UNC Asheville Re-imagines the Humanities Core: A Data-Driven, Student-Centered and Community-Led Curriculum Revision that Goes Beyond Traditional Textbooks

The following reblog from UNC Asheville discusses their publishing partnership with UNC Press on their humanities readers (both print and open access). Thanks for recognizing our Office of Scholarly Publishing Services, and for citing the Ross Fund.

The two faculty leading UNC Asheville’s Humanities readers revisions often compare the project to an elephant. It’s large. It’s heavy. But it’s also taken on new life over the past four years of work, and the elephant metaphor means more to NEH distinguished professor in the Humanities and professor of Religious Studies Kate Zubko and the Thomas Howerton distinguished professor of the Humanities and professor of Philosophy Keya Maitra, as well as the more than 50 faculty and staff contributors to the project.

“There’s a story about an elephant that we often refer to,” explained Zubko. “A handful of people who are visually impaired approach an elephant, not knowing what it is. Someone approaching from the side thinks it’s a wall. Someone holding the trunk says, ‘No, it is a snake.’ Someone holding the ear claims it is a wing.”

As Zubko continued, “This story has become a guiding principle for us – not all of us have the full picture of the full story. In order to come together as a community you have to come together to share those perspectives. It’s a skill set that we are definitely interested in our students’ becoming more robust in. Their perspective is not the only perspective when they engage in the world.”

With that mindset, Zubko, Maitra and a team of faculty and staff set about to revise the Humanities Readers 124, 214, and 324 – a set of seminal texts corresponding to classes at the core of UNC Asheville’s liberal arts curriculum. It was a massive project, of elephant-sized proportions, but in working together, most recently via 15-20 hours each week on Zoom over the past year, they took it piece by piece.

In some ways, this work in the Humanities Readers is just the first chapter, and it begins several years before publication (and some may argue many years, decades and centuries before that, but this is the UNC Asheville chapter).

Setting The Groundwork

Both Maitra and Zubko described the process as the first data-driven curriculum revision conducted in the Humanities Program. They started from work completed by prior program director Professor of Classics Brian Hook, and honed in on input from faculty and students, with Professor of Sociology and Chief of Staff Lyndi Hewitt creating a tool for student input. They conducted student surveys and focus groups in 2017 led by Zubko and Director of Institutional Effectiveness Amanda Bell

“We needed to ask what they wanted to see in these new Readers, where they are struggling, and where they are getting engaged really deeply with the materials in the course,” said Zubko.

The input kept coming for two more years, as they would pilot something in classes, then get feedback. In some ways, this iterative process had been ongoing since the last revision of the Readers in 2002-03, with changes made on moodle, but the print editions had remained static. With this major revision and re-imagining of the Readers, the process carried through to the publications, distributed by UNC Press.

“When we started working with UNC Press, they hadn’t seen anything like it before. This is something really exciting with Humanities education,” said Zubko.

UNC Press expressed interest in the project as early as 2015 and supported it in 2017, through its Office of Scholarly Publishing Services (OSPS), which supports publishing initiatives of the UNC System. Their goal was to develop a publishing strategy to enable UNC Asheville to publish the three Reader volumes and make them available to students at a low cost.

“We will help you to publish the books in print and digital formats in professionally designed editions that can be revised as the courses develop,” said Director of the Office of Scholarly Publishing Services John McLeodin a letter of support. Early on, he noted the possibility of a low cost print edition with an open access digital edition option.

In 2019, the UNC Press awarded the project a $4,000 grant from the Thomas W. Ross Fund.

Investing in the Humanities

The grant from the UNC Press covers interior and exterior design work and contributes to indexing. The interior design work was important in order for the pedagogical support features to work seamlessly with the readings. The content inside received the majority of the funding, including $165,000 as part of a 2017 grant from the Mellon Foundation for Leading the Public Arts and Humanities in the City of Asheville.

“Thanks to the generosity of a Mellon grant awarded in 2017, this new iteration of the Asheville Readers—renamed Global Humanities Readers —are able to evolve in ways that better support the needs of our students at UNC Asheville and beyond who find themselves in a complex, interconnected, and rapidly changing world,” said the general editors in their welcome to the new edition.

Together the editorial team of Professor of Classics Brian S. Hook, Professor of Classics Sophie Mills, HUM 214 Coordinator and Lecturer in Humanities Renuka Gusain, Chair & Associate Professor of Physics James Perkins, andAssociate Professor of History Alvis Dunn, invested significant time and energy into the project.

This re-investment and re-imagining of the Humanities Readers also came at a time when many other universities decreased or cut funding to their programs. Instead, UNC Asheville took a closer look at it.

