The Humanities Are Alive and Well at Columbia

Dean Sarah Cole is enthusiastic about the state of things in the humanities division she oversees within the faculty of arts and sciences.

Eve Glasberg
September 15, 2022

As Columbia resumes a livelier pace this semester, Columbia News turned to Sarah Cole, dean of humanities and Parr Professor of English and Comparative Literature, to get her take on the pulse of the university and the humanities in particular.

As Amy Hungerford, executive vice president of the faculty of arts and sciences, has said of Cole: “Her efforts as a dean have united and enlivened the intellectual, pedagogical, and public-facing life of the humanities division across all fields and research questions.”  

Cole discusses the buzz happening across the humanities at Columbia now, as well as two initiatives she leads involving war and peace, and climate, and the new book she is working on.

At the start of the semester, how does the general tenor of campus seem in terms of both faculty and students?

It has been such a pleasure to be back on campus, and to see the throngs of students on the Morningside campus and all around the neighborhood. There is a buoyant mood, even more than usual at this time of year. I do think people are feeling that the pandemic restrictions are mostly behind us, and are excited not only to have classes in person, as we did last year, but to also resume all kinds of other activities together, rather than in front of our zoom screens. I attended the recent Columbia College and Graduate School convocations, and the mood was really electric. 

How are the humanities doing?

The humanities are in full swing. Our departments, centers, and institutes are alive with new and familiar initiatives, and the humanities classrooms are overflowing. In lectures and seminars, students are settling in for an amazing semester of learning. Though we specialize in more intimate settings, a few of our courses, like Greek Mythology in Classics, and Game of Thrones: Epic and Empire in Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African Studies, are drawing huge crowds of students, eager to think about how the ancient and modern worlds collide and overlap.

All of our students, in Core classes as well as our many other offerings, are ready to consider the vast creative range that the humanities represent. Students are taking courses in our exceptionally rich array of languages (Columbia offers classes in more than 50 languages), and in every medium of human expression. Our faculty are winning prestigious awards and speaking to a large public, and the new crop of professors we’ve recently hired showcases the most inspiring new directions in our fields.

Are there any new humanities events or programs? Is the War and Peace Initiative continuing?

From my office, I continue to lead two interdisciplinary programs:

The Humanities War and Peace Initiative, which has sponsored projects and is in its last year of funding, still resonates in a war-torn world. In the spring of 2023, we will have an event to feature this work, and to share its contributions with the full Columbia community.  

In the last two years, I have been managing a wide-ranging Climate Humanities Initiative, as we work collaboratively with the Climate School and many other stakeholders on campus to support all kinds of important work, which brings humanistic inquiry to bear on the climate crisis. These projects are dynamic and motivated, crossing disciplines and other boundaries as we search to find new intellectual and creative resources at a precarious time. Right now, our group is working on climate humanities curricular programs; we offered 10 grants over the summer to support course development in this area.

How do you balance the demands of being a dean and teaching?

It can be difficult to balance being a dean with teaching and also with research, but I have found this to be incredibly rewarding. I would never want to give up teaching our remarkable Columbia students, both graduate and undergraduate.

This past spring, I taught a mixed grad-undergrad seminar, Books That Change the World, which showcased everything I love about teaching our students. They are brilliant, thoughtful, well-read, ethical, and, maybe most important, so nice to one another. Columbians are serious thinkers, and they are not shy about critiquing the material we are reading and discussing, but they do so with respect. I admire the diversity of their backgrounds and ideas, and their fearlessness. 

What are you working on now?

Books That Change the World is directly related to the book I am currently writing. The class had a fantastic syllabus, beginning in the 19th century with Uncle Tom’s Cabin (not an easy novel to confront today, but the students handled it with intelligence and sensitivity), and continuing up to the present with The Overstory, a 2018 novel by Richard Powers about trees.

The idea of my new book, and of the course, is to think about novels that seek to make a direct intervention in the world. These are works that aim specifically to foster political, social, or culture change, and are willing to sacrifice some of the most valued principles of literary fiction in order to do so. I am interested in rethinking the activist novel in a general sense, seeing the desire to use the novel to steer and educate the reader as an important, though almost always disavowed aspect of literary history over the last 120 years.

The general mantra for fiction in the 20th century, and still today, has been “show, don’t tell,” but I am hoping to embrace another literary tradition, where novels both show and tell, and do so without apology, motivated by urgent issues around such topics as race, gender, state power, labor, inequality, poverty, war, and environment.

I am very excited about this project, which is aimed at a broad audience, and which follows, in some natural ways, from my recent book on H. G. Wells. It was really Wells who set me thinking in these terms, since he believed wholeheartedly in an activist role for literature, and this has allowed me to look with fresh eyes at a huge range of writers, and to ask how they, also, hoped to bring their novelistic powers into the fray.