Each month, The Stone House Center for Public Humanities interviews a humanities scholar or community member and asks them everything from why they believe the humanities are important to what they're currently binge-watching. We hope that our new blog series, Coffee & Questions, will inspire you, introduce you to a variety of people and fields, as well as create new conversations.
Our guest this month is Dr. Phil Harling, Interim Dean of the Lewis Honors College, John R. Gaines Professor of the Humanities, and Director of the Gaines Center for the Humanities. Phil has been a UK faculty member for almost a quarter of a century. He grew up in Evanston, Illinois, and received his B.A. from Grinnell College in 1986 and his Ph.D. in History from Princeton University in 1993. A specialist in the history of modern Britain and the British Empire, he is a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society and has authored two books and numerous articles. He is the recipient of several teaching awards at UK, notably the Provost Award for Outstanding Teaching, as well as research fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the American Philosophical Society. A Distinguished Service Professor at UK, for several years Phil served as Associate Dean of Faculty in the College of Arts and Sciences, and was Interim Dean of the College for the 2008-9 academic year.
What inspires you in your current position/role?
Working closely with students, and as director of my campus humanities center I get to work very closely each year with 24 of our most intellectually curious, highly-motivated, and interesting juniors and seniors. They have majors from all over campus, and at the Gaines Center they take an intensive all-year seminar together (which I’m lucky enough to run). They also do juried service projects (in their junior year, either solo or in teams). Then in the senior year they do a major year-long research project, usually culminating in a 50-plus page thesis (mentored by me and a committee of 3 other faculty members). In recent years I’ve also been able to travel to China with some of the fellows for a couple of weeks after the spring semester ends. It’s an amazing job and a number of our alums have become lifelong friends!
What work experiences (past or present) have been the most educational for you, and why?
Two things, I think. The first was working as a dishwasher in a restaurant for a couple of years in high school. It taught me work discipline and the dignity of all labor. The second was working for a number of years as a college administrator. This taught me the value of team-work, because I couldn’t get anything at all done without relying on other folks. As a working historian I don’t collaborate as much, though now I want to collaborate a whole lot more because it’s a healthier way to work.
What project(s) are you currently working on?
The main thing is a study of the first age of mass emigration in the British Empire – 1840s/50s. It’s making me learn about Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Trinidad, Guyana, and Sierra Leone. Still puzzling out how it’s all gonna come together as a book – either I’ll know that by the end of the next academic year or it’s on to other stuff!
Why do you believe that the humanities are important to everyone, and not just people in academia?
Because humanities is about learning how to be in the world – with yourself and with others. And about how one’s fellow humans learned how to be in the past as well as in the present and even the future. So in the most fundamental way, the humanities are about cultivating empathy and better understanding. Lord knows we can never get enough of those things. They seem to be in relatively short supply these days, and we need to do something about that.
What is something that people might be surprised to learn about you (hobby, skill, interesting story)?
Well, one thing is that Spotify is slowly turning me into a much more eclectic audiophile. Last week I found myself listening (in no particular order) to Philip Glass, Sun Ra, McCoy Tyner, Robert Johnson, Mother Maybelle Carter, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Amy Winehouse, the Wu-Tang Clan, the Roots, Son Volt, Brahms, Merle Haggard, and Shostakovich. Such an incredible variety of music at one’s fingertips these days. One of the undeniably great things about the early 21st century.
An interesting story? Well, a few years back I managed to get lost while hiking at the top of a mountain in the northern Oregon Cascades. Had to spend a very cold night there but managed to limp back to civilization on my own power, thereby meeting my 2 goals: 1. Not dying of hypothermia 2. Not having to be helicoptered out. Thank God it didn’t rain!
What shows are you currently binge-watching?
Parts Unknown. I love food, travelogues, and international politics. Anthony Bourdain mashes ‘em up in a really tasty way. And it doesn’t hurt that he’s a total badass.
What is your first thought in the morning and last thought at night?
First thought: I need to get up and get out to jog or walk. But only after a strong cup of coffee. And try not to linger too long over the Times before getting out the door.
Last thought: Ain’t life grand? (Or at least that’s what I try to go to sleep thinking about)
What's a book you've always wanted to read but haven't gotten around to?
David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest. Dauntingly long, even for someone who pretty much reads for a living. Maybe someday I’ll manage it as an audiobook – a good strategy for books you just know you’ll never actually get around to reading, and you can get your geek on this way while jogging or working out at the Y. And no, it’s not cheating to listen. I got through War and Peace this way, and it was actually really pleasant. The older public-domain huge novels you can listen to for free! Just check out the Librivox app. It’ll change your life.
What is the funniest thing that has happened to you recently?
Trying to keep up with my girlfriend as we walked the mile and a half from our Airbnb to the Osaka train station on an impossibly muggy morning in June. We were trying to get to the airport without having to pay an outrageous cab fare. We had way too much luggage (4/5ths of it hers). I was schlepping most of it. I tried to keep up with her absurdly fast pace, but the duffel bag digging into my shoulder with every step made this impossible. Had to stop to put on a ‘do rag as the sweat was stinging my eyes. I can only imagine how comical I looked. Fortunately, passersby were too kind to point this out. She receded into the distance. Just as I was about to lose sight of her altogether, the train station came into focus. This was a good thing, as she knew where it was, I didn’t, and I knew only 2 words in Japanese. No harm done in the end – and we saved 17,000 yen.
Check back next month for more Coffee & Questions. In case you missed our previous interview with Dr. Jason M. Kelly, click here.
Our vision is to create a community of learners enriched, engaged and enlightened through the humanities.