The Year of Humanities

Pitt focuses on education’s “out-​of-​favor” bedrock
image: Shutterstock The Year of Humanities
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A multicolored logo flashed over Heinz Field’s immense scoreboard on a bright fall day as a booming voice declared 201516 the University of Pittsburgh’s “Year of the Humanities.”

The crowd of 45,000-plus fans cheered loudly.

Whether they were celebrating the academic year proclamation or the fact that Pitt’s football team was beating up on the Virginia Cavaliers during a homecoming Saturday remains unknown. But Pitt’s academia sector has gone all in this school year in spotlighting the importance of humanities across a range of departments, including social and natural sciences, engineering, medicine and more.

The celebration begs the question: What exactly is humanities or humanistic thinking?

It’s a broad category, but that’s a very good question,” said Don Bialostosky, chair of Pitt’s English department who leads the Year of Humanities steering committee. “From a perspective of the world and of our colleagues across various disciplines, humanistic dealing has to do with bringing out the human element in professions and practices. Similarly, it refers to focusing on the perspectives of people rather than the objective and rather statistical accounts of them.”

Last academic year, Pitt Provost and Senior Vice Chancellor Patricia E. Beeson declared the 201415 school session the “Year of Sustainability” with the accompanying tagline, “One Pitt, One Planet.” Last year’s success morphed into this year’s humanities theme.

The humanities teach us to think critically and creatively about subjective, complex topics; to question and consider multiple sides of various arguments; to express ourselves clearly; and to develop a sense of ourselves and our responsibilities to others. In these ways, the humanities not only form the core of a liberal education, they are the foundation for study in the professions, as well,” Beeson told Pittsburgh Quarterly recently. “One of the biggest successes of both the Year of Sustainability and the Year of Humanities has been their ability to bring the campus together as a community around a single idea.”

Like other universities across the country, Pitt devotes considerable resources to preparing students for jobs that involve science, technology, engineering and math. But Bialostosky is thrilled to see additional emphasis placed on humanities.

This year, Beeson provided an initial $100,000 to provide matching funds of up to $5,000 for activities with a humanities theme. However, the response was so overwhelming that she decided to provide additional support that has more than doubled the first allocation. Proposals are accepted on a rolling basis throughout the year, and Pitt is especially encouraging those that bring together people from multiple schools or departments.

Faculty, staff and students are asked to answer the following questions in their “Being Human” proposals:

  • How can studying the arts and humanities improve creativity and innovation in other fields?
  • Many disciplines study aspects of being human. What aspects do they focus on? What do they have to say to one another?
  • Some disciplines study worlds other than the human. How do their inquiries engage in/​with humanistic thinking?
  • How do the professions understand being human? What can the various professional schools learn from the humanities? What can the humanities learn from the professions?
  • How can the values, methods and opportunities of the humanities be made visible, legible and exciting to Pitt undergraduates, the Pittsburgh community and the wider public?
  • What are the most urgent questions now for human beings/​being human and how are the disciplines and professions at Pitt addressing them?

Humanities are what make us human,” said steering committee member Susan Meyer, associate dean of education at Pitt’s School of Pharmacy. “It means studying, appreciating and advancing the human condition.”

She cited an effort by the Schools of the Health Sciences to develop an educational resource using literature and film to teach students in the health professions various ways to view potential patients. “You can’t be a doctor or a pharmacist or a person without being human,” she said. “More broadly, it’s teaching about the idea of understanding the whole person instead of pieces of an individual. The provider-​patient relationship is truly effective when it is a human relationship.”

Values are important in guiding strategic decisions, and it is the human beings in the organizations who express their values through the decisions and choices that they make.”

— John Camillus, profesor of strategic management, University of Pittsburgh Katz Graduate School of Business

Pitt junior Lia Petrose can’t fathom the idea of practicing medicine without a humanistic approach. Petrose is a member of Pitt’s student government board, studying neuroscience, economics, and international and area studies. “The goal of medicine, to me, is not only to prolong someone’s life but to make it better and enrich it,” said Petrose, a student representative on the steering committee. “To do that, you have to understand human nature above the biology.”

The year kicked off in September at the O’Hara Student Center Ballroom with a reading from Dr. Theresa Brown, who wrote the book, “The Shift: One Nurse, Twelve Hours, Four Patients’ Lives.”

Brown, who has a Ph.D. in English from the University of Chicago and bachelor’s degree from Pitt is a practicing clinical nurse and has written for national publications about patients, families, caregivers, illness and the U.S. health care system. She frequently lectures across the country about health care morality and ethics and end-​of-​life decisions.

Theresa Brown spoke eloquently to the ways in which her humanities training shaped her responsiveness to patients as a practicing nurse and her interest in writing about her nursing experiences,” Bialostosky said.

The Year of the Humanities also has spurred Friday afternoon “pop-​ups;” short-​term planned artistic endeavors at Pitt’s professional schools, usually in the form of poetry, music or painting workshops. Other activities include the March 30 through April 3 performance of a play by University of Maryland Baltimore County math professor Manil Suri entitled “The Mathematics of Being Human.” Additionally, jazz musician George Lewis, the Edwin H. Case Professor of American Music at Columbia University, will host a residency at Pitt that is partially funded by the Year of the Humanities.

The Year of the Humanities has been a tremendous success so far,” Beeson said. “The committee is an engaged and enthusiastic group of faculty, staff and students from across the university. We have received proposals for events from all across the campus and all of our regional campuses; and we are beginning events in areas such as health and the humanities and cultural competence that will allow the impact of the year to continue beyond the end of this academic year.”

John Camillus, who was on the sustainability board and serves on the humanities board, agreed. He is a professor of strategic management at Pitt’s Katz Graduate School of Business.

As a member of both the sustainability and humanities committees, I have seen firsthand the flowering of cross-​disciplinary ideas and relationships between disparate elements of the academic community,” he said. “To me, a complex organization can only be understood in human terms. Values are important in guiding strategic decisions, and it is the human beings in organizations who express their values through the decisions and choices that they make.”

Camillus finds it impossible to focus on strategic planning and management control systems without understanding human behavior.

How humans process information, how they interact with technology, how they respond to various stimuli and motivations, how they relate to each other as individuals, and how they work in groups is at the core of management control,” he said. “When one ventures into the realm of strategic planning, values, culture and human aspirations are just as important if not more so than economic analysis.”


Ben Schmitt

Ben Schmitt graduated from Peabody High School in 1988 and Michigan State University in 1992 with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. He worked as a reporter at the Concord Monitor, Savannah Morning News, American Lawyer Media and the Detroit Free Press and won a national Emmy award in 2008 for two video stories about pit bulls. He also helped report on the downfall of former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, which earned the Free Press a Pulitzer Prize in 2009. He is now vice president of written communications and social marketing for Z Brand Group in Pittsburgh.

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