LSA Dean Anne Curzan talks research, value of a liberal arts education

Sunday, September 22, 2019 - 6:10pm

LSA Dean Anne Curzan discusses her long-term goals in an interview The Daily in the LSA Building Friday morning .

LSA Dean Anne Curzan discusses her long-term goals in an interview The Daily in the LSA Building Friday morning . Buy this photo
Alec Cohen/Daily

The Academics Beat at The Michigan Daily recently sat down with the new LSA Dean Anne Curzan for an interview to discuss her vision for the college and its many programs.

The Michigan Daily: What are your goals as dean of LSA?

Anne Curzan: I’d start by saying LSA is a remarkable place filled with inspiring people, and it’s such an honor for me at this moment in my career to get the chance to try to ensure that this can continue to be a place where everyone can do their best work. That’s faculty and staff and students, both graduate and undergraduate. That everybody can thrive here. In terms of my broader goals, I’m committed to maintaining our excellence — first in research and teaching, that’s core to our mission. Also core to our mission is our commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion. That is something that we will continue to work very hard on. (I’m) committed to advocating for the value of the liberal arts in terms of our teaching and the education that we provide and our research mission.

Then, how we contribute to the public good. It’s a public institution, and we do really important work for the public good. We’ll stay very focused on that. Another one of my goals, as I said, is really to ensure that everyone can thrive here. That means staying focused on purposeful inclusion and equity and access for everyone. It also, for me, means staying focused on purpose. I’m a big believer that if you are focused on the work that matters, on the work that gives you purpose, wherever you are, it leads to fulfilling happy lives … I also will be staying focused on well-being, that’s very important to me for everyone in the community..

TMD: What are you most looking forward to in this new position?

AC: There isn’t one answer to that question. I think one of the things I’m really looking forward to is trying to make sure that people understand the value of a liberal arts education and the life possibilities that that brings up as well as the impact of the research that we do in LSA. That research has an impact on some of the world’s biggest problems, from climate change and sustainability, to mass incarceration, to the digital world in which we now live, to race relations. The work we do matters for those questions and the education we provide is preparing students for that world and allowing students to be a part of that research mission, and that to me is one of the really exciting things.

I’m excited to connect with students. LSA — we have over 17,000 undergraduates, we have over 2,500 grad students. I have been a teacher for over 20 years. I love spending time with students. I feel deeply lucky that I have committed my life to spending time with young people and with students … What we need to do is to be talking with students because my sense, and this is from years and years of conversations with students, is that our priorities are aligned and to think about how we partner given that we have aligned priorities on many, many things.

I’m excited to think about think about some possibly changes in undergraduate education. I co-chaired a task force for the provost that was called the Future of Undergraduate Education at the University of Michigan in the Third Century … It was a remarkable committee, and we spent over a year and a half working on this project and came up with some very exciting ideas for ways forward in thinking about undergraduate education. 

One of the last things I’d say is I’m excited to stay focused on innovation, on making sure we get the chance to explore new questions both big and small, that students are going to be involved in asking those questions, and that we never lose sight of the fact that as we do rigorous, challenging research, there is joy in that. We should talk about the joy of discovery and the play of it. Sometimes the best questions come out of play with ideas, and those are words that I like to use when we talk about the mission of this place.

TMD: You recently hosted a pop-up event to introduce yourself to students. Deans often have less contact with students than professors or other University staff members. How do you envision your relationship with students in this role?

AC: I will continue to spend a lot of time with students. Students are the heartbeat of this place, and they have been an inspiration to me throughout my career. They have made me a better teacher, they have shaped my research and I learn from students. I’m a linguist and I track how the language changes. As linguists will often say, young people are the movers and shakers of language change, so I actually feel very lucky to get to hang out with the movers and shakers of language change.

I will get back into the classroom to some extent in the next few years because the energy of that space is irreplaceable, so I will find ways — they’ll be more limited — but ways to be in the classroom, and I’ve been meeting with student leaders already to talk about what student groups are doing and to figure out where can we partner, where are our missions aligned and starting those conversations early. I would welcome any and all student leaders who want to meet with me to contact me, because I love meeting with students and I want to start those conversations early.

TMD: Before taking this role, you previously served as the Associate Dean of Humanities. How do you plan to bring this background into LSA’s wide-reaching scope?

