Cross-pollinating the future
New dean believes interdisciplinary humanities are key to addressing complex contemporary problems
Tyrus Miller, the new dean of UCI’s School of Humanities, believes in the power of creative “cross-pollination” – the exchange of concepts, methods and points of view among disciplines and cultures.
“Interdisciplinary conversations are important in that they’re one of the ways we create knowledge, gain perspective on the limits and blind spots of our fields, and encounter what is valuable beyond the boundaries of individual disciplines,” he says.
“For example, climate change as a concept relies on scientific data – but data that has to be interpreted and translated into effective human action. With an overwhelming scientific consensus about human-made climate change, the primary obstacles to a solution are now cultural, psychological and political. We need to appreciate that technological knowledge will only get us so far. These complex problems need humanists at every point.”
With this in mind, one of his first calls to action is to forge working partnerships with other schools on campus.
Miller joins UCI after almost 20 years at UC Santa Cruz, where he served most recently as vice provost and dean of graduate studies and oversaw 36 doctoral and more than 50 master’s programs across the campus. He previously taught at Yale University, after earning a Ph.D. in English at Stanford University and an M.A. in creative writing and a concurrent B.A./M.A. in humanities at Johns Hopkins University.
Language acquisition and cultural understanding are at the heart of the humanities, Miller believes. He speaks and reads French, German, Hungarian and Italian, as well as English; has lived in Austria, Germany and Hungary; and has led interdisciplinary research projects in collaboration with universities abroad. His wife, Deanna Shemek, is a professor in UCI’s Department of European Languages & Studies.
Miller – whose father was a career military officer, health physicist and environmental engineer – grew up on various Army bases in the U.S. and on the island of Okinawa. “My time on Okinawa was formative,” he says. “I experienced the end of the Vietnam War from a perspective that was at once close-up and off-center from what I might have seen at home. I grew increasingly aware of the complex situation of native Okinawans between the American military and the mainland Japanese who would soon be assuming political control.”
He began his undergraduate career at Johns Hopkins as a budding scientist but changed course when a literature professor captured his interest in the interdisciplinary humanities. He focused his studies on 20th-century art, literature and culture across Europe and the United States, which required an integrative and multilingual approach.
“Artists, writers and intellectuals were called upon to make sense of, and comment on, the many developments of their time – from relativity and quantum theories in physics to new ideas about the human mind and emerging mass media, such as radio, cinema and television,” Miller says. “My work centers on the tumultuous intellectual and cultural changes that characterize the late 19th century through the mid-20th century – specifically, their reflection and expression within the arts.” He has written four books on this period, most recently Modernism & the Frankfurt School (Edinburgh University Press, 2014).
While at UC Santa Cruz, Miller led a two-and-a-half-year experiment in collaborative, interdisciplinary and internationally networked doctoral training with students and faculty from four institutions on three continents: UC Santa Cruz, the Australian National University, the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and Justus Liebig University in Giessen, Germany.
Inspired by a National Science Foundation effort and funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the Consortium of Humanities Centers & Institutes, the doctoral training program provided a forum for students to think across disciplines about the growing scope of indigenous perspectives in the contemporary world.
Recognizing the value of interdisciplinary study as well as the need for humanists to immerse themselves in the locations and languages they study, Miller makes travel and language acquisition integral parts of his research. For three years, while at UC Santa Cruz, he directed the UC Study Center in Budapest, Hungary, which focused on Central European history, economics, law, ethnography, art history, film and media.
The richly experiential program offered students historical tours of Budapest and other regional cities, stays at homes in Transylvanian villages with ethnography faculty, and a variety of internship opportunities with groups such as the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights and Roma cultural organizations.
Miller says the time there was life-changing. He learned to speak and read the Hungarian language, made many personal friends and collaborators, and returns every year to continue different research pursuits.
Outlook for humanities
Although it’s common today to hear from scholars and politicians alike that the humanities are in crisis, Miller believes strongly that this narrative obscures the more important questions we should be asking and the complex but worthy solutions we should be seeking not just as humanists, but also as scholars who care about human progress and the future of academic study.
“This is, without question, the most exciting time ever to be a scholar or a student in the humanities, and yet the public discourse in the humanities is often one of crisis or learned irrelevance,” he says. “It’s really up to us to work very concertedly to challenge that negative discourse and bridge the gap between what we know internally to be incredibly valuable and exciting work and the perceptions of our larger constituency both within the university and beyond.”