'Bro' Adams: ASU on the 'leading edge' of humanities research

September 24, 2015

Against the recent backdrops of racial strife, immigration debates, same-sex marriage laws and other events that display human suffering or oppression, some might say the calming or enlightening properties of the humanities are needed now more than ever.

It’s a notion shared by William “Bro” Adams, chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, who spoke at ASU’s Tempe campus on Thursday about how funding the public arts is crucial to our nation's welfare. William "Bro" Adams at Arizona State University Institute for Humanities Research director Sally Kitch, and William "Bro" Adams, chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities, center, listen to Humanities Dean George Justice, before Adams speaks at the IHR’s 10th Anniversary Series Kickoff: "The Future and Value of Humanities Research," on Thursday, Sept. 24, 2015. Adams spoke of governmental support for the public humanities is crucial to our national welfare. Photo by: Charlie Leight/ASU News Download Full Image

“Most of the big challenges we face as a country are not primarily scientific or technical,” Adams said. “The real challenges we face are those that revolve around our history, culture, ideas and values.”

Adams cited the ongoing crisis between law enforcement and minority communities as an example.

“We’ve been through this yearlong, scorching experience with police and race relations in this country and there’s no way to get perspective without reengaging the history of race relations and first understanding the cultural dimensions of our various experiences of what it means to be an American, what it means to live here, and how different groups experience America differently.”

Adams’ visit coincides with the 10th anniversary of ASU’s Institute for Humanities Research (IHR) and kicked off a series of events and lectures that will continue through October. His keynote lecture, “The Future and Value of Humanities Research,” focused on the role the arts and culture play in our society, and how they can do more to address major challenges.

The former Fulbright Scholar, Army veteran and president of Colby College in Waterville, Maine, said he became a student of the humanities after his experiences as an infantry advisor during the Vietnam War.

“There wasn’t a lot of time in Vietnam to be reading classical texts or literature, but there was an attempt by me to make sense of that experience.” Adams said. “The humanities were hugely helpful to me and affected my way of thinking.”

He credits higher education with his post-war healing.

“I was fortunate in having the resources to go to college and had great teachers in a small college setting who cared about me and wanted to help me in my intellectual pursuits,” said Adams who earned degrees from Colorado College and the University of California at Santa Cruz. “When you don’t have access to those resources, you get angry, depressed, dismissive and find other ways to manage that energy. I was lucky to have that outlet.”

Adams also tipped his hat to ASU and the resources it offers to faculty and staff. He said the university is becoming a real player on the national stage when it comes to producing humanities-related research.

“ASU wasn’t a place that was well known to me before my visit but now I’m a believer,” Adams said. “It’s very striking to me the energy that is directed toward interdisciplinary research. It’s pretty close to leading edge in regards to what’s happening nationally. It’s experimental in a way.”

In the last decade, ASU has been involved as lead investigators and key contributors in transdisciplinary projects, earning over $35 million in external funding, to date, on humanities-related research, said Sally Kitch, founding director of the IHR and recently named University Professor.

Kitch is also principal investigator for “Humanities for the Environment,” an international research project focused on human responsibility, multi-species relationships and collaborative knowledge and collective action in our current era of human development.

“A great university has to have a robust humanities program, and we’re fortunate that we have support from our president and resources for our faculty,” Kitch said. “Humanities scholars have a unique approach to the problems we face and can significantly help society as a whole.”

Some of the research projects conducted by the IHR — many funded and supported by the National Endowment for Humanities — include a study in India intersecting wildlife and religion; a Sonoran borderlands project that studies how different cultures in the region have adapted to the environment and formed communities; and a seminar that examined influential texts in 20th century Jewish culture in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

“There’s an enduring value to every perspective and we’ll never run out of material,” Adams said. “I’m confident the humanities will endure and do just fine.”

For more information on ASU’s Institute for Humanities Research and its 10th anniversary, visit https://ihr.asu.edu/news-events/news/10th-anniversary.

