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Meet Neal A. Lester, PhD, of Project Humanities, Arizona State University Tempe

Today we’d like to introduce you to Neal A. Lester, PhD.

Dr. Lester, Foundation Professor of English at Arizona State University, founded Project Humanities in 2010. This was during the US national economic downturn when many parents and their students were steering away from humanities majors and toward STEM majors. To address this issue and to demystify the humanities—in other words, to take humanities out of a solely academic disciplinary context to be more inclusive and less abstract—Dr. Lester, serving as Dean of Humanities in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the time, was asked to make humanities more robust.

Project Humanities started off as an intense week of events and programs across all four ASU campuses. Based on the responses and the impact of this week, Project Humanities went on to receive annual and now multi-year funding from ASU President Michael Crow’s office to ensure that diverse and impactful Project Humanities programs continue all year-long.

In 2012, Humanity 101 was created as the framework for all Project Humanities programs. Humanity 101 answers the question, “Are we losing our humanity?” and consists of programming, activities, and events around these seven principles: compassion, empathy, forgiveness, integrity, kindness, respect, and self-reflection. Humanity 101 is integrated into all that Project Humanities does, including Service Saturdays homeless outreach, Hacks for Humanity hackathon for the social good, and community dialogue series like Vital Voices, Dispelling the Myths, and Aridity and the Desert.

Great, so let’s dig a little deeper into the story – has it been an easy path overall and if not, what were the challenges you’ve had to overcome?
As an organization that focuses on the humanities, we define and demystify humanities outside of academia. Project Humanities defines humanities by doing it and naming it – through talking, listening, and connecting. This approach has allowed us to take humanities outside of the classroom and away from strictly academic disciplines and into everyday life. Similarly, people often ask “What do you do with humanities?” and you find yourself having to justify what you do to people on the outside. I see this as a good challenge to have. For instance, our annual Hacks for Humanity hackathon for the social good is a way we have overcome this challenge, as it is an opportunity to community-build around innovation and technology and simultaneously to engage diverse communities in forging innovation and creativity. As one might suspect given this social undervaluing and sometimes lack of understanding and appreciation for humanities, funding is not as prominent as it is for other areas of study. Additionally, external funding to support programming via federal and private grants is usually a fraction of the amounts associated with STEM. Even Arts has made its way into STEM as STEAM while humanities remains the essential air that we breathe but that we take for granted until we are suffocating.

There is often a misconception that Project Humanities is solely an “outreach organization.” This is reductive, as people generally undervalue community service and outreach. We not only embrace outreach, but also research, scholarly talks, and integrate content scholars and experts into our programming.

As we continue to grow and improve, we want to cultivate a more robust student audience. We have excellent standing in non-student communities; however, we are exploring how to engage more students in our event/program planning and implementing.

Please tell us about Project Humanities, Arizona State University.
Project Humanities facilitates conversations across diverse communities that broaden perspectives and builds understanding through talking, listening, and connecting. The initiative seeks to instill passion and knowledge of humanities study and humanist thought. Humanities is not simply a list of academic disciplines; rather, it is a way to provide tools and strategies to explore the ways we connect with each other and make meaning of our shared experiences. Project Humanities is “humanities in action” and a catalyst for positive change that transcends political, socioeconomic, geographic, and cultural boundaries. Programs offered are multidisciplinary and inclusive, and range from workshops, performances, discussions, conferences, film screenings, and more. Project Humanities is a leader in local, national, and international conversations about the value of humanities study and humanist practice and understanding across disciplines and communities. These ambitious efforts, along with a unique model not replicated at any other university or even within this University, have garnered Project Humanities myriad accolades and support over the course of its eight-year existence.

If you had to start over, what would you have done differently?
During our founding, we could have devoted more time toward getting external funding instead of being so dependent on funding from the President’s office. In doing so, this would have given us more autonomy and provided more programmatic creativity and possibilities. We could have asked for more full-time staff rather than be so dependent on student workers and the inevitable student turnover.

What has been the proudest moment of your career so far?
In 2013, Project Humanities received the inaugural Key of Excellence award for impactful work in liberal arts and humanities across boundaries by the Phi Beta Kappa national honor society.

In  2014, Project Humanities received an endorsement for our Humanity 101 initiative from the Dalai Lama.

Also in  2014, Dr. Lester received the Francis Andrew March award from the Association of Departments of English, an affiliate of the Modern Language Association.

To see more about these and other awards and recognitions, visit https://projecthumanities.asu.edu/accolades.

Contact Info:

  • Address: Discovery Hall 112, 250 E. Lemon St., Tempe AZ 85287
  • Website: https://projecthumanities.asu.edu
  • Phone: 480-727-7030
  • Email: projecthumanities@asu.edu
  • Instagram: @asuprojecthumanities
  • Facebook: Project Humanities
  • Twitter: @projhumanities

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