College Wins $1 Million Mellon Grant to Support Humanistic Learning

September 20, 2019

The College has received a $1 million grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to highlight the vitality and importance of the humanities, the humanistic social sciences and the arts in the public sphere. The grant will focus on curricular reform, community engagement, and career development.

Directing the grant activities will be Edward Cohn, associate professor of history, and Susan Leathem Sanning, associate dean and director of service and social innovation.

“Grinnell recently made a significant investment in humanistic fields by constructing the Humanities and Social Studies Center, a cutting-edge facility for teaching and learning,” said Grinnell College President Raynard S. Kington. “We have also expanded our collaborations with our local community. The Mellon grant builds on both of these investments, helping us improve the teaching and learning of humanistic fields inside and outside the classroom.”

The grant-funded project is titled "The Humanities in Action: Curriculum, Communities, Careers." It will support work by Grinnell faculty and staff members on curricular and co-curricular initiatives that showcase the value of the humanistic fields at a critical point in their history.

The grant will support academic disciplines that study aspects of human society and culture. These include ancient and modern languages, literature, history, education, philosophy, art history, anthropology, sociology, political science, gender women’s and sexuality studies, religious studies, and the fine and performing arts.

Rapid, Dynamic Changes Impact Teaching and Learning

These fields are experiencing rapid and dynamic changes in their methodologies and how they are taught. The fields continue to reimagine their approach to scholarly inquiry and to address new – and increasingly diverse – audiences in the college classroom and the public at large.

At the same time, college enrollments in many humanistic disciplines are on the decline, as the cultural conversation in contemporary America often emphasizes the importance of science and downplays the significance of traditional humanistic fields.

Grant funding will allow faculty members to design new “gateway courses” – classes that help students understand a discipline, department, or form of humanistic inquiry early in their Grinnell careers. Some of these courses will highlight the ways that humanistic fields can help address major societal challenges, while others may take different approaches to help students understand the appeal and potential impact of fields with which they may be unfamiliar.

“Grinnell faculty have a lot of exciting ideas about new ways to emphasize the power of humanistic study and to introduce students to new fields, ideas, and methods,” Cohn said. “This grant will enable our students to take amazing new classes that could change the way they think about their education.”

Grant Supports Community-Engaged Learning Opportunities

The grant also will help Grinnell develop new community-engaged courses in humanistic fields. Community-engaged learning helps reshape how students understand humanistic fields, giving them a clear sense of how the methods and ways of thinking from the humanities can be put to use in the broader world.

The grant will empower College students, faculty, staff, and Grinnell community members to work together to address issues in the local community. A portion of the grant will make it possible for Grinnell to create a postgraduate fellow position to support faculty members and their community partners in creating new community-engaged learning opportunities for Grinnell students.

“I’m thrilled about how this grant opens up innovative opportunities for collaboration,” Sanning said. “I believe the funding will allow our community and campus to begin to envision how we may leverage the resources of humanistic fields to address local needs in new and meaningful ways.”

Exploration of Humanistic Education Leading to Career Success

Finally, the grant will allow Grinnell to showcase the contributions humanistic education makes to students’ postgraduate success. Grant funding will enable Grinnell to tell the stories of our alumni who have used their humanistic education to propel them to fulfilling postgraduate careers – often in unexpected ways.

It will also help faculty members and staff from Grinnell’s Center for Careers, Life, and Service collaborate on new programming that connects humanistic fields to a wide array of postgraduate careers, building on successful collaborations such as a “trek” to Boston to help students explore careers in education.  

Anne Harris, vice president for academic affairs and dean of the College, summed up the impact of the Mellon Foundation’s support by saying, “This grant will foster the transformative work of the humanities in action, as course content connects to lived experience, and collaborations between classroom and community engage active problem-solving in contemporary issues.”

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