Humanities Research Institute connects humanists with innovative inquiry

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This piece was previously published in University Guide, the official guide to the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. Read the magazine online.

As scholars continue to demonstrate the power of research in crises such as the COVID-19 pandemic, “the humanities at Illinois—like every quarter of campus—is rising to the challenge,” said Antoinette Burton, director of the Humanities Research Institute.

Antoinette Burton, director of the Humanities Research Institute, is a leader in promoting collaborative
research in the humanities.

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The institute, formerly known as the Illinois Program for Research in the Humanities, hosts conferences, readings and lectures, and provides fellowships that support the research of humanities scholars across a range of individual and collaborative projects.

As the institute adapts its teaching, research and public programming to socially distanced formats, “We’re looking for opportunities to think creatively about how to convene conversations about COVID-19 throughout the academic year and to wrestle with what’s occurred as part of an ongoing national trauma over Black death, such as the murder of George Floyd,” Burton said.

Since its inception in 1997 as a program within the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences, the institute has promoted studies that explore a variety of interdisciplinary subjects, many related to contemporary social justice issues. Over the years, it evolved into a campus hub of humanities research and a community of scholars uniquely equipped to examine the human complexities of the world’s most pressing challenges.

In June, upon approval by the Illinois Board of Higher Education, it was elevated to institute status and renamed the Humanities Research Institute, officially acknowledging its prominence and stature as a research center, said Burton, who has led the organization since 2015. The promotion added significant campus funding to the institute, enhancing its capacity to fund graduate student fellowships.

Under her leadership, the institute has secured $12 million in competitive external grants, including funding from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation that supports the institute’s groundbreaking Humanities Without Walls initiative.

Led by Illinois, Humanities Without Walls is a consortium of scholars at 16 research universities that supports studies that are only possible with cross-institutional collaboration, such as research on the effects of climate variation and the changing racial compositions of communities in the U.S. Midwest.

Award-winning poet Claudia Rankine at a campus reading in 2019. The Humanities Research Institute hosts many celebrated writers; past guests have included U.S. poet laureates Juan Felipe Herrera and Joy Harjo.

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This year, the institute is launching a new intergenerational research group in the legal humanities, an emerging discipline that examines how the law, society, culture, politics and the economy are mutually constituted.

The new initiative is the third undergraduate curricula and research opportunity the institute has fostered with fundingfrom the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation for Emerging Areas in the Humanities, along with those in the bio-humanities and the environmental humanities.

“We have a lot to say about how we got here and a lot of thinking to do about how we can drive the future,” Burton said. “The Humanities Research Institute is open to all those who want that challenge.”

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