New Works in the Field

New HULA Research on Humanities Grant Applications

Editors’ Note: Below, Christopher Pupik Dean, Maggie Schein, Sheena Kang, and Danielle Allen describe their research on grant applications funded by Illinois Humanities, with emphasis on its relevance for philanthropy scholars and philanthropists alike. 

The Humanities and Liberal Arts Assessment (HULA) project (a research and consulting group led by Danielle Allen and based out of Harvard’s Project Zero) has developed new research methodologies for deepening our understanding of just how humanistic pedagogy works, what humanists expect it to accomplish, and what methods for assessing it might be.

For academics who are interested in studying philanthropy, our research might illuminate fruitful lines of inquiry into, for example, what types of humanistic craft practice are more likely to be funded and why. For philanthropists, our analysis suggests ways to both more effectively assess potential projects and to evaluate funded projects: by considering known mechanisms that humanists employ to achieve goals, philanthropists can more effectively consider if and how projects might achieve their stated purpose.

The ultimate goal of the HULA project is to develop assessment tools on the basis of materials from the crafts themselves, rather than by importing assessment frameworks from other contexts. The first stage of this work has focused on understanding the goals, methods, and mechanisms of humanist craft practice. In this post we will share some of what we have learned in the early stages of this work concerning the mechanisms of humanist craft practice, or how the things that humanists do allow them to achieve their goals. In particular, we will discuss what we learned about mechanisms by examining a sample of grant applications funded by Illinois Humanities (See full report here).

The core idea behind HULA is that the humanities are best understood as an assemblage of crafts with implicit internal logics composed of distinctive goals, methods, and mechanisms that humanists employ to achieve their goals. Since this logic is most often implicit, the first step in our project is to make the logic of those craft practices explicit. As a part of this effort we analyzed 92 IHC grant proposals that were submitted and funded between 1981 and 2012, 28% from the 1980s, 43% from the 1990s and 29% from after 2000. In this analysis we focused on identifying areas of the grant applications that provided explicit or implicit information about the goals, methods, and mechanisms employed by humanists in the project. This allowed us to consider each element of craft logic across grants.

As we focused on understanding the evidence about how humanists might achieve their stated goals, we identified two large categories of mechanisms. The first category focused on the inputs required to develop and support a project. Grantees particularly emphasized the importance of experience (a person or institution’s record of engagement in similar projects or relevant practices) and expertise (a person or institution’s mastery of a subject or discipline) in the creation of a successful project. While the grantees did not frequently go into detail about how expertise and experience would explicitly function to achieve goals, experience and expertise were implicated as causal factors in the production of a successful project. The input category also included an emphasis on generating motivation for an audience to engage in the event or project. Humanists in this sample clearly saw that achieving their goals required recruiting and motivating the right audience to attend.

The second category focused on outcome mechanisms. This group of mechanisms explained how the methods employed in a project itself would lead to the achievement of the project’s goal. For example, a number of grantees claimed that their project would achieve its learning goals by providing greater context to the current understandings of participants. One of these grantees claimed to contextualize current understanding by creating a history presentation about a well-loved local market. Other grantees claimed to achieve their goals by providing novel perspectives on a subject, offering insights into complex subjects, providing opportunities for groups of people to interact, using the arts to portray an analytic subject/analyzing an artistic subject, or providing opportunities to participate in a creative/analytic act.

To further illustrate these output mechanisms, below are some quotes from a grant application that sought to support a project titled “History for the present” where high school students and elders in a community jointly conducted life history projects concerning local residents. As an example of the “perspective” category of output mechanism, the grantee claimed that providing a forum for youth and senior citizens to share their perspectives on their own community would help to shift discourse around “inner city” communities by challenging preconceived notions of inner city communities:

The disciplines in the humanities all aim to record and interpret human experience in all its variety and complexity. Often, unfortunately, these interpretations remain distant from the people and experiences in question, with a researcher looking down from above onto his/her subjects. This project uses the methods of the humanities, especially of history, anthropology and qualitative sociology to empower community residents to challenge the dominant, and sometimes shallow interpretations that the media and even occasionally professional scholars put forward about inner city communities. This project brings humanities in action to inner city youth and seniors who are most often the subjects of research.

The grantee also sought to build a positive sense of self among program participants. The grantee sought to achieve this goal in part through supporting the construction of relationships between youth and senior citizen participants:

Youth will begin to see their lives and their struggles as part of something larger than themselves, and the seniors will have a forum that allows them to see their struggle live on. By building relationships between youth and their elders, this project will be rebuilding community life.

This list of mechanisms developed out of our analysis of the Illinois Humanities archives is in no way exhaustive of the possible mechanisms by which humanists achieve their goals. However, we think this initial list can be of use both to academics and to philanthropists. For example, knowing that humanists see sharing perspective as a tool for achieving learning goals leads to questions about who’s perspectives are shared in projects that are funded by philanthropists and how perspectives are represented in those projects. For philanthropists, this list can focus the evaluation of humanities projects. While a list of craft elements should never become a simple checklist, it identifies a set of practices that would be worth exploring in greater depth to better understand a project’s potential for success.

-Christopher Pupik Dean, Maggie Schein, Sheena Kang, and Danielle Allen.

Christopher Pupik Dean is a co-PI on the HULA project at Harvard Graduate School of Education (GSE) and the Director of the Penn Residency Master’s in Teaching Program at the University of Pennsylvania GSE.  Maggie Schein is the Research Director of the HULA Project at Harvard GSE. Sheena Kang is a Researcher on the HULA project at Harvard GSE. Danielle Allen is the Principal Investigator of the HULA project and is the Director of the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University and professor in Harvard’s Department of Government and GSE. Professor Allen has served as a member and Chair of the Pulitzer Prize board, as well as Vice Chair and Chair of the Mellon Foundation board.

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