrong by strengthening their literacy and analytic skills through study in the humanities: critical reading, critical writing and critical analysis are transferrable skills that will take them far in whatever profession they wish to pursue. 

Students in humanities courses are trained to read texts and images closely, write carefully and analytically about complex ideas and synthesize complicated arguments for oral presentation. These remain valuable and relatively rare skills in our society. 

I also advise students to make the most of their opportunity to have an academic experience since the opportunity to focus on study for the sake of study, inquiry for the sake of inquiry, and the satisfaction of one’s own intellectual curiosity are not usually available outside of the university context and are worth pursuing if only to learn about oneself and one’s own particular interests. This kind of immersion in academic inquiry ideally helps to focus students’ professional interests beyond the university too.

Then I’d advise that they look at the information on the website of the Education Policy Research Initiative that charts mean earnings by field of study.

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