Interdisciplinary Labs Project Gives Humanities a Boost at UAlbany

A group of students standing along a nature path listen as a man in a sling and ballcap talks. One students holds a dog on a leash.
UAlbany students participating in the Humanities Labs Project learn about local history and preservation efforts at the Tivoli Nature Preserve in Albany, N.Y.

By Bethany Bump

ALBANY, N.Y. (Feb. 16, 2023) — On a beautiful fall day last semester, Calvin Giudici set off with about 50 University at Albany students and faculty to a nature preserve on the other side of town.

The visit to the Tivoli Nature Preserve wasn’t required as part of their classes, but instead offered as an extracurricular perk made available to approximately 400 students taking courses in the humanities. While there, the students learned about the local history of the preserve and ongoing efforts to manage and protect it from invasive species.

The trip was one of dozens of events organized last fall as part of the Humanities Labs Project, an initiative of UAlbany’s Center for the Humanities, Arts and Technosciences (CHATS) that aims to revive interest in the humanities with hands-on, practical programming that can demonstrate its reach beyond the classroom.

The humanities are often misunderstood as “softer” disciplines taught mostly as theory with little real-world application beyond the classroom. That's a misconception the faculty behind CHATS are actively trying to combat with their Labs Project, which features field trips, events and projects organized along interdisciplinary areas of study.

“They want to get out of the classroom,” said Mary Valentis, visiting associate professor of English and founder of CHATS, who got the project up and running in 2019 with help from her colleagues in English, Vesna Kuiken and Charles Shepherdson.

The project was initially supported by a Strategic Allocation of Resources (STaR) grant from the Office of President Havidán Rodríguez. It was put on hold during the pandemic, and resumed last fall with events falling into three interdisciplinary study areas — Visual Culture, Postcolonial Literature and Culture, and the Environmental Humanities.

Students are naturally interested in the humanities, faculty argue, but are often persuaded away from them because the classroom-to-career pipeline is not as obvious as it is with other disciplines. The Humanities Labs Project aims to make this pipeline more obvious by involving students in the hands-on, technical side of various areas of study.

“Maybe students aren't coming to the humanities because their parents told them they should get a degree in business or something practical like computer science,” said Shepherdson, who was department chair when the Labs project originated from the English department. “But they're actually interested in humanities. They're interested in racial justice, they’re interested in ethnicity and gender, they’re interested in social politics, they’re interested in media.”

On the Tivoli trip, for example, students learned about how concepts of history and environmental justice can merge to inform modern-day sustainability and preservation practices.

Kendra Smith-Howard, an associate professor of history who helped organize the trip, has been collecting oral histories from people involved in preserving Tivoli over the years, including the widow of Brother Yusuf Burgess, a Black environmentalist who led efforts to revitalize the preserve, which sits near Albany’s West Hill and Arbor Hill neighborhoods and suffered periods of significant pollution.

“We’re aiming to help students see that their understanding of the humanities is not simply about the abstract or simply about a text,” Smith-Howard said. “We want them to think about how it applies to the broader world in which we live, which is something that I think students find enriching and engaging.”

Just getting out of the classroom has its benefits, as Giudici noted:

“I saw it not really as a learning experience but as recreation,” the sophomore political science major said. “I’m going to be able to be bused to this nice nature preserve and I just get to walk around and enjoy nature. That’s really why I went.”

While some Lab events include lectures, they’re typically from people directly involved in a career built off of the humanities. The first event planned for this spring, for example, was a conversation with Amber Gray, a Tony Award-nominated actress and singer who originated the role of Persephone in the musical Hadestown.

The Labs Project has also proven to be an effective way to get faculty across disciplines to collaborate more, said Richard Barney, who is organizing this semester’s Visual Culture labs. Last semester, participating faculty hailed from six departments, including English, history, anthropology, political science, writing and critical inquiry, and languages, literatures and cultures.

This semester, there are more than 20 faculty members participating from at least 10 departments, with students in their classes encouraged to participate.

“In short, we hope that the labs will take us out of our silos,” Barney said.

The project is part of a larger effort to rebrand and revitalize the humanities at UAlbany.

