Many freshmen enter UNC Asheville with some of the same questions: What will I major in? How will I talk to professors? Where will I find friends and fit in? What do I want to do after graduation? But by the time they sit down in their first required humanities course, they’ll share a few bigger questions that come to define their experience as undergraduates and as citizens of the world: What is the nature of the good life? How are we like—and how are we unlike—the people who built our cultures? What do we live for?
UNC Asheville graduate Katie Rozycki ’07 measures the answers in cups of coffee, using a mug that sums up at least one Humanities Program director’s approach to the in-depth study required of the subject.
“As a freshman at convocation, we received a coffee mug with a quote from Dr. (Peg) Downes. It said, ‘Liberal arts education: the freedom to ask questions and the courage to seek answers.’”
Rozycki, along with the thousands of students who have completed humanities course requirements over the 50 years of the program, continues to search for these answers by gaining an understanding of the past and celebrating the accomplishments of the program.
The Early Years
When the Humanities Program started at UNC Asheville in 1963, it joined a larger movement in the state and nation to break from the traditional methods that had divided academic disciplines. Philip Walker, now a professor emeritus of history, joined the faculty that same year and served on the committee tasked with the curriculum renovation.
“In 1963, the word that we had was that the Asheville branch of the University of North Carolina would be something new and special,” he recalled. “The new faculty members were instructed to spend our first year working on a new curriculum, and there were several watch-words, widely bandied about, including experimental, interdisciplinary and integrative.”
Faculty created six courses at then Asheville-Biltmore College and buildings were constructed to foster the shared experience. Lipinsky Hall, with its 600-seat auditorium, was dedicated in 1964, and Carmichael Humanities Building and the 300-seat Humanities Lecture Hall opened in 1966. Walker became the first director of the Humanities Program in 1970.
“I always felt a sense of pride in the humanities because it seemed to be very successful, and it accomplished the sorts of things that we were concerned with in the beginning,” said Walker. “It got away from increasingly narrow specialization and avoided the problem that students were graduating without a broad enlightenment of the world they found themselves in.”
Michael Gillum, professor emeritus of literature and language, led the Humanities Program from 1972–75 and 1979–82, describing the structure as similar to the current curriculum of four courses, but with more reading, due in part to a fifth course at the time.
“Humanities director Robert Trullinger (who led the program from 1975–79) successfully moved to widen the reach of the program to include both faculty and materials from the natural and social sciences. This stabilized the base of support for humanities on campus and gave UNC Asheville the model that continues to flourish,” said Peg Downes, fifth and ninth director of the program and author of “The Humanities Program at UNC Asheville,” an article published in Alive at the Core by Michael Nelson & Associates (2000).
A Pedagogical Pause
During her tenure, Downes furthered the collaboration among interdisciplinary faculty, establishing weekly faculty meetings in 1983. These sessions, which are still held today, give faculty the opportunity to discuss the readings and establish a shared syllabus for the courses.
“When I was hired in 1988, I felt confident in the history courses I was asked to teach,” said Bill Spellman, professor of history and director of the program from 2000–02. “But what gave me pause, what scared me really, was teaching in humanities because it asked me to go outside of my comfort zone. It was compounded by the fact that it’s team-taught, so you are teaching in front of your colleagues, but that is part of the genius of humanities. You have people from different disciplines who are all reading the same material, but we each view it through a slightly different lens.”
As faculty from across the university became more involved in the program, they took a hands-on approach to the texts as well, creating custom readers that matched the unique curriculum and mission of the program, which is to help develop world citizens of broad perspective who think critically and creatively.
Merritt Moseley, current chair of the Department of Literature and Language and director of the Humanities Program from 1989–92, created the first reader for the 200-level course, and he served as the general editor for the current 100-level reader.
“Humanities is the core of the core. It’s something that students have in common. When they get to be seniors, no matter what they major in, they’ve read some Chinese poetry, some Shakespeare, and the Bhagavad Gita—there’s something to be said for having a shared culture,” Moseley said.
“It’s a long process that takes a text from the ancient world to something students can carry around in their backpacks,” said Grant Hardy, professor of history and current director of the Humanities Program. “I think they are curious at first. We take them through something that is very strange on their first reading in the Epic of Gilgamesh, and we show them that here they are talking about friendship or gender relations or about society and how to provide for a civil society. Those are questions that are still with us now. It’s amazing that a text that is more than 4,000 years old now is still applicable.”
The curriculum and best practices were nationally recognized in the 1990s when UNC Asheville was one of nine “mentor colleges” selected by the Association of American Colleges and the National Endowment for the Humanities to help other colleges strengthen their core curricula.
Downes, professor emeritus of literature and language, continues to consult internationally, sharing UNC Asheville’s experience and expertise in the humanities with colleges around the world.
A World View
Alumni carry the lessons of humanities courses beyond campus, discovering their applicability in near and far locations.
History major Wes Morrison ’97 tested his knowledge and skills in 2004, serving as a company commander in the first Army National Guard Brigade to enter Iraq and again in 2009 when he was deployed to Iraq as the executive officer of the 1st Combined Arms Battalion, 120th Infantry. While on this second tour, he worked with the Iraqi Ministry of Antiquities to secure a 4,000-year-old Sumerian Era archaeological site near Baghdad.
“The Army taught me how to lead soldiers in combat and natural disasters, but UNC Asheville taught me how to think critically, communicate and apply negotiation skills to address issues of governance,” he said. “I drew from lectures on the history of Iraq, the Epic of Gilgamesh, leadership experience in SGA and more to prepare for being immersed in their culture.”
Jessica Wallace ’08 applied her skill set before graduation. The double major in history and literature, who is now a Ph.D. candidate in American history at The Ohio State University, capped off her humanities courses with a service learning project.
“We applied a lot of the themes and issues of the contemporary world, from hearing lectures about poverty and energy sustainability, multiculturalism and diversity,” she said. “We could see these issues being played out in the third-grade classrooms where we completed our service learning as tutors. It showed us that what we read about and study in school really does matter in the larger world.”
Mass communication major Rozycki, who still holds on to her now-famous quote mug from faculty mentor Downes, also values the humanities in her career as an annual giving manager at Charlotte Latin School.
“A key to my appreciation of it is my ability to relate to almost anyone,” she said. “By studying so many facets of our history, culture and the arts, I’ve been able to learn how to relate to people better, to figure out what makes them think, and to develop a genuine interest in people.”
The Contemporary World
That interest in the individual becomes the central focus in the capstone humanities course.
“It’s natural for people to be attracted to contemporary material, because it’s easier to see the relevance to their own lives,” said Grace Campbell, lecturer in humanities. “But what’s great about our program is that it emphasizes the continuities over the course of history, and it casts the contemporary material in a new light.”
In that way, the humanities transcends its 50 years at UNC Asheville and centuries of human experience. It is the understanding of the past that illuminates the present, and in the case of this next decade, the future of humanity and humanities.
“We have a kind of versatility and adaptability in our program to stay on the cutting edge of pedagogical development. We work together as teams, and that cooperation makes it possible to harness new knowledge and new technology. We are going to lead in the digital humanities if we get the resources to do it,” said Campbell, who developed a pilot course this past summer.
Digital humanities, as the next frontier, involves the use of digital technology to investigate questions in the humanities and to communicate scholarship and ideas in digital form.
“Whatever their professional passion—be it a chemist, a weather forecaster, or an English teacher in high school—
graduates will have some sense of perspective,” said Spellman “We are always asking questions about meaning in our lives, and humanities began that conversation for them, even if it didn’t always provide the final answers.”