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National Endowment for the Humanities grants will help to establish a health humanities minor and support a professor’s book project. (Enterprise Marketing and Communications)

National Endowment for the Humanities awards two grants to VCU projects

One will establish a health humanities minor, while the other supports a professor’s book project on visual images of African Americans in leisure contexts from slavery through the Jim Crow era.

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The National Endowment for the Humanities on Tuesday announced that it is awarding two grants to projects in the College of Humanities and Sciences at Virginia Commonwealth University

One project, “Crafting a Health Humanities Minor,” will receive nearly $150,000 in support of a three-year effort to establish a minor in health humanities. It will launch this fall and will focus on understanding and challenging the broader societal and historic contexts, as well as systemic and structural inequities, that produce health and health care disparities.

“We plan the minor to be accessible to students of all backgrounds, with affordable course materials and an engaging transdisciplinary focus,” said project director Sachi Shimomura, Ph.D., an associate professor in the Department of English. “Future health science students and workers in socially engaged fields will learn humanities approaches that will strengthen their ability to reflect on information sources, purpose, implications and potential bias — in all their complexity. The minor therefore centers diversity/equity and social justice and supports a variety of disciplinary and transdisciplinary perspectives, to equip students for continued learning and ethical, thoughtful participation in their future professions.”

In addition to its support from the NEH, the new minor is supported by the Health Humanities Lab, part of the VCU Humanities Research Center. The project is led by Shimomura, as well as Scott Breuninger, Ph.D., dean of the Honors College, and Christine Cynn, Ph.D., director of the Health Humanities Lab and an associate professor in the Department of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies.

“I am thrilled that the lab has received recognition for the exciting interdisciplinary collaborations we have built across the campus over the past two years,” Cynn said. “Although this grant is for curriculum building, it will also enable us to deepen our connections across disciplines and generate more ideas and projects that draw VCU students and researchers to the health humanities.”

The 18-credit minor will include courses this fall from the departments of English; Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies; Philosophy; and History, as well as the Honors College. In spring 2025, the Department of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies will pilot the first Intro to Health Humanities course, with curricular input and participation from faculty and students in the College of Humanities and Sciences, the Honors College, University College and the schools of ArtsMedicineNursing and Dentistry.

“We are delighted with the strength of our amazing faculty in the College of Humanities and Sciences and their success in securing funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities,” said Catherine Ingrassia, Ph.D., dean of the College of Humanities and Sciences. “The NEH’s investment in VCU and our humanities programs and faculty in the College of Humanities and Sciences demonstrates their recognition that the creation of a new Health Humanities minor is of significance, particularly at this institution. Pulling together the disciplines of literary studies, history, gender studies, philosophy and science, this program will be a relevant course of study for today's world and today’s students. Our students will be better equipped to meet the world with a holistic understanding of health complexities and provide scope, empathy and cultural-historical contexts to present-day (and future) challenges. I look forward to seeing what our amazing CHS faculty and students do with this level of support.”

The National Endowment For The Humantities logo. It has the name of the organization in a blue ruing around an illustration of an eagle holding a branch in one claw and arrows in the other. The eagle also has a shield on it with a blue bar and white and red stripes.

The NEH Humanities Connections grant “seeks to expand the role of the humanities in undergraduate education” with partnerships that draw from “the approaches and learning activities of both the humanities and the non-humanities disciplines,” according to NEH. “It’s exciting to create a program spanning so many fields,” Shimomura said. “My research involves medieval literature, language, and myth, but I edited writings for my father (Osamu Shimomura). By working outside the boundaries of his field, he won a Nobel Prize in Chemistry for discoveries used in medical research. Students will benefit from working across disciplinary boundaries.”

The second project receiving an NEH grant, “Between Leisure and Servitude: Postcards and the Early Cultural History of African American Travel, 1850–1945,” is led by Michael Ra-shon Hall, Ph.D., an associate professor in the Department of English, and was supported with a $6,000 summer stipend.

Hall researches 20th-century and contemporary African American literature; travel, tourism and mobility; and cultural histories of travel and leisure. He is conducting research and writing a book focused on visual images of African Americans in leisure contexts from slavery through the Jim Crow era.

“The book is a critical, visual cultural, and cultural historical study that foregrounds visual images of African Americans in leisure contexts,” Hall said. “In contrast to familiar imagery circulating in mainstream society during the Jim Crow era, such as lynching postcards and popular postcards featuring African Americans providing service and hospitality, the postcards [the book will examine] memorialize Black pleasure and leisure activities.”

As part of the project, Hall will conduct research in unprocessed postcard collections containing just over 15,000 postcards at the Newberry Library in Chicago, in addition to the African American real photo postcard collection with just over 1,000 postcards at Johns Hopkins University.

The new book will follow Hall’s 2022 book, “Freedom Beyond Confinement: Travel and Imagination in African-American Cultural History and Letters,” which illustrates how the travel experience has left an indelible mark on the imagination of Black artists.

Cristina Stanciu, Ph.D., director of the Humanities Research Center and an associate professor of in the Department of English, said she is “delighted that our faculty in the humanities have been successful in securing these very selective awards every year in the last three years.”

“Every fall, the Humanities Research Center grants committee selects two internal applicants from a pool of applicants in the humanities, who are then nominated for the national award,” she said. “The winners of the internal competition are also awarded a small stipend by the HRC. In this year’s competition, only 13% of applications for the NEH summer stipend were funded. Dr. Hall’s award, a testament to the quality of his research, joins previous awards to faculty in African American Studies and History, and makes VCU a winner in this competition for three consecutive years.”

Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this article do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.