Making Sense of the World We Live In: A Conversation with FHI Director Ranjana Khanna

By Michaela Dwyer // September 12, 2023

In January 2023, Ranjana Khanna was reappointed as FHI Director for a second 5-year term. In this wide-ranging interview with FHI's Assistant Director of Communications Michaela Dwyer, Khanna discusses the return of in-person programming and modes of collaboration in the humanities. Highlighting the launch of the Entanglement Project, she considers how the humanities might help us make sense of the world in the shadow of the pandemic.

Note: this conversation has been edited and condensed for greater clarity.

What's most energizing you about beginning your second term leading FHI?

It’s really good to be back in-person. I think that part of the way in which humanities collaboration works is to spend time together listening to and learning from each other's individually produced work. There are moments when faculty come together, as, for example, in our humanities labs and in our working groups, where they are wanting to research together around a particular topic or question, understanding that it takes a complex variety of specializations to fully address the thing.

There's also the kind of collaboration involved in [a scholarly talk], the generative work of being in a room together and asking questions, which is qualitatively different from reading a text and discussing it in a seminar. There's a kind of dynamism to the live conversation; there's the possibility of speculation that leads us in another direction, opening things up for both the speaker and the audience.

It's about cultivating intellectual life that happens over a period of conversation and relaxation. It's the idea that an intellectual life is actually so much more than a scholarly project. And I think that's one of the things that we support at FHI.

That makes me think about the kind of the role that you see FHI playing within and beyond Duke. How does FHI stand out? What about its place here, at Duke, makes it unique?

Our mandate is to work with all the faculty in the humanities and interpretive social sciences and the arts. I want to feel that everyone in those fields can come to us with ideas and projects, and we can find some way of helping to support them. This also supports our mission, because we have become well attuned to creating conversations in and around the humanities that wouldn't necessarily happen otherwise: about the kinds of challenges that come up in conversation within and beyond your own field.

One of the ways that we've done that at Duke is through the humanities labs, which were initially funded through the Mellon Foundation. Sometimes people ask, why are we using a term that is most common in the sciences? It's about designating a space within which the collaboration can function.

Right — it's not prescriptive.

Right. I think one of the things that's different is that the students in the lab are not working on the larger research project of the professor. They are working on their own research projects.

We're not necessarily looking for articles emerging out of these labs. This is more about the ways in which research topics can filter through different layers of participation, like working with the library, working with specialized staff, working with graduate students and undergraduates. There's something that opens as a possibility between those layers of collaboration.

Sometimes, there are certain questions emerging in the humanities and we think people should address them [through a lab]. It may be that they go on to have a longer life. For example, Haitian kreyòl, taught in the Haiti Lab, [is] now taught widely at Duke. In the Health Humanities Lab, it became evident among both the medical practitioners and those of us on the university side that there was something broken in the medical training system: that the whole point of medicine being a postgraduate degree rather than an undergraduate degree is that there is an expected foundation in the liberal arts, and that is increasingly being lost. According to the medical side, that translates to less-prepared doctors. So, this is something that we want to address collectively.

It's like FHI is creating space to pay attention to these types of issues.

Exactly — these issues, but also these [disciplinary] areas of structure. It is very important to me that a humanities institute is fundamentally about animating and improving research in the humanities, whether we are having a teach-in or we are trying to make something more accessible to an audience outside the university. The fundament has to be about research or teaching.

I’m glad you went there, because one thing I'm curious about is how your leadership of FHI interacts with your own research, teaching, and writing. How do you balance these activities?

One of the ways that I've tried to do this [balancing work] is through our thematic programming. For example, FHI had a theme of water one year. I taught a graduate class; we covered everything from the philosophical foundations of the “law of the sea” to the question of whether the novel was effectively founded on the sea to what digital art has opened up about the sea – for instance, how does the medium change when you take a camera into the water? We touched on poetry of the sea, which, in the Western tradition, one thinks of coming home, of ships and movement and the many scores of rewriting of the Odyssey and the Iliad.

At the moment, FHI is hosting the Entanglement Project. It seemed necessary to have a theme that explored the ways in which race, climate, and health were bound together and newly available for everyone to see in obvious ways because of the pandemic. But these issues actually have a much longer history that various faculty members and students are working on.

It takes me back into my own understanding of work in postcolonial studies, which in its analysis of colonialism has always been about land and land grab, private property, and land reform. And it has become clearer to me in the literary texts from the last century in India, the ways in which we understand land, and also in relationship to questions of mental health, have taken on a different kind of significance in in my own thinking.

The questions that we now call “decolonizing the curriculum” were always a big part of what I was thinking about in my own work. Part of the work of interdisciplinarity for me has been to understand things like, how is it that a canon got created, and what does it need to then decolonize it? How do we understand these protocols that emerge disciplinarily within the university, as part of a larger international global conversation? That’s one of the things that has been very important at FHI but also beyond FHI, partly through our example.

On the international scene, how is it that we understand, for example, humanities institutes as being a largely North American function? How do we think about them in relation to an institute for advanced study in Europe, or centers for the social sciences in India? In France, there isn't really this division between the humanities and social sciences. And how is it that you understand the ways in which the institution of the university creates and makes something possible?

It seems like spaces like FHI offer a unique vantage point that exceeds department-specific areas.

Exactly, which allows you to question some formations, [but] you have to be knowledgeable and embedded enough in them to really know what you're doing.

It makes me think of the 25th anniversary that FHI is approaching in 2024-25. What sorts of thematic emphases are you thinking about?

There's something nice about the fact that we’re turning 25 when Duke is turning 100. I would like to invite some of the people [from the early days] to reflect on what they wanted to do when they came to Duke and to the humanities more broadly.

In the 1980s, a decision was made at Duke to put money behind the humanities in a serious way. Some of the things that were created at that time were extraordinary. We remain [strong in] the theoretical humanities. We are very strong in questions around the study of slavery. We have been at the forefront of thinking about how the humanities has to be conceived as an international body of thoughts. We were crucial in the development of queer theory.

I would love to be in conversation with some of those people [who helped build these areas]. And I would certainly like to have a series of conversations around campus about where people want to see the humanities going.

To me, much of the work that we do in the humanities is trying to make sense of the world that we live in.

I've had a long-term interest in psychoanalysis and I am alarmed by the epidemic of anxiety. I would like us to be able to spend some time thinking about how to understand […] the way in which someone is responding to and dealing with the world.

My feeling is that we don't live with our ideas about justice and health and adequate housing only in terms of the problem that has to be solved. We have to understand — and I think this is what the humanities is doing in so many ways — what it means to live well, what comfort is, how justice is different from the law, how health is different from a statistical understanding that makes us apparently okay.

Thinking about what our fields do in terms of making sense of the world might actually help us to consider the different ways in which a pandemic [needs] to be studied.