“We have endeavored to not only bring the elephant into the classroom but to provide strategies to behold more than one aspect—the trunk, the ear, or the side—together and collectively while also becoming aware of the parts of the elephant we don’t know how to see from our own cultural perspectives,” wrote the editorial team in their welcome.

They also expanded the classroom, partly as a result of the COVID pandemic, and partly as this ongoing work unfolded. As the publications became digital, so too did the classes.

In this facet of the project, Digital Coordinator and Humanities Lecturer Renuka Gusain, and associates assisted faculty with refining and recording lectures for asynchronous (“on demand”) online presentation, finding illustrative images, video and sound that are creative-commons designated, and looking at ways to condense information and make it more accessible to all students.

Additional funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities came through a highly competitive NEH CARES Act grant. UNC Asheville was just one of 317 organizations to receive funding through the grant in 2020. The nearly $300,000 grant funded professional development and curricular digitization, enabling key humanities courses to be delivered in engaging hybrid and online formats during the COVID pandemic. Most importantly, this grant ensured the preservation of adjunct instructor positions in the humanities.

Opening Doors to Centuries of Scholars

The generous funding combined with the dedicated scholars who lead the project has culminated in the goal of offering the Readers to more students, beginning with the 1,350 to 1,500 UNC Asheville students who take the classes each semester and extending to public institutions in North Carolina. More than 200 institutions, including UNC System schools, community colleges, K-12 schools and libraries, will have free access to the digital editions – a result of UNC Asheville pursuing world rights and limited open access on all of the sources.

That task came to Ramsey Library Reference and Information Literacy Librarian Jon Morris, who worked to secure rights to 180 sources, which included negotiating with publishers and rights holders on four continents, literary and artistic rights agents, and clearing the rights through authors’ estates.

“The most refreshing takeaway was how surprisingly generous actual authors and translators of individual works could be sharing their reprint rights compared to many well-known publishers, and how greatly rights holders varied in their valuation of the individual reprint rights for their works,” said Morris of the monumental task, which he meticulously logged in spreadsheets and archived throughout the process.

Then the works came to Humanities Program Administrative Assistant Jessica Park, who served as the hub of the project, as she deftly organized communication traffic that kept each entry written by faculty and staff contributors to support each primary source flowing smoothly through its multiple iterations and drafts.   

Based on faculty and student feedback, the editors centered an inquiry-focused approach in every aspect of the Readers. Each entry begins by orienting students to each source and uses brief questions to prepare them for active learning. An important aspect of this is cultivating a sustained ability for students to connect materials to their life experiences and the world they live in.

They’ve added an inquiry corner, which is an idea borrowed from Maitra’s prior work. When she was translating the Bhagavad Gita, a peer reviewer asked why they should care about this translation, compared to others.

“That’s when I came to the philosopher’s corner. My students were the ones who would say why philosophers should care about this chapter,” recalled Maitra.

There’s a larger goal to the questions as well.

“The ability to ask a question is an ability to pause. Sometimes students in the classroom feel like information is coming at them at a high speed. To stop and to consider a question, to formulate a question is a moment of pause. Inquiry is not just going at question, question, question, but question in context. It’s that moment to take in what we are doing,” said Maitra.

“We’re learning how to ask better questions, what we are calling productive questions,” said Zubko. “If I learn how to ask questions better in other contexts, that’s something that is a transferrable skill and really is the heart of a liberal arts education.”

That’s where the Career Center comes in.

Making Career Connections

The Career Center joined the project in 2019, with Associate Director of Employer Relations David Earnhardt joining an Humanities Program meeting open to the campus community. He described it as impressive and ambitious work at that time, with efforts to make the Readers more robust and centered on the student experience.

“The inquiry corner was interesting to me because they had described it as four different quadrants that students could engage with variously contextualized questions. My thought was ‘is there a way to add some career component to that context?’” said Earnhardt.

So he and then Associate Director for Career Education Chelsey Augustyniak did just that, reading 20-25% of all of the sources and creating career questions for the inquiry corner.

For the ancient Chinese playwright who writes in her diary in 9th century China, they ask about active reflection. For “The City of Ladies” written in the early 1400s, they make connections to modern wage gaps for women and empower students to find solutions to challenges extending centuries. For “Brief Account of the Destruction of the Indies,” they focus on racial justice, asking students how they advocate for themselves and others.

“That’s the beauty of this project. We’re trying to make it more relevant and showing students the connections and why texts written hundreds of years ago are relevant now,” said Augustyniak.

That relevance is something students will carry forward into their careers.

“Critical thinking and the ability to make decisions and to understand research and synthesize that in a way that makes sense to someone who you work with, or don’t work with…. That’s something that is really hard for an employer to teach,” said Earnhardt. “The value of the Humanities Program is that ability to practice some of those soft skills.”

