Robin Kelsey’s tenure as dean of arts and humanities officially began July 1, but the scholar of American art and photography has long been a leading voice for the division, including through his work as a co-creator of “The Art of Looking,” one of the Framework series of classes for undergrads. In an interview about his new role, he shared goals for creating an even more vibrant, innovative, and interconnected approach to the arts and humanities.
GAZETTE: What’s on the top of your list for the coming year — and beyond?
KELSEY: I want to identify emerging areas of promising research and support the faculty and students working in them. Most of these areas cross departmental boundaries, so we need to be creative in fostering the conversations we need. I also want to build on the momentum that was established under Diana Sorensen’s leadership in raising the profile of the arts within the division. The new Theater, Dance & Media concentration is a high priority. I want to make sure it flourishes and finds the right institutional foothold. I’m also very excited about the creative-writing program, which is receiving great support from the administration and alumni. I see a very promising future with more stellar faculty members and an expanded program.
GAZETTE: What about the makeup of today’s student drives these priorities?
KELSEY: Both undergrads and graduates have a strong desire to emerge in the world, to put their creativity into a vibrant social form. Writing a paper for a professor to read rarely strikes a chord with this generation. They like to engage in broader forms of communication; they like to make things. I want to serve this interest — to take scholarship into new forms and to pursue research in new ways. One example is the Critical Media Practice program that Peter Galison [professor of physics] and Lucien Castaing-Taylor [professor of visual arts and anthropology] have led that draws on grad students across the departments and enables them to create scholarship using various media.
GAZETTE: How does this interdisciplinary approach serve the students?
KELSEY: The current generation likes working together and there is sometimes an impression that the humanities are about an isolated scholar in a tower. It’s really a misconception. Even writing, which can be a quiet exercise, is shaped and energized by an almost constant exchange with other scholars. Many of us in the humanities are here because of the extraordinary community that the pursuit of this work fosters. That spirit of community, of a common project, is definitely something I want to foster. Another area of interest is the environmental humanities. This is a growth area in many of our peer institutions and we now have a critical mass of people working on environmental issues within the humanities. A lot of the impetus has come from graduate students and postdocs. One of the postdocs at HUCE [Harvard University Center for the Environment], Laura Martin, and Professor Joyce Chaplin have started the Environmental History Working Group, which allows grad students, postdocs, and faculty to workshop papers. This is the kind of initiative that will connect departments and programs across the divisions.
GAZETTE: How do you frame the importance of the humanities in this intense age of technology?
KELSEY: We need to get away from a monolithic conception of the digital humanities and to think more broadly and creatively about what it means to make the humanities respond to our digital era. We have, in fact, many faculty members doing just that. What we are lacking are the platforms to make that work more visible, and to link faculty members working from different angles on related problems. Addressing that is a big priority for me.
GAZETTE: Do you envision work you can do that can cross Schools?
KELSEY: Absolutely. Our students care much less about the boundaries between Schools than the rest of us do. Working with faculty and students in other Schools will help students envision how the arts and humanities go out into the world.