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The humanities are not old and dusty. They teach us what it means to be human.”

Wendy Wall

Wendy Wall

At a time of heightened attention on science, technology and math, the humanities have a champion in Wendy Wall. English professor and director of Northwestern’s Alice Kaplan Institute for the Humanities, Wall helps illuminate the many ways these disciplines—from anthropology to history to literature—are absolutely central to life in the 21st century.

 The Kaplan Institute epitomizes Northwestern’s breadth of teaching and research. It serves as a clearinghouse for scholarship that fosters intensive engagement with the arts, connects the classroom to the world and sparks conversation across disparate fields of study.

Through the humanities we explore no less than the history of human thought and culture, Wall says. And what it means to be human changes over time, crossing boundaries of knowledge and understanding.

Want proof that the humanities are alive and well in the modern world? Wall looks to Shakespeare as an example.

“Although his plays date back to the late sixteenth century, I see them as portable laboratories where different cultures examine not just important psychological problems but also very timely issues like economics, race and gender,” Wall says.

Her first major initiative at the helm of the Kaplan Institute was the “Humanities Plunge,” launched earlier this year as an alternative spring break for students to sample a bucket list of Chicago arts endeavors, including movies, theater, architectural tours and culinary adventures. Much more than just a week of field trips, the “Plunge” equips students with a serious intellectual way of thinking about what they see in a particular painting or dance. And because there are no set answers, participants broaden their own horizons by learning from the perspectives of their peers.

In her own work, Wall demonstrates the vast reach of the Bard through time and geography in a new class where students will build an interactive map to chart Shakespeare’s influence throughout the world, beginning 400 years ago in London. When did one of his plays first appear on stage in the Middle East? Which one? What about Brazil? As the digital map lights up through the years, we will learn how different cultures found Shakespeare useful for grappling with the most compelling issues of their particular place and time. 

“The humanities are not old and dusty,” she says. “They teach us what it means to be human.”

Visit the Alice Kaplan Institute for the Humanities website.

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