The Robert E. Lee monument in June 2020, covered in graffiti
The Robert E. Lee monument in June 2020. VCU's Humanities Research Center brings together faculty and graduate students from different departments across VCU with common research interests. Among them: a new research group called Memory and Monuments, which seeks to investigate issues of race, power and memory, mainly focused around local Confederate monuments and African American landmarks. (Max Schlickenmeyer, University Marketing)

Supporting humanities research and collaboration among scholars

VCU’s Humanities Research Center brings together faculty and graduate students with common research interests.

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Not all research takes place in the lab. Just ask the faculty at Virginia Commonwealth University’s Humanities Research Center. 

“Research is the absolute lifeblood of humanities scholarship,” said Catherine Ingrassia, Ph.D., chair of the Department of English. “Faculty are creating new knowledge about authors, texts and approaches to interpretation. Colleagues who do research in literary history or history or anything connected with primary documents from a previous time are (often literally) bringing to light long-forgotten, ignored or marginalized voices, texts and events.” 

Many faculty members have found their home at the Humanities Research Center, an intellectual and collaborative hub housed in the College of Humanities and Sciences. The center was established in 2014 to support research in the humanities, increase the visibility of the humanities at VCU, share that work with diverse communities, support faculty research and facilitate intellectual exchange across traditional disciplinary boundaries. The center offers residential fellowships, travel and conference grants, research and working groups, workshops, VCU author talks and a visiting speaker series. 

“The work we do at the Humanities Research Center centers on what it means to be human, how we can enrich the human experience, and how we build a more just society. This is especially relevant today as we emerge from this global pandemic,” said Cristina Stanciu, Ph.D., director of the center and an associate professor in the Department of English.

Time and space to do the work

That need to tell stories from a variety of disciplines has led many faculty to apply for residential fellowships. Every year, the center grants several residential fellows pursuing research projects (completing article or book-length publications) a monetary stipend or release from teaching responsibilities for a semester. 

The most recent cohort of residential fellows organized around the theme “Indigenizing Reform: Cultural and Political Transformations in the Global South,” and sought to offer more nuanced ways that reformists in the Global South interpreted the world around them and sought to shape it. The group explored such topics as contemporary female Iranian activists, 19th-century Ottoman moralists, schoolteachers in late 19th- and early 20th-century Peru, and political and economic reform in contemporary India.

This year six fellows will be selected — four from the humanities and two from the natural and social sciences, the arts, and other disciplines, who are engaged in humanistic projects — in an effort to foster collaboration throughout the university. Research projects must speak to this year’s theme, “Race, Ethnicity and Social Justice.” 

A shared passion: research and working groups

The Humanities Research Center also supports researchers by offering nine research and working groups that bring together faculty and graduate students from different departments across VCU with common research interests. Group members meet on a regular basis to engage with existing scholarship or to share their own work in progress. Current research topics run the gamut: critical environment thought; LGBTQ studies; premodern society and culture; creation, technology and language in the arts and humanities; and more. 

Katie Logan, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Department of Focused Inquiry, and Gabriel Reich, Ph.D., an associate professor in the School of Education, lead a new research group called Memory and Monuments, which seeks to investigate issues of race, power and memory, mainly focused around local Confederate monuments and African American landmarks. For Logan, the collaborative nature of the group is what makes the work so valuable.

“A field like memory studies is inherently interdisciplinary. The Memory and Monuments research group brings together scholars with backgrounds in literature, education, history, anthropology, Judaic studies, and women's and gender studies, just to name a few. We approach questions about how the past is narrated, archived and commemorated most ethically when we are in conversation with others considering these issues from a range of perspectives,” Logan said. “Discussing the United Daughters of the Confederacy's efforts to perpetuate Lost Cause narratives at the same time that we're thinking about interpretations of artifacts uncovered at archaeological digs, for example, we can see ways that discourses of power, identity and community formation echo throughout our specific contexts.” 

The opportunities afforded by the center make a difference in the work produced by VCU’s humanities faculty. In the past five years, Humanities Research Center researchers have produced 118 major publications, 135 conference presentations and have been awarded grants by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Fulbright Program, the Library of Congress and the National Archives.

Engaging with the wider community

Stanciu sees opportunity to grow the center. “I envision the Humanities Research Center as a universitywide initiative. We are committed to collaboration, wherever there is a humanistic need, and that means working with unexpected fields, like medicine, the sciences, the social sciences.” 

This past year, the center partnered with VCU’s Office of Health Equity for the History and Health Racial Equity Series, producing learning modules for team members on the MCV Campus and co-sponsoring programs. Topics included medical and scientific racism; the relationship between health and housing, medical research and the first heart transplant in the South. 

This year’s full slate of programming includes the annual Virginia Humanities Conference at the end of March 2022. This is the first time in a decade that the conference will be held at VCU and it will welcome a large number of humanities scholars and students from across the region. In addition to faculty presentations and panels, the conference will offer space for undergraduate research, professional development and interactive workshops.