Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
June 16, 2024

After 50 years, Humanities Center changes its name

By DIANA HLA | February 1, 2018


Since 1966, the Center has focused on interdisciplinary humanities studies.

The Humanities Center at Hopkins, which faced threat of closure last school year, has changed its name to the Department of Comparative Thought and Literature. For some graduate students, the name change fails to reflect the department’s academic focus and erases the history of the Center.

The decision to change the name was announced online on Nov. 20 and was put in place on Jan. 1. According to the online announcement, the new name recognizes the department’s focus on the intersection of literature, philosophy and aesthetics.

The Center was established in 1966 as an interdisciplinary humanities consortium under the leadership of Charles Singleton. Throughout the years, the department has run a graduate program and maintained an active program of visiting scholars, professors and lecturers.

In 2016, the University considered closing the Center but ultimately decided not to in 2017. Graduate students created a campaign called “Hands off the Humanities” and held several protests to rally against the threat of closure. The University commissioned a review committee in January 2017 to determine the future of the department.

The Tabb Committee, headed by Sheridan Dean of University Libraries and Museums Winston Tabb, submitted a report recommending that the Center narrow its academic scope and then gave options to either retain its current name or rename it to reflect its change in focus.

To choose a new name, the faculty in the department were asked to contribute ideas for new names, and collectively came to their final choice.

In March, Betsy Bryan, a professor in the Department of Near Eastern Studies and vice dean of humanities and social sciences, was appointed as the interim chair, replacing Professor and former Chair Hent de Vries.

The decision surprised students and faculty in the Center, since they were not informed ahead of time, and Bryan had no prior affiliation with the Center.

In an email to The News-Letter, Bryan explained that faculty were directly involved in choosing a name for the Center.

“I asked the current faculty for department names that would best represent what the department does. The name ‘Comparative Thought and Literature’ was the result of a number of discussions, all trending in the same direction,” Bryan wrote. “The younger faculty… have really guided the trajectory the last year and most particularly during this fall’s search.”

Leonardo Lisi, associate professor and the Center’s director of undergraduate studies, said that as the Humanities Center, the department had offered comparative literature to graduate students as one of the tracks.

One of the options the Tabb Committee suggested in its 2017 report was for the Center to become the Comparative Literature department, which Lisi and other faculty opposed.

"The question was how to find a name that resonates with the focus...Comparative Thought and Literature was identified as the more appropriate name,” Lisi said. “Comparative Literature just as a name doesn’t really reflect what our faculty do.”

While the faculty of the department were directly involved in renaming the Center and some graduate students were able to offer ideas, graduate students were not consulted about the final options for the name.

Benjamin Stein, a graduate student in the department, was disappointed by the chosen name and the decision to change the name in the first place.

“It seems to be completely unnecessary. It’s unfortunate and disappointing because names carry a lot of weight,” Stein said. “With the disappearance of the Humanities Center in name alone goes with it a loss of a tradition and reputation that they’ve had since 1966. We at the Humanities Center were very proud of our reputation and what they did.” 

He went on to say that the Department would retain its reputation, but that its new name is “confusing aesthetically.” 

“[The label of comparative thought] doesn’t intuitively refer to a discipline in the academy,” Stein said. “It replaces a name that carries with it a lot of history.” 

Lisi said that this issue was brought up during faculty discussions. However, he stated that he was not aware that students shared these concerns.

Paula Marchesini, a fourth-year graduate student in the department, said that she and other graduate students were unaware of the chosen name before it was announced and wished that they had been consulted about it. 

“We were not asked about what we thought. A few of us were surprised when the name was changed on the doors of the department,” she said. 

Marchesini is also worried that the new name does not do enough to capture the interdisciplinary focus of the department.

“The name ‘Humanities Center’ immediately accomodated a very wide range of interests that we have in this department,” she said. “We have people who work with things that go beyond philosophy or thought and go beyond literature. We have people working with politics, with architecture, with the history of art, with history, with so many different fields. The name ‘Comparative Thought and Literature’ seems to be a little bit more restricted.”

Additionally, she heard from prospective students who were worried that the name signified changes in the department’s scope.

“The danger with the new name is precisely this: more and more, the department is going to be restricted to literature, and is going to be more and more specialized and is going to be more and more similar to English departments or comparative literature departments,” Marchesini said. “This is what we hope--this is what the students hope--won’t happen.” 

Bryan, on the other hand, believes that the new name elucidates the department’s purpose.

“It clarifies what the faculty concentrate on and will help to spur future development,” Bryan wrote. “The same faculty are present, but faculty are working together to clarify what they emphasize in a collaborative manner. Eventually, that may translate to some new courses for undergraduates.”

The department has long-term plans to establish an undergraduate major and minor, expanding from their now primarily graduate focus.

A search is also ongoing for a new Boone chair, an endowed professorship, for the Department. Until the new Boone chair is appointed, Bryan will continue to serve as interim chair.

Boone chair candidates will be giving talks open to the Hopkins community in February, and the new Boone chair will be appointed in mid-February.

Despite her concerns about the name change, Marchesini is optimistic about the upcoming appointment of a Boone chair and the future of the Department.

“Regardless of the name change, the spirit of the department will continue to be the same, which is the spirit of interdisciplinary and intellectual freedom and collaboration,” Marchesini said. “We believe that the new chair will also continue to sustain the legacy of the department…We are still celebrating our victory in keeping the department open.”

Errata: The original article originally misinterpreted a quote by Professor Leonardo Lisi. It did not clarify that “Comparative Literature” was a name suggested by the Tabb Committee. The name comparative literature was not an option considered by the faculty in the Department. 

Additionally, the original article did not define the Boone chair position. It is an endowed professorship within the Department, not the chair of the Department.

Due to reporting errors, the quotes by Leonardo Lisi, Benjamin Stein and Paula Marchesini in the original article did not accurately reflect the speaker’s quotes as they were spoken. This piece has been corrected to include the speakers’ original wording. 

The News-Letter regrets these errors. 

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