Sparking a Dialogue

Lehigh’s Humanities Center helps drive humanities research and teaching under the direction of Suzanne Edwards

By Wendy Greenberg

As Humanities Center director, Suzanne Edwards, associate professor of English, tries to ignite those sparks as she builds a community engaged in understanding the human experience. Along the way, the center has become an incubator for cross-disciplinary collaborations that lead to courses, projects and  research—in fact, anything is possible. 

Edwards asks a lot of questions and encourages others to do the same. “How can the Humanities Center facilitate projects driven by the interests of those who work in the humanities?” She answers her own question:“Facilitating new conversations and communicating a clear vision of the enduring importance of the humanities for everyone.”

Today, advocating for the humanities is crucial. This fall, the Humanities Center steering committee, which includes members of Lehigh’s arts and humanities departments (art, architecture and design, English, history, modern languages and literatures, music, philosophy, religion studies and theatre), wrote a report detailing the value of these programs to Lehigh’s educational mission and identifying areas for growth. The arts and humanities faculty saw the need for the document, given national patterns of declining course enrollments in these fields and public uncertainty about the value of a liberal arts education. 

The arts and humanities, says Edwards, “prepare students for a future we never thought of,” borrowing a line from Provost Patrick Farrell and reflecting President John Simon’s vision for Lehigh. By training students to see problems from other people’s perspectives, humanities courses lay the groundwork for effective collaboration and communication. The value of the humanities to employers is clear. The American Association of Colleges and Universities and American Association of University Professors reported last spring that employers “strenuously argue that liberal arts majors make great tech-sector workers precisely because they are trained to think critically and creatively and to adapt to unforeseen circumstances.”

Edwards, who has directed the center for three years, explores such interdisciplinary connections in her courses and publications on medieval literature. Her scholarship shows how the study of the distant past can help us think in new ways about ethics and justice in the present. That makes her a strong advocate for a center that considers different understandings of the human experience.

“You can see how my research interests made this job interesting to me,” she says of directing the center. “Learning from the past informs my approach to the humanities. The past is an important tool for understanding the present, for learning how our present might look from the outside. The past trains us to see the present that we take for granted with a more critical eye.”