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New humanities dean seeks to promote career opportunities


Courtesy University of Michigan

By Emily Abdow     6/18/17 8:12pm

Incoming Dean of Humanities Kathleen Canning plans to improve career preparation and promote the relevance of the humanities when she begins at Rice University on Jan. 1, 2018.

Canning is coming to Rice from the University of Michigan, where she chaired the largest history department in the country. Canning said the 80-member history department, where over half of the faculty hold joint appointments, gave her an interdisciplinary perspective she hopes to bring to Rice by working with the deans of social and natural sciences.

“Humanists are called upon today to invigorate and renew our teaching and learning and to make more tangible for our students the value of a humanities education,” Canning said.

Canning said she hopes to provide more data on job opportunities for humanities majors.

“Employers and admissions officers in these same fields are frequently cited in the media as explicitly valuing the critical and communicative capacities of humanities grads,” Canning said.

Dean Nicolas Shumway stepped down from the position of Dean of Humanities after serving for for seven years and will remain on faculty. Lora Wildenthal will serve as interim dean until Jan. 1, as commitments at the University of Michigan delayed Canning from beginning her term on July 1.

“I look back on my time as dean with considerable satisfaction,” Shumway said. “But I’m at a stage in my life when I want to get back to full-time teaching and research.”

Humanities student Susannah Wright said she would like to see the new dean place a focus on humanities research.

“Because Rice straddles the divide between liberal arts and research, I think we have a unique opportunity to differentiate our humanities graduates from the pack,” Wright, a Brown College senior, said.

History and visual and dramatic arts double major Hannah Tyler said she hopes Canning prioritizes supporting VADA, increasing career development and providing opportunities for non-humanities majors to enroll in upper-level classes.

“VADA is being used as a marketing campaign but we’ve seen little increase in support and funding from the administration,” Tyler, a Lovett College junior, said. “Despite the fact that we’re being used as a selling point for admitted students.”

Dean of Architecture Sarah Whiting, one of two search committee chairs, said the humanities dean selection process began in fall 2016. While all the candidates interviewed had administrative and fundraising experience, Whiting said Canning stood out due to her knowledge of running a large department, her awards and her scholarship, which focuses on early 20th century Germany.

“Her methodology includes close attention to social, political and labor issues, which makes her work relevant to a wide range of disciplines,” Whiting said. “She’s really well poised to advocate for the humanities at Rice and more generally.”

Dean of Music Robert Yekovich, the other search committee chair, said the committee emphasized finding the right fit.

“The right ‘fit’ has to do with the culture of collegiality and decisions made through collective conversation and consensus building, not driven from the top down,” Yekovich said.

Canning said that, despite skepticism from some parents and students about the relevance of the humanities, she believes the future is bright.

“The humanities are a crucial foundation for active and engaged citizenship, which is needed more now than ever,” Canning said. 

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