Meet the Summer Humanities Institute

Spend a few weeks on Wash U’s campus in the summer months, and you will realize there are a few staples of the WashU summer: the typical sticky St. Louis humidity, shorter lines in the DUC, and – perhaps more unexpected – a sea of red lanyards and drawstring backpacks. More important than the bright accessories are the people carrying them: high school students.

Each summer, WashU hosts an array of summer programs and events outside of the typical “summer school” fare. This includes the Summer Institutes, programs meant to “combine traditional undergraduate class and lab curriculum with organized field trips, guest lectures, and small group activities in order for students to gain valuable academic and career experience.” In past years, high school students from around the country and abroad have ventured to WashU’s campus to brush up their creative writing, prepare for the Pre-Med track, or polish their leadership skills. 

Summer Humanities Institute students visit St. Louis Public Radio
Summer Humanities Institute students visit St. Louis Public Radio

This summer, a dozen professors and faculty members came together to offer the first-ever Summer Humanities Institute for high school students. Joe Loewenstein, a professor of English as well as director of the Humanities Digital Workshop and Interdisciplinary Program in the Humanities, first pitched the idea to the Summer School office. While WashU has hosted programming for high school students for a number of years with remarkable success, there hasn’t been a dedicated focus on the humanities before.

Chair and professor of Germanic Languages and Literatures, Matt Erlin, became the orchestrator of this promising new institute, working with the director of pre-college programs, Becki Baker, to bring it to life. Their aim was to expose high school students to the range of work being done by humanities scholars at the university. According to Erlin, this is “just one of many efforts that colleagues across campus are making right now to bring more attention to the contributions of the humanities at WashU.”

As students are the heart of any academic environment, showing them the stature of humanities at WashU is key to making that high standard of study known. However, more important than demonstrating the university’s chops across disciplines is the attempt to show how impactful the humanities are as a field. Erlin says, “One of our main goals is to show students who are interested in these fields how the study of the humanities can illuminate important contemporary debates.”

The current theme of the Summer Humanities Institute, “Politics and the Arts,” arose out of this sentiment. Erlin notes, “We picked politics and the arts as the thematic focus to help students realize that fields like music, theatre, history, and philosophy can foster a deeper understanding of contemporary society, and can help open up new perspectives on issues we are concerned with now.”

The programs syllabus and schedule reflect this purpose. Over the course of the institute, students are immersed in a wide variety of fields of study, working with different professors every day, as they explore a few of the many academic facets of the humanities. They study dystopian film and literature on Tuesday and then analyze radio as a political storytelling medium on Friday. One of the central questions asked at the program is whether literature and fine arts can actually change the world.

A primary purpose of the Summer Humanities Institute is to convince these young scholars that they can, too. For example, the final project of the program is a public arts proposal. The students studied past projects funded by the National Endowment for the Arts and worked in groups over the course of the two-week institute to brainstorm, organize, and ultimately create a funding proposal for a public art project of their own design. Each group then presented their proposal to a panel of faculty on the final day, demonstrating all they had learned during the Institute, while also realizing the tangible ways in which humanities are used to benefit society as a whole.

This sentiment was reflected in the words of Summer School Director Beth Landers during a conversation about the newest institute. She says, “The humanities address central issues of being human. They represent collective and individual experience throughout time, enabling us to examine where we come from, where we are now, and where we might be headed in the future.”

Caroline Kita discusses the history of radio with Summer Humanities Institute students on a field trip to St. Louis Public Radio.

The closing event of the institute was a panel discussion with current WashU undergraduates majoring in the humanities. Institute members asked any questions they had regarding studies at WashU and heard from a variety of perspectives, including those of a chemistry and classics double major, a film studies major, and an American cultures studies and entrepreneurship double major. The makeup of the panel itself was beautifully indicative of the sheer range of the humanities, the interconnectivity of the fields, and the freedom that accompanies studying with a humanities focus.

One conversation with an Institute scholar is enough to reveal that the first iteration of the Summer Humanities Institute has proven itself to be a success. As they talked to panelists about the humanities at WashU and the potential of the programs here, these students were animated, engaged, and delightfully curious. “They engage with our most fundamental questions from intellectual, spiritual, cultural, and aesthetic perspectives,” Landers says. “Looking at representations of lived or imagined experience and analyzing how artists and thinkers give it shape is tremendously stimulating and ultimately empowering.”

In two weeks at the Summer Humanities Institute, these students have seen how humanities can change the social, political, and environmental landscape. Now, they feel equipped to take part in university-level work and take strides towards making a mark on the world themselves.