This article is from the archives of the UB Reporter.

Retreat envisions literary, textual and cultural studies

Published: May 5, 2005

Contributing Editor

For More Information

go to the UB2020 website

More than 80 senior and junior faculty members, largely from the College of Arts and Sciences, gathered on Tuesday for an "envisioning retreat" that included a lengthy and complex discussion of potential areas of collaboration, resources and outside sources of support in the areas of literary, textual and cultural studies.


They were joined for the discussion in 120 Clemens Hall by professional staff and faculty from the University Libraries, Educational Technology Center, School of Architecture and Planning, Humanities Institute, and Council on International Studies and Programs.

A wide range of recommendations to position UB as a leading institution in the fields of literary, textual and cultural studies were made by participants at the assembly, one of several to focus faculty and administration interest on areas of strategic strength identified by the UB 2020 planning project.

The recommendations included guidance for new faculty in the preparation of foundation grants (the source of much funding in the humanities), development of library collections and a call for detailed analysis and development of programs across eight emerging fields of interdisciplinary studies.

The organizers of this retreat were Maureen Jameson, associate professor and chair, Department of Romance Languages; Joseph Conte, professor and chair, Department of English; Ted Pena, associate professor and chair, Department of Classics; Shawn Irlam, associate professor and chair, Department of Comparative Literatures; and Tamara Thornton, professor and chair, Department of History.

The program was introduced by Jameson, who had conducted an online survey of UB faculty and staff from which the organizers culled the topics for small-group discussion.

She was followed by a brief welcome and words of encouragement from President John B. Simpson and Satish K. Tripathi, provost and executive vice president for academic affairs.

Thornton said the goal of the retreat was "to determine how we can work together to achieve greater prominence for our fields of study, and assess the resources we require and the processes we need to follow to reach our goal."

The assembly broke into 10 small discussion groups to determine the most significant curricular initiatives upon which to focus and how they might best be pursued. After an hour of discussion, group leaders reported the results of their effort.

Requests were voiced—some tongue in cheek, some not—for greater emphasis on 19th-century literary and cultural studies (a strength in several departments); globalization and border studies; cooperative planning; and fewer, but better, events like a cooperatively planned and widely promulgated lecture series.

"And please," said one participant in jest, "nap rooms, yoga rooms, a meditation room."

Several faculty members expressed concern about the difficulty of developing team-teaching projects at UB and how new faculty members with interdisciplinary interests must weigh such pursuits against conflicting departmental tenure requirements.

"Let's face it," said one faculty member. "However important they may be, faculty involvement in interdisciplinary programs is not encouraged or applauded by their departments and when it comes to tenure, interdisciplinary projects just don't carry the same weight."

Many present reiterated the need for a social space, such as a faculty club, where faculty members could meet deliberately or serendipitously and discuss common research and teaching interests, and a Web site or published material that could draw their attention to the similar interests of colleagues.

"I don't know half the people here," said one senior professor, "and that disturbs me because I just met several new faculty members with whom I have a great deal in common. Where would I ever run into them but here?"

After the initials session, group leaders met and distilled the results of dozens of concerns into six specific areas where participants said they would like to focus their attention: grants and related fields, university outreach, the Humanities Institute, libraries, emerging fields of study and emerging technologies.

Each topic was assigned to new group leaders and remaining participants organized themselves into different small groups to discuss one of the six foci.

Reporting on the discussion group on grants, Charles Kaars, assistant vice president for sponsored program administration, said that to increase UB's prominence in the field of literary, textual and cultural studies, it is necessary to increase faculty research and its visibility. To do that, he said, "we need to articulate to all faculties in this disciplinary area the full range of activities that can be funded through grants."

"Even small amounts of foundation money can be very useful, but many faculty members do not know how to pursue it," he said.

