A Home for the Humanities

May 1, 2018

Not long after the members of this year’s graduating class receive their diplomas, a commencement of a different kind will take place at the heart of campus. Early this summer, the six FAS programs and departments currently housed in the Hall of Graduate Studies will move into temporary “swing” spaces around the campus, enabling the transformation of their iconic building at 320 York Street. Two years later, they—together with the Whitney Humanities Center, and ten other humanities departments and programs previously scattered around the campus—will move into a beautifully renovated new home.

It was early 2016 when the university announced plans to renovate and reimagine HGS as a central hub of the humanities at Yale. Soon afterwards, a committee of faculty and students, chaired by FAS Dean of the Humanities Amy Hungerford, began work on the design and programmatic scope of the renovated building. After more than two years planning, the project is ready to commence, with an inspiring set of floor plans that bring the future of the space into crisp focus. Meanwhile, the inaugural set of two-year projects funded by the 320 York endowment – including innovative initiatives exploring environmental humanities, the archives of black music and sound, and the 3000 year old traditions of Mexican feasting – are wrapping up their first year, and the 2018-20 project cohort will soon be selected.

This renovation and renewal project represents a public recommitment by the University to the lasting importance of the humanities, reflecting a belief that the enduring questions addressed by these fields have become, if anything, even more urgent. Our students share this assessment. The proportion of our undergraduates majoring in humanities – nearly 30% – remains significantly higher than at any of our peer institutions. Among our social science majors, some 90% take six or more humanities courses during their time at Yale (over and above their L1-L4 language courses), and 97% take at least five; among our science and engineering majors, the numbers are 80% and 90% respectively. Even as we build strength in social science, science and engineering, Yale remains unwavering in its commitment to the humanities.

The 320 York Street project embodies this conviction. From the beautiful new underground lecture hall and screening room to the welcoming public spaces on the first floor to the dedicated graduate student study spaces overlooking campus from the Swensen Tower, the renovation will nourish the myriad ways that humanistic inquiry is carried out on our campus. Floor layouts will honor departmental boundaries while reflecting the unusual lines of connection that we have at Yale—placing, for example, Near Eastern Languages & Civilizations, Religious Studies, and Judaic Studies next to each other, and alongside Yale’s program for the study of ancient and premodern cultures and societies. Other floors will collect our departments of French and German with our department of Comparative Literature; our department of East Asian Languages and Literature with the program in Film and Media Studies and the Humanities Program; our department of History with the program in History of Science and Medicine. The Whitney Humanities Center and Franke Program in Science and the Humanities anchor the building, serving as engines of cross-disciplinary thinking. Our first-year Directed Studies (DS) students will meet regularly in a suite of classrooms and a “DS den” on the concourse level; an undergraduate common room, near the building’s entrance on the first floor, will be a gathering place for undergraduate students connecting to the humanities in their first years at Yale. Further upstairs one will find the departments and programs of Italian, Slavic, Spanish and Portuguese, and American Studies. And on the ground floor, a large and welcoming coffee shop will provide a place to gather and converse and imagine and connect.

Even as we disperse for the summer, it is exciting to imagine reconvening in two short years at the newly-renovated 320 York Street – where faculty colleagues who rarely crossed paths before will discover new connections; where graduate students from nearly a dozen departments will have inviting spaces in which to work and collaborate; where undergraduates will gather with teachers and classmates; and where members of the wider community – from within and beyond Yale – will congregate for public lectures and events, cross-disciplinary collaborations and, of course, coffee. This month marks a wonderful commencement indeed.