Reporter , ASU Now


Exhibit takes whimsical road trip down 'Fossil Freeway'

September 24, 2015

Road-tripping across the American West is a beloved tradition — blacktop snaking across badlands, roadside tourist traps and great diners.

Imagine experiencing it with a paleontologist prone to picturing pterodactyls perched on last-chance gas stations and an artist who plucks giant dragonflies off the pickup windshield. 'Cruisin’ the Fossil Freeway' "Cruisin’ the Fossil Freeway" with artist Ray Troll and paleontologist Kirk Johnson. Download Full Image

A new exhibit at the Arizona State University Natural History Collection combines a whimsical art exhibit with the gems of the fossil collection to offer an opportunity to learn about evolution, extinction, geology and paleontology.

“Cruisin’ the Fossil Freeway” was created by paleontologist Kirk Johnson and artist Ray Troll after they traveled 5,000 miles though the American West, searching for fossils, fossil finders, good stories and the perfect diner cheeseburger.

Troll’s art conjures R. Crumb, if he were trapped in Jurassic Park. He combines humor with accuracy. Yes, he is plucking a giant prehistoric dragonfly off the pickup windshield, but the 2-foot wingspan of M. permiana is as it was.

Nineteen framed color prints depict scenes like dinosaurs running through traffic, car lots and convenience stores. The message: You can find fossils anywhere, even in a cut bank behind a burger joint.

In “Dinosaur Highway,” a late-night view from a truck cab reveals a brontosaurus caught in the headlights.

“Driving around the American West and thinking about dinosaurs, Ray and Kirk often imagined what it would be like to encounter a real dinosaur on the hoof,” read the explanatory note for the painting. “Listening to late-night rock-and-roll radio after driving 400 miles in one day was the best time to spot those imaginary roadside creatures.”

ASU paleobotanist Kathleen Pigg knows both the scientist and the artist. She was instrumental in bringing the exhibit to the university.

Troll’s “art really appeals to people of all ages,” she said.

Several of Pigg’s specimens are featured in the exhibit. She primarily studies plant fossils from the past 65 million years in western North America. Her research team investigates the evolution, biogeographic distribution and adaptations of major flowering plant groups. They collect fossilized fruits, seeds, flowers and leaves and compare them with those of modern relatives.

“We do our own collecting,” she said. “I tend to do a lot of my collecting in the basement of a museum.”

Paleobotanists are few and far between, Pigg said. “We all tend to know each other,” she said. “We don’t get quite the press the dinosaurs do.”

Other fossils from ASU’s collection include three hadrosaurid eggs the size of huge grapefruit and two oviraptor eggs as big as half a sub sandwich. Teeth the length of a man’s hand sit beneath a painting of everything that has ever had saber teeth.

The plethora of fossils across the West is illustrated in the Ultimate Paleo Road Map. It features the main roads Johnson and Troll traveled along, packed with whimsical pteranodons flying over puzzled cows, Wall Drug’s dinosaur in South Dakota, the Teenage Mammoth Mosh Pit of Death, and the world’s largest prairie dog in Oakley, Kansas.

Everywhere ammonites, plesiosaurs, dinohyus (“the Terminator Pig”) uintatheres (knobby-headed saber-toothed herbivores) run and snarl, bite and yawn, scratch and chase cars.

Makes you want to pick up a bucket of fried chicken and head to Delta, Utah, “where trilobites are kings.”

‘Cruisin’ the Fossil Freeway’ exhibit

Where: 734 W. Alameda Drive, Tempe.

When: 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays through Dec. 15.

Public talks: Reception begins at 5:30 p.m., the talk at 6:30 p.m.

• Sept. 28: Peter Wilf, paleobotanist, Pennsylvania State University

• Oct. 19: Bruce Archibald, paleoentomologist, Simon Fraser University

• Nov. 16: Jack Nisbet, naturalist and writer

Details: sols.asu.edu/news-events/cruisin-fossil-freeway

Scott Seckel

Reporter, ASU Now