The group recommended that faculty members who have had success acquiring and/or have served on selection committees for National Endowment for the Humanities and major foundation grants advise their peers on how to prepare proposals to those sources of funding. It also recommended that UB offer preparatory grants or "seed grants" to allow faculty members to prepare major foundation grants and provide faculty members with up-to-date information on a variety of funding sources outside UB.

Barbara von Wahlde, associate vice president for university libraries, reported on recommendations from the library discussion group, which expressed deep concern about the changing face of academic publishing. Members noted that there are fewer publishers publishing small runs of academic books and very few monographs, all of which poses a serious threat to young faculty members trying to publish for tenure consideration.

The group's suggestions ranged from a request for better lighting in the "spooky" stacks, which von Wahlde promised would arrive as soon as the library's new storage facility is open, to a more substantial investment from departments and the university in library books for new faculty members.

Susan Cole, professor of classics, noted that when a new science professor is hired, he or she often is given many thousands of dollars for a lab in which to conduct research, while perennially under-funded humanities' faculty members are offered a $500 library stipend, if that, to purchase books they will need to teach and conduct research with graduate students.

"That's about six books," she said. "We might be called areas of excellence (as were the departments of Anthropology and Classics), but when it comes to funding, we are the university's stepchildren, and that needs to be addressed."

Recommendations also included a resident fellow in the libraries' special collections, and the inclusion of cognizant librarians at meetings of chairs and faculty members who could identify accurately current faculty research interests and activities for collection development purposes.

The group also requested the libraries beef up special interest areas with arrangements for extended book loans from other SUNY campuses, innovative borrowing options and getting outside help. The latter would include the pursuit of private donations to facilitate the acquisition of books and monographs, publishing limited editions of faculty research itself, looking into publication of materials in e-book formats (although that is considered problematic because of the state of that industry), and the pursuit of grants for the purpose of developing innovative programs and growing specific collections.

Stephen McCaffery, David Gray Chair in Poetry and Letters in the Department of English, headed the outreach group and reported that participants suggested that beyond regional efforts, the university needs to focus on local and international outreach.

He and his group suggested as well that UB be involved in artisan schools programs in which faculty members and graduate students could teach specialized topics that could intrigue and draw students to UB; promulgation of a UB Connect Speakers Series for public consumption; development of the international student and scholar pools already at UB, as well as the development of joint international diploma programs. The group suggested upgrading the university's electronic outreach program with the assistance of the Humanities Institute.

The Humanities Institute should have an annual fall conference, suggested retreat participants, with high-profile speakers following a specific theme that could be incorporated into academic study throughout the year, using reading groups and classroom programs. The institute also should provide an events calendar to encourage interdepartmental collaboration and attendance, McCaffery suggested, and offer research support for faculty members and graduate students in the humanities.

Justin Read, assistant professor, Department of Romance Languages and Literatures, reported on the emerging fields of study that participants considered to be the most important in the area of literary, textual and cultural studies.

Before naming them, he said, "We agree that we need to develop open-ended centers or umbrella groups that would promote the networking opportunities we need so badly here. We can start modestly, sharing information of our work across disciplines, pooling some resources and ultimately sharing strategic decision making, like interdepartmental hiring."

The most important emerging fields he cited were global studies; the intersection of humanities, science, medicine and technology; the study of space and place in its many, many permutations; visual studies; aesthetics; post-modernity and critical theory; gender and sexuality; early modern studies; and archaeology.

Loss Glazier, associate professor of media study, headed the emerging technologies group, which focused on attention to new media literacies such as new literary studies, including interactive fiction and digital poetics; game studies; and technology and the visual arts.

The group proposed a program in the critical use of technology that would employ digitized primary texts and objects. It would employ the services and facilities offered by the Poetry Collection, the Anthropology Museum, the University Archives and the Electronic Poetry Center.

Cole also suggested investment in computer consultants who could help faculty members set up computer programs for research projects and strategic decision making in faculty hires in this area.

Before adjourning, participants volunteered for the next step—writing document sections for a draft "white paper" to further articulate the suggestions made during the retreat.