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USC creates a think tank for the humanities

Faculty members will mentor postdoctoral researchers joining the university’s new Society of Fellows in the Humanities, advancing research and intellectual exchange within academia

A select group of postdoctoral researchers and distinguished faculty will form a think tank for humanities research from across the university.

Starting this fall, USC will strengthen its commitments to the humanities with the new Society of Fellows in the Humanities, an interdisciplinary community of up to 10 postdocs supported by 10 faculty members serving in mentorship roles.

The society’s objectives are to support junior scholars of the highest caliber, to recognize faculty excellence, and to foster interaction and the exchange of ideas across several disciplines. It will be part think thank and part intellectual laboratory, a space where young academics can share their own research with a broader range of colleagues than they would normally encounter within their own discipline and learn how other fields are pursuing scholarship. The society will schedule regular events and lectures and also meet informally, offering the postdoctoral fellows added mentorship from faculty members outside their immediate areas. It will also hold events specifically targeted to graduate students.

The concept of a community that supports advanced research and intellectual exchange is unique within academia. There are seven such societies at the country’s most elite universities, including Harvard, Columbia and Princeton. Most are on the East Coast; USC will be one of the few West Coast universities to establish a society.

New program has a wider scope

Daniela Bleichmar, associate provost of faculty and student initiatives in the arts and humanities and associate professor of art history and history at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, designed the initiative. She said the groundwork for the society was laid by the Provost’s Postdoctoral Scholars Program, founded in 2011 by then-Provost Elizabeth Garrett, which over the past five years has brought 28 postdoctoral scholars to USC. The program received 850 to 900 applications a year for the five to six two-year positions, with applications coming from across the country and internationally.

Bleichmar, who came to USC as a postdoc herself, has watched that program evolve. It was designed to attract the “brightest new stars” in humanities scholarship to the university, she said, providing them with the time and funds to focus on advancing their research and developing teaching portfolios without the additional duties of tenure-track positions.

The new program will be wider in scope, Bleichmar said. The original provost’s program created space for these scholars to be housed within their respective university departments. This next step creates an interdisciplinary community so that different scholars can meet, exchange ideas and learn together beyond a departmental perspective.

The reaction from postdocs and faculty at USC and elsewhere has been tremendous.

Daniela Bleichmar

“The reaction from postdocs and faculty at USC and elsewhere has been tremendous,” Bleichmar said. “There is enormous excitement about the opportunities the society creates for postdocs, faculty and graduate students.”

Thomas Habinek, professor of classics at USC Dornsife, will serve as the society’s first director. Habinek said this new initiative highlights USC’s already established strengths in the humanities.

“At a time when some other institutions are cutting back, USC is investing more heavily in the humanities at every level,” Habinek said. “I think also we’re trying to find ways to alter some of the paradigms that have been operating in humanities research.”

Faculty mentors

Habinek and nine other faculty members have been appointed to serve for two years starting this fall. Habinek said the faculty fellow’s mentorship role is designed to impact the entire university: As faculty members mentor postdocs, the society will also provide opportunities for postdocs to mentor graduate students and even share their research with undergraduates.

In this way, the society will function not only as a clearinghouse for ideas, but a training ground for future professors.

“It’s an invitation for this handful of people to grow into leadership positions in scholarship, teaching and the humanities for the next generation,” Habinek said. “The standards for tenure are very high everywhere, so the further along a junior scholar is on their research projects, the better a chance they stand for tenure wherever they end up.”

The Society of Fellows is particularly welcome given that postdoctoral fellowships are rare in the humanities and humanistic social sciences. In the past 10 or 15 years, Bleichmar said, with the job market getting tougher and tougher, programs like the Society of Fellows have become all the more crucial at an early stage in a scholar’s career.

“In a way, it’s a bridge position that makes the transition from doctoral student to faculty go more smoothly,” Bleichmar said.

Library as lab

The society’s events and meetings will be hosted by USC Libraries, which will play a strong support role for the new group.

“Faculty and students in the arts and humanities often view the library as a lab in which they conduct multidisciplinary work,” said Catherine Quinlan, dean of USC Libraries. “The Society of Fellows is an exciting expression of the library-as-lab idea, and I’m grateful to Professor Bleichmar for leading this enterprising new collaboration.”

Ronald Mendoza-de Jesús, who came to USC as a provost’s postdoctoral researcher, studies ideas of historicity in literature, with a special focus on Spanish-Caribbean modernist literature. He was delighted to learn that the second year of his postdoctoral position would be as a fellow in the new society. Mendoza-de Jeseus is based in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese right now, but imagines that the society will give him access to the striking breadth of subjects being studied across campus.

“A Society of Fellows is prestigious, which is not to be discounted, especially in a difficult job market,” Mendoza-de Jesús said. “But the most exciting part has to do with the possibility of generating more connections among the different humanistic areas at USC. I’m sure the university, through the society, will bring people together who would otherwise not meet each other.”

Rhae Lynn Barnes, one of five incoming postdoctoral fellows who will join the society, received a PhD in history from Harvard. She is excited to spend two years as a postdoctoral fellow of the society before starting a tenure-track assistant professor job in the history department at Princeton. Her research focuses on the history of blackface minstrels, analyzing how racist stereotypes were taught to generations of Americans through music, film and the performing arts.

USC’s strengths in visual studies, communications and popular culture will be an asset as she revises her dissertation into a book manuscript. A native of Southern California, she is looking forward to seeing her scholarship enriched by the intellectual community she will join in Los Angeles.

“The ability to have a West Coast perspective is incredibly important,” Barnes said of the country’s newest Society of Fellows.

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