Since working on the Readers, Earnhardt has added it to his career counseling and communications with employers.

“It helps me remember too that I can speak to the rigor and the student experience of the Humanities Program. It gives me a little bit of leverage,” he said.

Augustyniak agreed, “It gave me a better understanding of what our students go through and the classes they are taking. I can understand more about the student experience.”

The process of having multiple readers and perspectives for each piece, also builds upon the connections critical to the Humanities curriculum at UNC Asheville, where faculty call upon one another’s expertise and frequently step into subjects that weren’t their specialty through their own academic coursework, but upon which they can share insight. They each have a piece of knowledge to share, but must rely on the collaborative and collegiality of the courses to piece it together. That approach feeds into the campus culture, like one piece of the puzzle, or one part of the larger elephant, to extend the metaphor.

For example, Professor of History and Interim Dean of Humanities Tracey Rizzo joined the project in 2019 to take the lead on writing the 20-page cross-cultural introductions that provide context at the beginning of each of the Readers. Humanities Program Affiliates Professor of History Samer Traboulsi contributed readings and created a plan for pre-Islamic materials for Humanities 124; Department Chair and Associate Professor of English Kirk Boyle integrated a video resource portfolio for Humanities 324 and 414; and Lecturer in Art History Eva Bares focused on artwork with introductory context, further readings and experiential learning opportunities. Bares also curated and wrote captions for 12-15 images per introduction to extend on the historical context Rizzo provided by adding a further interdisciplinary dimension.

“The orientation of the Humanities Program makes us a risk taker. When we go to graduate school, we professors tend to become risk averse. Our training makes us want to be precise,” said Maitra. “The Humanities Program requires us to embrace the bigger picture of what we don’t know. In taking risks, we discover new connections and perspectives, and that is a good thing.”

That risk taking also makes the courses more exciting and more applicable for students.

“The first time I went to one of the Reader editorial meetings, I quickly got the idea that the faculty are invested in modeling the kind of inquiry based community that they want students to invest in. It’s a community-based model,” said 2021 graduate Cameron Barlow.

Part of Barlow’s role was designing timelines, pulled from the entries and customized to the Readers. It’s a job that’s taught him many ways to plot out his future. 

“I like to push back against the idea that life is just a job. A large reason why the liberal arts and humanities are under attack is that they are not viewed as profitable, productive outcomes. Yet they add richness, understanding, empathy and connection to one’s life – in the workplace and out of the workplace,” said Barlow.

“What are you going to do with it? What am I not going to do with it? It affects every aspect of my life…. This program allows us to ask pointed and more probing questions and to situate ourselves in the world in the way we want to live.”

Expanding Worldviews

Now as the Readers near publication in fall 2021 and spring 2022, they are looking very different from those of prior years or any other typical Humanities curriculum available. In fact, the editors acknowledge that the process has been turned on its head from what has traditionally been the approach of starting with the canon. They strive to be more intentional and inclusive.

“Typically Humanities curriculums have been dominated by western sources. They exclude marginalized perspectives that are important in the world we live in. Our students are demanding to hear and engage a wider and more diverse set of perspectives,” said Maitra. “Our approach is very intentional about capturing the globalized world. We started with being more aware of our contemporary world and then we worked back to see what our curriculum should look like in order for our students to operate well, to have well-being and to have agency in this world.”

To bring it back to the elephant metaphor that started this story, and to share just a page from the new Readers, the editors wrote the following in their welcome to the new editions:

You might be familiar with a different version of this narrative. What is instructive is that not only does the setting of the story shift based on who is engaging it, including Hindus, Buddhists, and Jains, but that the lesson of the narrative changes as well. Thus, while the Buddha takes it to reflect how the men ‘cling’ to their individual ‘finding,’ the Jain view uses it as an example of their epistemological perspectivalism (anekantavada), or many-sidedness.

This version of the story is instructive also in what it does not emphasize; for example, it doesn’t draw our attention to the ground where the elephant stands. Engaging with this narrative especially in the context of the United States, the land can no longer be ignored or taken for granted, but is central to becoming aware of our erased and fractured histories and our uncomfortable collective self-understanding. We want to acknowledge and honor that UNC Asheville is on Anikituwagi (Cherokee) ancestral land and that we will continue to build mutual, respectful relationships with the Eastern Band of Cherokee (EBCI) who are ongoing stewards of this area, and from whom we continue to learn. Acknowledgement is not enough but our hope is that these Readers help us put our commitment to this relationship into action.

We want to use the elephant story to remind us of insights that emanate from our understanding of UNC Asheville’s Humanities Program.

To learn more about UNC Asheville’s Humanities Program visit https://humanities.unca.edu/.