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Adapting humanities research in the COVID-19 era

Thursday, May 28, 2020

Greetings from the Hall Center for the Humanities! I appreciate this opportunity to share with you briefly the impact that COVID-19 is having on humanities research at KU. The pandemic poses many challenges for all research communities, each with its own distinctive approach to the creation of knowledge, and humanities scholars are no exception. Yet we are adapting and will emerge from this crisis with a renewed sense of commitment to our mission.

Richard Godbeer

Perhaps our greatest practical challenge is that many of us must travel to archives, libraries and museums across the globe to carry out our research, using materials that are not available in digitized form. Each year the Hall Center awards research travel grants to faculty and graduate students; most of that travel takes place during the summer. This year we have extended the deadline for expending those funds until August 2021, by which time travel will hopefully have become safer. Meanwhile, many of us are adapting our research plans. I had planned to spend a month this summer at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, consulting a large manuscript collection as a crucial part of my research for a book about the theater and Victorian culture, titled “The Empire of Topsy-Turvy.” That project will have to be shelved, and so I’ve turned my attention to another book project, “Performing Patriarchy: What Gender Meant to Early Americans,” which will rely for the most part on material I already have in my file cabinets and digital storage. The kingdom of Topsy-Turvy will have to wait!

Almost as important as archives, libraries and museums to humanities scholars are the conferences at which we hash out our ideas with fellow scholars in our fields. Conference sessions are our version of laboratories where we throw together scholars and ideas in combinations that often lead to amazing conversations, collaborations that can last for decades and occasional explosions. A few weeks ago, the Hall Center hosted a virtual conference at which faculty from KU and elsewhere presented papers they had prepared for conferences now canceled due to COVID-19.

Each year we host a series of interdisciplinary research seminars that bring together humanities and social science scholars with similar interests from a variety of disciplinary backgrounds to share their works-in-progress and learn from each other’s different approaches — a more sustained laboratory environment than that offered by an annual conference. We are shifting that crucial work online so that everyone can remain in regular contact and continue to work together regardless of physical distancing.

The Hall Center also mounts a speaker series each year that shares the excitement and significance of humanities scholarship with lively audiences that include members of the local community as well as faculty, staff and students. The last two months have highlighted the enormous value of the arts and humanities as they inspire, stimulate, entertain, and — yes — distract people across the United States and around the globe. Next year, all of our events will be videoed and made available online, even if by then we have returned to campus. We want everyone to feel safe attending our events and to choose for themselves whether to do so in person or remotely. Our 2020-21 speaker series will highlight humanities scholarship on immigration, a topic that continues to resonate across the world in the COVID-19 era. With this and future speaker series on medical humanities and environmental humanities, we will continue to demonstrate, using whatever venues seem safest and most flexible, that the humanities have a critical role to play at any leading research university in building a humane future for our world.

Richard Godbeer
Director, Hall Center for the Humanities
Charles W. Battey Distinguished Professor of History