Phillip Carter became director of FIU’s Center for the Humanities in an Urban Environment (CHUE) in the summer of 2019. Carter is an associate professor in the FIU Department of English and a sociolinguist specializing in issues related to language diversity in the U.S. As incoming director, he had a vision for a new type of humanities center — one that was interdisciplinary, spearheaded innovative, community-based research and prioritized community engagement.
Then, 2020 arrived, bringing a cascade of challenges. The global pandemic. A major social justice movement. Conversations about systemic racism and injustice. Growing concerns about truth and the future of democracy. The thread running through many of these challenges was one of humanity.
In his first year as director, Carter ensured the humanities were accessible to anyone, anywhere by organizing and hosting a series of virtual events that responded to many of these pressing issues.
This January marks the 10th anniversary since the humanities center was founded. FIU News recently sat down with Carter to discuss the role of humanities at the university today and what’s next for FIU’s Center for the Humanities in an Urban Environment.
How do you define the humanities?
The humanities are about understanding, celebrating and studying what it means to be human. That includes the forms of ‘production’ that we make through our cultures, the way we set up our societies, the way we talk to each other, the way we think. And the way we tell stories about ourselves and our world. It’s us. It’s people.
At the core of many of the discussions that were happening in 2020 was this idea of the importance of human life. How do you think the humanities helped advance or guide these critically important conversations?
One of the things that has been fulfilling over the last year is how many people said to me ‘I had no idea how relevant the humanities were. I didn’t know these were the type of conversation you engaged in. I didn’t know we had all these experts — even right here at FIU.’
If you look at the programming we've put together, you will see the humanities have had something meaningful to say about all of it. The pandemic. George Floyd. The monuments movement. Debates over ethic identity. Debates over land rights. Issues around health. Social justice. Truth and subjectivity, what’s real and what’s fake.
We’ve been able to bring together people from different positionalities inside and outside the university to take perspective on the most pressing issues of our time. This is what I’m most proud of — we are able to leverage our intellectual resources. We are providing free, open-access humanities programming to anyone who needs or wants to see it, and creating a humanities archive that traces the story of our day.
What do you think the humanities has to offer or teach people today?
It teaches us an important lesson — and that lesson is that things aren’t always what they seem.
The stories we hear, the reality we believe to be true, and the systems and structures we take for granted are all things we created, and sometimes we have to pause to inquire deeper.
I am thinking about our first virtual event on coronavirus with [Duke University professor] Priscilla Wald. She shared her work on the contagion narrative — how the narrative of contagion is, in a way, already written and we just plug our most recent outbreak into the narrative and the story tells itself. She implored us to step back, to reimagine the narrative, to ask what are the ways racism underwrites this narrative? How does it get taken up in science and by the news media to be this runaway train that then becomes our reality?
Even when you look at the Black Lives Matter movement — which has fueled so much of our discussion in CHUE over the past few months — it’s a similar type of point. There’s a reality that has been constructed about who’s life matters and how, and BLM as a movement tells us to stop, step back, and look at that construction and ask if it’s okay. The humanities can help rewrite or rethink that narrative. We’re calling attention to the fact that Black lives have not been constructed to matter in all of these systemic ways.
Even Richard Blanco, who spoke at our LGBTQ+ Pride Month celebration, discussed belonging and exile. Belonging — that’s a question is who is supposed to be here, who is welcome, who fits in family and who is outside of family. Those are all questions of the way in which the world has constructed its own reality.
The humanities help us audit all of this. To question and rethink it. To ask is this alright? Is this okay? Did we put it together in the best way? That’s what CHUE has inspired in me — and in a lot of people — to ask whether we can think this better, if we can think this otherwise.
We don’t simply have to take the narratives that circulate and take them as though they are the only way to take things or the only way to be. Anyone can participate in the act of questioning. Everyone can take part in the act of asking why. Everyone can be curious.
How have the humanities adapted in a digital, connected world?
When coronavirus came to South Florida, we were just starting a two-week in person event called What is LatinX? It felt like a devastating blow to have it canceled, because we’d put so much work for it. I asked myself how we were going to reorient. And that first virtual event with Priscilla Wald was really a way to read the moment and ask what we actually have to offer given what was going on in the world.
If you put something online that speaks to the moment and is compelling, people will tune in. We created a new model for engagement that works with art, image, music, video — and put together online events that we produce that are kind of like a cross between a call-in radio show, television program and scholarly event. It works. People love them. We have audiences that range from 150 to 1,200. Audience size isn’t everything, of course, but it tells us there is a thirst for nourishing, intellectual and accessible humanities content. People want to pause. They want to think and learn.
It’s the 10th anniversary of the Humanities Center. How has it evolved and what’s next?
For something to live for 10 years is something special and that deserves to be commemorated. I’m really honored to be the person who is in charge of this center. This is an amazing job, but to be honest a really challenging one. I was recently talking to a dear friend and colleague about some of the challenges, and she said, ‘Phillip, just reconnect with your value for CHUE.’, And so that’s what I do; I think about our values. Those values are: Honesty. Justice. Curiosity. Intellectual stimulation. And, I’ll also add the word love.
Those are the values and CHUE is evolving with those values. We’re committed to social justice. We’re a general humanities center for the entire university. But the direction will always be anchored in those values. That’s the table we’re building and inviting people to sit at. No matter what shape the center takes moving forward, those are our values and we want people to sit at that table with us.
We have so much work ahead of us. It’s hard work, but it’s also good, inspiring, meaningful work.
The Center for the Humanities in an Urban Environment has planned events throughout the spring. There will be discussion about racism in sports, an exploration of the meaning of “love,” bilingualism in the education system, how anti-Blackness experienced, narrativized, and perpetuated in U.S. Hispanic/Latinx communities and more.