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Humanities’ Heavy Hitters

What do pilgrims, African American funeral directors, and Argentine musicians have in common? Not much at first glance, but each is the subject of a research project by a George Mason University professor who has received support from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Last fall, the Chronicle of Higher Education recognized Mason as the eighth highest recipient of NEH funding in the past decade, with 37 projects receiving funding amounting to more than $5.8 million. All of the projects fall within the university’s College of Humanities and Social Sciences [1] (CHSS).

“The 10-year total for NEH funding to CHSS faculty is a great example of how Mason has been ‘punching above its weight’ for many years in advance of our recent reclassification as a Tier 1 [R1] research university,” says Ann Ardis, dean of the college.

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A significant portion of Mason’s NEH funding, nearly $5.1 million, was awarded to the Department of History and Art History [3]. By itself, the department received more funding than the entire humanities portfolios at top research universities such as Yale, Princeton, and Columbia, among others, and—if ranked based on its funding alone—would come in at No. 13.

The National Endowment for the Humanities is an independent federal agency. Created in 1965, it supports research and learning in history, literature, philosophy, and other areas of the humanities by funding peer-reviewed proposals from around the nation.

NEH grants to the Department of History and Art History’s faculty have funded such research as Sun-Young Park’s study of the history of the architectural accommodation of disability in modern France, and Suzanne Smith’s cultural history project that explores the central role of funeral directors in African American life and during the civil rights movement. (For a more complete list of individual faculty awards, see sidebar [4].)

In the past 10 years, the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media [5] (RRCHNM), housed in the Department of History and Art History, brought in 61 percent of the university’s NEH funding. One of the most recent awards supports digital revitalization and content upgrades for World History Matters, an online education resource for teaching world history. The project is led by Kelly Schrum, an associate professor in the college’s Higher Education Program.

“A major portion of the scholarship done at Mason is this kind of research,” says Brian Platt, chair of the Department of History and Art History.

Yet there is a perception problem. When people think of research at a world-class university of Mason’s size, they often picture scientists in labs with microscopes or researchers working with drones and other technologies. They aren’t imagining a historian or literary scholar in a library or archive poring over documents. “But the university is a space where that work gets done, and that research is a valuable form of knowledge production,” says Platt.

“Humanities research is not usually fundable in the way that STEM [science, technology, engineering, and mathematics] research is,” says Platt, and that fact makes the NEH support more important. “In those fields, there are sponsors who are willing to support the research because they see some sort of concrete application or commercial value to it. Humanities research can only really take place in a university, because universities value knowledge that contributes to our understanding of humanity even when it lacks direct applications or brings no direct commercial benefit.”

The RRCHNM, which is getting ready to celebrate its 25th year, is entirely grant-funded and has received an NEH grant almost every year since 2000, with funding totaling more than $6.2 million. In its 25 years of award-winning work, RRCHNM has developed more than 60 projects, including online resources for teachers, online collections, open-source software, and forums to develop knowledge and build community among those in the humanities working with digital technology.

RRCHNM director Stephen Robertson believes the university’s success in winning these grants has everything to do with the quality of the scholars and staff employed at Mason. “What’s part of the ‘secret sauce’ here is that we can have a foot in both camps,” says Robertson. “If we were just web developers, we couldn’t get the history right to get that grant. If we were just historians, we couldn’t get the delivery right. It’s having both of those kinds of people here that lets us do innovative work for a whole range of audiences.”

The university’s prowess in the humanities, particularly the digital humanities, has additional benefits. This work is part of the reason Mason’s doctoral program in history is ranked No. 44 in the country by U.S. News & World Report. It’s the youngest program listed in the top 100.

“There are lots of strong PhD programs with excellent scholars—and we have that, too—but the truly distinctive thing about Mason’s History program is the Rosenzweig Center and our digital history scholarship,” says Platt. “Our reputation has been made through our research in this field and the unique training our PhD students get in it. This has helped our graduates get jobs, and I think it has also contributed to Mason’s overall reputation as an innovative institution.”

Colleen Kearney Rich, Anne Reynolds, and Jason Jacks contributed to this feature.