Debbie Millman, a writer, designer and brand consultant who graduated from UAlbany’s English department in 1983, has been working behind the scenes with her team at the School of Visual Arts in New York City to come up with a rebranding plan for CHATS, which hopes to become as visible as other humanities centers, such as those at Brown University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Faculty are currently seeking funding to support CHATS and make the Humanities Labs Project permanent. With more support, areas of study explored via the labs could become permanent degree tracks for students. A track in visual culture, for example, could lead to a career in filmmaking, while a track in environmental humanities might lead to a career in the sustainability sphere.

“If a student wants to do Environmental Humanities now, they won't necessarily come to English,” said Shepherdson. “They might go to anthropology or history or political science or philosophy. So the Humanities Center idea is really a way to try to support a project that all departments can join together in. And that's what the labs are already doing.”

Upcoming Labs

Environmental Humanities

Feb 22: Fire and Flood: Queer Resilience in the Era of Climate Change. A film about Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico and the fires in Santa Rosa, California, two-near simultaneous climate-related disasters in the fall of 2017, told through the voices of LGBTQ people who lived through them and were part of the community response. 6 p.m., Earth Sciences 241

Feb. 23: Ricardo Castro Agudelo, “Narrative for Peace in Armed Conflict: Simulation, Empathy and Emotional Engagement with Combatants and Victims” (Zoom talk), 3-4:30 p.m., Humanities 129

March 1: The Pearl Button. A Chilean documentary directed by Patricio Guzmán, arguably one of Latin America’s most distinguished documentary filmmakers, explores the importance of waterways and original marine culture of the Patagonian Island chain with the country’s contemporary interaction with water. 6 p.m., Earth Sciences 241

March 6-10: Sustainable Development Goals Action & Awareness Week, sponsored by the University Global Coalition. Virtual events calendar available here.

March 6: Community Tourism: Is it Really Sustainable? Once declared one of the most dangerous neighborhoods on Earth, Comuna 13 in Medellin, Colombia, is now a tourism hot spot with world-class street art, live hip hop, Afro-Caribbean dance shows, and innovative outside escalators. But is visiting Comuna 13 really sustainable? 11 a.m.-noon, organized by Kagumu Adventures. Presented in English; Spanish available. Register here.

March 7: Urban Gardening & Composting: Take Action in Your Community. Another look at Medellin, Colombia, this time to explore the positive social and environmental impacts urban gardening can have upon your community. 11 a.m.-noon. Organizer: Kagumu Adventures, Register here.

DATE TBA: Human Trafficking: Be Part of the Solution. A training and discussion on recognizing and responding to the warning signs of human trafficking. Noon-1 p.m. Organizer: Event and Tourism Institute, Indiana University. Link to join.

DATE TBA: Inner Development Goals. Learn about the IDGs framework, which maps which cognitive and emotional abilities, qualities or skills we need to foster among individuals, groups, and organizations that play crucial roles in working to fulfill the SDGs. 2-3:30 p.m. Organizer: Brazilian Experience. Register here.

March 7: Educating for Tomorrow’s Unknowns: Sustainability Front and Centre. A lecture on the potential of educating for a sustainable future for young people to become global citizens in this complicated world. Organizer: York University, featuring Charles Hopkins, UNESCO Chair of Reorienting Education towards Sustainability. 7-8:30 p.m. Register here.

March 9: INSERLAB: A Conversation with Our Alumni. INSERLAB is a higher education program that prepares young people with intellectual disAbility for supported employment. Presented in: Spanish/Catalan. 11:30 a.m.-12:30 p.m. Organizer: Universitat Rovira i Virgili. Link to join.

March TBA: Tree tapping on campus (field trip). Events will occur in several phases from late February through late March, from scoping trees, tapping trees, sap harvesting and storage, syrup cooking and perhaps ending with a pancake supper. We will strive to record the process so it can be shared in multiple classes.

