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February 15, 2012

Helping students ‘think rigorously and critically’ about the humanities

Thomas DiPiero
“In today’s increasingly globalized world where technology reigns supreme, it’s more important than ever that we understand how and why things matter to people in different ways,” says Thomas DiPiero, Rochester’s first dean for humanities and interdisciplinary studies.

Thomas DiPiero, who has been in the position of dean for humanities and interdisciplinary studies in Arts, Sciences, and Engineering for six months, discusses his role and his plans for the future of the humanities on the River Campus.  

You are Rochester’s first dean for humanities and interdisciplinary studies. Why was it important for Arts, Sciences, and Engineering to create this new position?

Rochester has very strong departments and innovative interdisciplinary programs in the arts and humanities, where we study the human condition across a wide variety of cultures and from a number of different perspectives. In today’s increasingly globalized world where technology reigns supreme, it’s more important than ever that we understand how and why things matter to people in different ways. That is why we need to continue to create new knowledge through research and artistic creation, and pioneer new connections across academic disciplines, including the sciences and technology.

What do you hope to accomplish in your new role?

I have been working with the other deans to strengthen our research and curriculum in programs that focus on the world beyond the United States. We have hired five new faculty in East Asian studies, and we are currently conducting faculty searches in the field of Africa and the African diasporas. We’re also developing new programs to connect the arts and humanities with the sciences and engineering. I’m also very excited about our recently approved major in digital media studies, which draws from courses in 10 departments spanning multiple disciplines across the College. This new major will prepare students to understand and think critically about new media technologies, and they’ll also learn to create either online or stand-alone digital projects.

Moving forward, we continue to strengthen our collaboration with the George Eastman House International Museum of Photography and Film by exploring a wide variety of research in the art and science of images, and we’re also continuing to look for more ways to engage our undergraduate students in those areas. This semester we are excited to welcome internationally renowned scholars Kwame Anthony Appiah and Anthony Grafton to campus and to be hosting an international conference called “Mimesis Now,” which studies how forms of aesthetic imitation and “new” media technologies have transformed our perception of reality over time.

What are “new” media?

“New” media—sometimes also called digital media—are the computer-based, networked technologies used for representing and imagining the world. As an example, digital media let us simulate or recreate environments that are either too dangerous or too remote in space or time to interact with directly. They also allow us to imagine the world and its possibilities in hands-on and creative ways. What’s especially compelling about digital media for Rochester is our ability to bring together the humanities and technology in cross-disciplinary research and teaching collaborations—combining art and engineering, for example.

Digital media is also itself an object of study. Interactive websites, for example, have aesthetic, social, and political aspects, and those offer rich possibilities for humanistic inquiry. Our view is that students and faculty who understand the historical, aesthetic, social, and technological sides of digital media will be those best empowered to lead this exciting new field.

How does this fit in with Rochester’s current curriculum?

The Rochester curriculum is designed to allow students to pursue those academic areas that they are most passionate about. Today’s students consider the various disciplines across the arts, sciences, and engineering not as silos but as forming a continuum, and we are therefore making available courses and degree programs that go beyond traditional boundaries. In fact, when we convened a group of students to learn how they would most benefit from studying new media, they responded that they wanted classes “with half computer students and half art students.” Today’s students are constantly plugged in, and we’re helping them think rigorously and critically about the digital world.

Why is it important for this generation of students to have a humanistic education?

A humanistic education trains students in critical thinking and writing, and it develops their abilities not only to reason, but to appreciate the non-rational aspects of our lives and cultures. We are bombarded every day by images and expressions of beauty, of genius, of imagination, and even—perhaps too often—of aggression and violence. A humanistic education trains students to analyze and appreciate that which extends beyond the bounds of logic. I think that is necessary to understand humanity. More and more employers today are seeking individuals with this kind of training. If students can get better jobs because of their humanistic education, that’s great, but the most valuable gift they’ll receive from that education is that they will gain a broader perspective on the world and their contributions within it.

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