University of Michigan history chair named humanities dean at Rice University

Rice University
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B.J. Almond

University of Michigan history chair named humanities dean at Rice University
Kathleen Canning will assume new role Jan. 1

HOUSTON — (May 10, 2017) — Kathleen Canning, who chairs the largest department of history in the U.S. at the University of Michigan (U-M), will become dean of humanities at Rice University Jan. 1.

A member of the U-M faculty since 1988, Canning is in her fourth year as chair of a history department with 81 faculty members that has been ranked in the top seven nationally during the last decade. She is the Sonya O. Rose Collegiate Professor of History and the Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of History, Women’s Studies and German.

“Kathleen Canning is a world-class scholar, a gifted educator and a proven leader in academic innovation,” said Rice Provost Marie Lynn Miranda. “We have high aspirations for our School of Humanities, so we needed an equally aspirational dean. In Professor Canning, we have found just the right person to lead the school as we move into the next strategic era for the school and the university.”

Canning said one of the challenges facing the humanities is the way the field has been “misread” in regard to career opportunities. “Students trained in the humanities are equipped with incredible skills for the current job market, which demands enormous flexibility from young people,” she said. “They go out with the ability to analyze and interpret, to synthesize, to collaborate and engage in teamwork while acquiring high-level skills of oral argument and critical analytic writing. The rates of employment for humanities grads are more positive than popular lore suggests.

“It’s a critical moment for humanities from a national perspective,” Canning said. “There’s a national need to rejuvenate the humanities. The School of Humanities at Rice is full of wonderful and inspiring faculty, and Rice can lead the way in re-imagining the place of the humanities in a liberal arts education and finding particularly creative intersections between the humanities, the sciences and social sciences.” She described herself as an energetic optimist about the future of higher education, noting that she is “continuously in search of untapped resources that might contribute to reinvigorating the humanities as an intellectual and pedagogical pursuit.”

In 2009, Newsweek’s “College Guide” spotlighted Canning as one of the nation’s “Four Great Professors.” “I work very hard at my teaching even when the material is very familiar to me,” Canning said. “There’s no autopilot ever.” She strives to make the history classroom relevant to students’ lives. “I try to engage them in grasping the stakes of the historical issues that we are examining and help them develop their own viewpoints so that it’s really meaningful to them,” she said.

With a B.A. in history from the University of Oregon, a Fulbright Fellowship that allowed her to earn an M.A. in history (and minors in sociology and political science) from Ruprecht-Karls-Universitat in Heidelberg, and a Ph.D. and an M.A. in history from Johns Hopkins University, Canning feels very strongly that “history is so important for the present.”

“We’re living in a fairly ahistorical society and moment,” she said. “You see that more or less every week in the news, and it’s really crucial for historians to weigh in on current events.” Canning described history as “a discipline that actually highlights and enables analysis of transformation and conflict over time.” She said the comparison of historical, cultural, social, political and economic perspectives makes the understanding of society “much more vibrant.”

Canning’s major field of scholarly research is modern European history with an emphasis on modern Germany and European history of citizenship, gender and family, state, social welfare and labor in the late 19th and 20th centuries. Her latest research seeks to compare and contrast the aftermaths of the two world wars from the perspective of the democracies each produced in 1918-19 and 1945-48.

Among Canning’s awards are a National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship for University Teachers and fellowships from the American Council of Learned Societies, the Stanford Humanities Center, the Max-Planck-Institute fur Geschichte in Gottingen, Germany, and the Freiburg Institute for Advanced Studies.

“Kathleen Canning is exactly what we were looking for in the next dean of humanities — someone who is a proven collaborative leader who harbors a passionate and creative vision for the humanities,” President David Leebron said. “We are committed to the liberal arts vision of a university, and that requires a vibrant commitment to the humanities. I was also personally delighted to discover a kindred soul with an interest in Germany and German history.”

Canning succeeds Nicolas Shumway, who will complete seven years as dean of humanities June 30 and return to the faculty to engage in scholarship and teaching. Lora Wildenthal, associate dean of humanities and a professor of history, will serve as interim dean from July 1 to Dec. 31.

Miranda said, “President Leebron and I are delighted that we are able to turn to such an able associate dean and devoted citizen of Rice in appointing Lora Wildenthal as interim dean. Professor Wildenthal is deeply involved in the School of Humanities’ ongoing strategic planning work. We are very excited about the future of humanities at Rice.”

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CAPTION: Kathleen Canning

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About B.J. Almond

B.J. Almond is senior director of news and media relations in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.