AC: I spent four years as the Associate Dean of Humanities, and one of the real joys as someone who’s curious, of being in the dean’s office, was getting to understand the scope of the college beyond my own department and beyond the humanities. So I’m the associate dean for humanities, but I’m sitting in the room discussing the entire scope of the college: the humanities, the social sciences, the natural sciences, all of undergraduate education. That started to give me a sense of the scope of this place. I loved thinking about the different methods people are using, the different kinds of research people are doing, different ways to think about impact. As you move across the college the impact of our scholarship looks different.

One of my jobs was to make sure that people could understand the importance of the humanities, why the humanities matter both for people’s education and why our research matters, and now I feel like I have this really exciting opportunity to broaden the scope of that and say now my job is to explain why the liberal arts matter and how that kind of education and how the research across the breadth of what we do matters.

TMD: Last semester, The Daily reported on the trend of a  declining number of history majors. Nationally, it is considered a time when the liberal arts in general is at a crossroads. What do you envision for the future of LSA? How do you plan to engage students in the many areas of study housed within LSA?

AC: I want students to see LSA as a place where they can explore fields and questions that they had no idea that they could explore. I say that in part out of my own experience. I started college as a math major. I really like math, I had been good at math. I took the intensive first-year math course. I also liked learning languages, so my first year in college I took a linguistics course … My sophomore year, I took a course on the history of the English language and I just fell in love. I didn’t even know that I wanted to know the answers to those questions, and I want to know the answers to all of those questions. 

I want LSA students to feel like they get to explore and find the questions that they get excited about because that’s how we get the best education, is suddenly, we’re just curious, and this is work that matters to us, where we think, ‘I can make a difference here. I have things to say here. I want to get involved with research in this area,’ so that is certainly my goal for students.

TMD: What do you believe LSA’s strengths and weaknesses are?

AC: When I look at LSA, the things I am deeply impressed with are the breadth and depth of (its) excellence. That is unusual. It is unusual even in our peer institutions. We continue to invest across the natural sciences, the social sciences and the humanities because we believe that they’re all important to a rich liberal arts education … Another thing I am impressed with is we are a top-ranked research institution that cares deeply about undergraduate teaching, and that matters to me. All our faculty are teaching undergraduates and (are) committed to that part of being at Michigan. 

I’m also really proud of our commitment to Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. This is something where we’ve done a lot of really important work. There’s more work to do and we’re committed to continuing to do that in a thoughtful, sustained, committed way … We’ll continue to do work around helping students connect their liberal arts education to where they want to go next. That, to me, is one of the really exciting things we’re working on …

Another place where we’ll continue to do work is thinking about well-being, and that’s for all members of our community so that this can be a place where people feel like they can do their best work. Here, I’ll think particularly about students. We hear from students the pressure and stress and anxiety they are experiencing is getting in the way of learning. We need to try to help that not happen. Students come here to learn and I want them to be able to learn in a rigorous, challenging, supported, joyful way. We’re going to need to do some work for that to happen. I’m excited to do that work so that students can really enjoy all that LSA has to offer for them as learners.

TMD: For many students, research is associated with STEM and traditional laboratory settings. How do you plan to give students exposure to what research looks like in other fields within LSA?

AC: There’s great research happening in labs and we’ve got undergraduates in labs all across LSA doing great work. We have been working hard with things like the undergraduate research opportunity program — UROP — to get faculty in the humanities and social sciences to put in their projects so that undergraduates can work on those. I’ve had an ever increasing number of research projects in the humanities and social sciences. I’ve worked with undergraduates through UROP so that students can see what [research looks] like here and understand that they are at a research institution where people are pursuing original questions. They can learn about the methods that we’re using, so we’re also talking a lot with faculty in the humanities in particular about collaborative research. 

We have the Humanities Collaboratory, which is designed to bring humanists together in multigenerational teams so you have faculty and graduate students and many of the projects have undergraduates and librarians and all kinds of people working on a project. Humanists don’t always work collaboratively — often our books are single author books and we do research by ourselves. I love that we’re putting more emphasis on collaborative research because it immediately opens the door for students to get to be a part of it and to see how they can contribute in a team way to research in the humanities and social sciences in addition to the natural sciences.