Thinking the Humanities: A CHI Cheat Sheet

The Center for Humanistic Inquiry (CHI) is a hub for those interested in the humanities at Amherst to gather and explore their scholarship. The Student digs into the mission of the center and the importance of its programming, which includes weekly Wednesday salons.

Thinking the Humanities: A CHI Cheat Sheet
The CHI will move to Pleasant Street upon the completion of the Lyceum in Fall 2023. Photo courtesy of Amherst College.

If you’re anything like me, in addition to not knowing how to pronounce the name of the CHI in Frost Library, you’re also probably a bit unclear about what its actual purpose is. It turns out that in addition to being pronounced “chee” — sorry, latte lovers — “CHI” stands for the Center of Humanistic Inquiry.

The CHI’s main function is to provide a central meeting place for those who are interested in humanities to gather and explore their shared academic interests. “The CHI attempts to be an intellectual hub for the humanities and social sciences in ways that parallel the Science Center and its space for interdisciplinary science connections,” said Professor of Religion Maria Heim, a CHI advisory board member. The center’s two main event spaces include the Think Tank and the Seminar Room, both of which are currently located on the second floor of Frost. The Think Tank is a larger space, ideal for lectures, panels, book talks, screenings, and presentations, whereas the Seminar Room is smaller, meant for classes, workshops, and meetings with fewer people.

Every two years, members of the CHI advisory board select a guiding theme for the center. The current theme, “Black: Here and Now,” encourages exploration and conversation about the Black experience in America, including the legacy of slavery, the Civil War, abolitionism, reparations, pan-Africanism, affirmative action, police brutality, and the Black Lives Matter movement. A cohort of post-doc fellows is selected to come and do work and collaborate on topics central to that theme. “They are in residence as research fellows and as visiting lecturers. During their two-year residency, they teach one course. Their focus is doing their humanities research projects,” said Darryl Harper ’90, chair of the music department and current CHI director.

For the 2021-2023 theme “Black: Here and Now,” the CHI welcomed five fellows: Rose Lenehan, Ashlie Sandoval, Watufani M. Poe, Trent Masiki, and Janice Yu. They were joined by visiting scholar, Anailis Cisco, to collaborate on this theme. Their research interests range from critical race theory to Black LGBTQ+ activism and Marxist ideas on race and racism.

As director, Harper said he values the intersection of humanities fostered by the CHI. “I was really interested in the CHI because it means a lot to me in terms of the way that I pursue my own work,” he said. “I’m a musician. Some people view the arts and the humanities as being separate, but I do a lot of archival research and ethnographic research. I do a lot of prose writing to think through my research questions, even though what you might see at the end of that is an album or a performance.”

“Black: Here and Now: CHI Fellows Symposium” was held at the college from April 6-7. Photo courtesy of Amherst College.

On Wednesday afternoons, the CHI hosts salons. These salons were created along with the center in 2015 by Martha Umphrey, a professor of law, jurisprudence, and social thought and founding director of the CHI. “The salons, which have become a fixture of campus programming since their inception, provide opportunities for us to dive deeply into a wide range of specialized topics with scholars from around the world as well as from our own community,” said Martin Garnar, director of the college’s library system and a member of CHI’s advisory board. “CHI Fellows bring their shared interest and expertise in the CHI’s current theme to offer related classes and to expand their research so that the scholarly conversation can be enriched.”

This spring, Heim will discuss her new book on emotions in classical India for a CHI salon. She will collaborate with Professor of Physics Jagu Jagannathan, who has a great deal of knowledge on the subject as well. “I was so grateful when he agreed to join me in discussing the book,” Heim said. “This sort of exchange between a humanist and a deeply humanistic scientist like Jagannathan is the sort of thing that makes being in a liberal arts college so special.”

While the humanities hub is currently located in Frost, it will be rehoused in the newly built Lyceum when it’s finished this fall. Garnar hopes that the move won’t derail humanities students from seeking out the CHI as a gathering space. “We’ll have to see what that does to attendance at events,” he said. “While it’s not that far from its current location in Frost Library, the barrier of having to cross South Pleasant Street could have an impact on participation.”

Although he is also concerned for similar reasons, Harper is excited about the premise of the move. In addition to being in close proximity to the History department, he noted that there will be a patio space that can be used for outdoor programming.

Harper will step down as director at the end of this academic year, after completing the last of his standard four-year cycle. He will be superseded by Associate Professor and Chair of English Christopher Grobe, who will start off his four-year position with the guiding theme of “Political Imagination.”

“Before I was director I came a lot. I was a regular,” Harper said. “I love the programming here ... I plan to continue to be a regular attendee and come to as many of the programs as I can.”