As I write these words, we’re coming up on a year since Covid-19 shut down much of our city, our country, and our world. One of the common refrains during these long months of the pandemic has been the wish to return to “normal.” And yet as we approach that terrible anniversary, we recognize that the world will not be the same on the other side of the pandemic—the experience has been too profound.
At my most hopeful, I believe the rupture between the before and the after of Coronavirus offers us an opportunity to think differently. One way to pay tribute to all that we have lost is to derive some positive lessons from the social and political challenges of the past year. For a community of scholars and teachers in the liberal arts, that means looking hard at how we structure our thought itself.
This is the spirit behind a new series called “Anti-Racism and the Disciplines” that we were proud to launch in late January. We’ve been organizing the series since last summer, when the widespread protests for racial justice in the wake of the killing of George Floyd made clear the urgency with which we must address structural racism and systemic prejudice throughout all parts of our society.
It turns out that many of the liberal arts disciplines have complicated relationships to structural racism, colonialism, or imperialism, aspects of which are arguably structured into the disciplines themselves. To take a famous example, many of the foundational “rules” that underlay sociocultural anthropology were developed by European and American ethnographers based at wealthy universities who traveled to colonized lands to do “fieldwork.” Contemporary anthropology has gone through a reckoning with this history—the so-called reflexive turn led a generation of responses as the discipline struggled to recuperate itself from aspects of its origins to deliver the special kinds of insights that anthropology can provide.
We inaugurated our new lecture series with a presentation on “Anti-Racism and Economics,” featuring Gary Hoover, the newly arrived director of Tulane’s Murphy Institute and professor of economics in the School of Liberal Arts. Dr. Hoover is a national expert on the intersection of race, economics, and public policy, and he has shown how the lack of diversity in the field itself leads to limited assumptions it makes in its analyses. You can view his presentation and our discussion, as well as a new interview with Hoover, presented in this iteration of the School of Liberal Arts Newsletter.
I look forward to welcoming several more eminent scholars to speak on the social sciences for the series this semester. Scholars from Northwestern, Duke, and the University of Pennsylvania will speak on the disciplines of sociology, anthropology, and communication studies. Each of these visiting scholars delivers a virtual presentation open to the public, and then hosts a workshop for faculty and students during which they explore what anti-racist scholarship and research of the future might look like.
We’ll dedicate the Dean’s Speaker Series to this theme for the entirety of 2021 and likely into 2022. I believe that the liberal arts disciplines offer powerful mechanisms by which to understand, analyze, and make meaning of the world we live in, and can themselves be engines for positive change. But there remains much work to be done.
Dean and Professor of English