Arts and Humanities Dean Forms Undergraduate Committee

New Dean of Arts and Humanities at Barker Center
Dean Robin E. Kelsey talks to a student in the Barker Center.

Robin Kelsey, the Faculty of Arts and Sciences’ Dean of the Arts and Humanities, has formed a student committee to more directly engage undergraduates, he said in an interview last week.

Kelsey, a History of Art and Architecture professor, said that the committee will include members from all four undergraduate classes and several different concentrations. Kelsey took over the deanship from Comparative Literature professor Diana Sorenson in March 2016.

“Over the course of last year, I came to think that there was tremendous untapped potential for stronger student engagement,” he said.

Kelsey said the board’s membership is not final, though the group’s first meeting happened last week.


The board’s establishment coincides with several other developments in the division. Most notably, the History and Literature concentration introduced an Ethnic Studies track after calls from student activists for more coursework in the field.

But because History and Literature is not a department and cannot tenure faculty, some activists have been disappointed by the dearth of ethnic studies faculty on the tenure track.

“I think one of the advantages to putting the track in Ethnic Studies is that, by its very nature, the interdepartmental program is more nimble than some of its departments which rely more extensively on ladder faculty,” Kelsey said. “In the long run, any significant intellectual initiative within the FAS needs to have as part of its resources ladder faculty.”

Kelsey said he hopes to find “the faculty resources to support our ambitions.”

Another change that will affect all divisions within the Faculty of Arts and Sciences is the transition to a new General Education system. Additionally, Harvard will roll out a new course schedule that will eliminate the seven minutes of passing time between classes known colloquially as “Harvard time” and extend the standard class block to 75 minutes. Both are set to take effect in the fall of 2018.

Kelsey said he can’t predict how the new Gen Ed program—which includes distribution requirements across the four divisions of FAS—will affect the number of students taking Arts and Humanities courses, but that he “welcomes the challenge” of developing new courses that will attract students.

He is similarly optimistic about the change in standard course length.

“I think that this kind of shaking up of the habits of pedagogy can be a very good thing,” he said. “My hope is that this will get us out of lecturing to a passive audience.”

While most students must take courses in the division to fulfill General Education requirements, the number of concentrators in the Arts and Humanities remains comparatively low. According to the Crimson’s annual survey of incoming freshman, only 11.2 percent of the class of 2021 anticipates concentrating in the division.

Kelsey said he is focused on ensuring that all Harvard students experience the Arts and Humanities “at their best.” For Kelsey, this focus includes producing compelling freshman seminars and Gen Ed courses. He added he isn’t interested in “twisting anyone’s arm” to get them to pick a concentration within the division.

“No one studies the Arts and Humanities because their parents insist upon it,” he said. “That’s something I cherish about the Arts and Humanities.”

—Staff writer Mia C. Karr can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @miackarr.


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