April 18: Bill McKibben lecture, “America:  What the Hell Happened?” 7:30 p.m., Campus Center West Auditorium

April 22-23: Coast to Coast Connections. Student conference organized by the English Graduate Student Organizations at UAlbany and UC Davis. Hybrid format online/in person. Noon-6:30 p.m., 9 a.m.-3:30 p.m. Contact: Kayla Adgate

Postcolonial Literature and Culture

March 1: Guest Lecture: Joseph Trujillo, a graduate research assistant at the Cooperative Institute for Severe and High-Impact Weather Research and Operations, in partnership with the NOAA National Severe Storms Laboratory and the NWS Storm Prediction Center. Under the guidance of Justin Reedy, Ioana Cionea and Kodi Berry, he examines how Spanish-speaking communities receive, comprehend and respond to life-threatening weather and climate hazards. In collaboration with CEHC, BILPOC and LLC. 3-5 p.m., ETEC

March 8: Viva Cinco de Mayo visit. Restaurant owners will meet with students and discuss their family history and Triqui food culture. 2-4 p.m.

March 22: Film screenings: Devour and Driver. The UAlbany-based film producers Micah Khan and Michelle Polacinski will discuss the films with students. Time/Location TBA

March 31: Panel discussion: Contemporary politics in Pakistan. Featuring. Zoha Waseem, assistant professor at the University of Warwick and author of Insecure Guardians: Enforcement, Encounters and Everyday Policing in Postcolonial Karachi; and Yasser Kureshi, lecturer at Oxford University and author of Seeking Supremacy: The Pursuit of Judicial Power in Pakistan. Time/Location TBA

April 3: Guest Lecture. Megan Black, associate professor of history at MIT, on her research into the U.S. Department of Interior’s role in mineral extraction that resulted in her prize-winning book, The Global Interior: Mineral Frontiers and American Power (2018). 11:30 a.m.-1:15 p.m., Humanities 354

April 6: Artist talk: Demian DinéYazhi’, a renowned Diné artist, writer, activist and an enrolled member of the Navajo Nation who rose to international fame as founder of Radical Indigenous Survivance and Empowerment, an organization of Native American artist-activists. From poetry and printed zines to textile installations and performance art, they explore themes of radical Indigenous resistance and LGBTQ+ embodiment. Noon-1 p.m., Humanities 116

Visual Culture

Date TBA: Zoom lecture: Lizabeth Paravisini-Gebert on “Fluid Ecologies: Hispanic Caribbean Art from the Permanent Collection." Paravisini-Gebert is professor of Hispanic Studies at Vassar College and the author of Creole Religions of the Caribbean: An Introduction from Vodou and Santería to Obeah and Espiritismo, with Margarite Fernández Olmos (2003) and Extinctions: Colonialism, Biodiversity, and the Narratives of the Caribbean (forthcoming 2023). 4:30-5 p.m.

March 2: Lecture by Rae Muhlstock: “Myth, Metaphor, and Movies: The Labyrinth on Film.” This lecture will explore the three most common ways in which the myth of the labyrinth is treated in cinema, and will begin to ask how the myth can function in film thematically and structurally, if not mythologically. 1:30-2:50 p.m., Humanities 133

March 21 & 23: Lectures by Stephen Soucy, discussing his documentary feature film, Merchant Ivory, which examines the career of Academy Award-winning director and screenwriter James Ivory. 1:30-2:50 p.m., Humanities 133

April 4 & 6: Lectures by Richard Barney, associate professor of English, on David Lynch's Mulholland Drive: “The Wonderfully Weird World of David Lynch” and “Posthumanism and the Uncanny Camera in Lynch’s Oeuvre.” 1:30-2:50 p.m., Humanities 133

April 13: Lecture by Robert Efird, associate professor of Russian at Virginia Tech, on the work of Andrei Tarkovsky, Time/Location TBA

April 25: Lecture/workshop: Sarah Sweeney, artist and chair of the art department at Skidmore College, Sweeney makes digital and interactive work that interrogates the relationship between photographic memory objects and physical memories, informed by both the study of memory science and the history of documentary technologies. Her most recent project, My Deepfake Dad, leverages AI software to create a deepfake of her father, who died at 44 when the artist was 17. 4:30-6 p.m., Boor Sculpture Studio APR (All-Purpose Room)