March 17, 1997
Professors receive NEH funding to create a new approach to the "classics"
By Barbara McKenna
Classical, Medieval, and Renaissance studies are traditionally taught as separate subjects--students in a classics course are likely to read Trojan Women, but usually won't learn about Italian Renaissance painting or Medieval political systems without taking an art history or history course.
A group of scholars at UCSC want to change that tradition and examine these seemingly distinct subjects in concert through an interdisciplinary approach. Their project, Pre- and Early-Modern Studies (PEMS), is being supported through funding from both the National Endowment for the Humanities and UCSC.
"PEMS provides a broader perspective on cultures of the past, finding interrelations not only between eras but between disciplines," explained associate professor of art history Catherine Soussloff.
Soussloff and her two colleagues (photo) are working to establish an interdisciplinary PEMS major at UCSC that entails collaboration among the Departments of Art History, History, Literature, Politics, Theater Arts, and Women's Studies. Their efforts are being supported by a $25,000 grant from the NEH.
Leading the NEH-funded project are Soussloff and associate professor of classics Karen Bassi. Bassi is also codirector with assistant professor of literature Margo Hendricks of a campus-funded Focused Research Activity in PEMS.
The NEH grant supports a one-year faculty development project in which UCSC faculty and visiting scholars will meet to discuss structuring and teaching the major. Now at the midyear point, faculty have presented and attended seminars on topics in the areas of "Disciplines and Discourses" and "Cultures in Contact." Seminars--a total of nine--continue through the school year and will also address the topics of identity, gender, and sexuality. The Focused Research Activity has sponsored several seminars and lectures on PEMS-related topics.
Interdisciplinary majors--in which students are required to take classes from more than one department--are a recent phenomenon, and the PEMS major will be one of a handful at UCSC. Eighteen UCSC faculty from six different departments are currently involved. Plans are to have the major established by the 1998-99 academic year.
"This interdisciplinary approach opens so many doors," Hendricks noted. "There are areas of study that still are just beginning to flourish in academia, such as gender studies and cultural studies. Generally, such approaches are more fully engaged with contemporary (i.e., 20th-century) concerns. Through the PEMS major we want to train these new perspectives onto other historical moments and see, for example, how women were represented in the various media shaping pre- and early-modern cultures (the text, art, and public records of 17th-century Florence for instance). What you will discover is that the traditional portrait of history begins to shift as you apply these new perspectives."
Bassi noted that the project is unusual not only because of its interdisciplinary focus, but also because it supports collaboration and instructional development.
"Normally, faculty don't have enough time to talk about the relationship between their research and their teaching. The NEH seminars make it possible for us to engage in sustained and lively discussions of that relationship as we plan the major in PEMS."
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