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Reflection Series: A Humanist’s Perspective on What It Means to Be a Preeminent Jesuit Research University

by Claire Gilbert, Ph.D. on 11/29/2023


When I arrived at Saint Louis University in 2014, I wasn’t sure what to expect from my first faculty position after graduate school. After completing years of training as a historian in California and research in Europe and North Africa, St. Louis was a new city, in a new part of the country. And SLU was a Jesuit university. I thought that I had some idea of what the latter might mean since I had researched early Jesuit education and pedagogical initiatives in the Renaissance Mediterranean as part of my studies on Iberian globalization. But I learned that despite this historical perspective, I did not know what it meant to be part of a contemporary American Jesuit university, one with a long tradition of research excellence and tremendous promise for growth.

What I found in this vibrant Midwestern city were incredible resources for studying the past and a dynamic and welcoming community of scholars whose work impacts local communities and has established a global reputation. Over the past nine years, I’ve enjoyed watching and contributing to the successes accumulated by my colleagues as the study of humanities at SLU has grown and thrived.

Humanities in the contemporary university represents the constellation of disciplines and scholarly approaches that investigate the human condition as described and recounted by humans in the past, in the present, and even projecting into the future. At SLU, this scholarship explores the meaning of the human experience across different places and times, across different linguistic and cultural settings, and through a wide variety of disciplinary approaches, from historical and literary methods to anthropology, from enduring philosophical questions to cutting-edge techniques in digital humanities. And because SLU is a Jesuit institution with a commitment to seeking truth and holistic education, humanities scholarship comes with a tradition of service and community building that informs our diverse activities in the classroom, in the library and in the field. For more than 200 years, SLU scholars have gathered to think deeply about the human condition and to cultivate service and dedication to the societies we work in.

As a historian, my research concentrates on past human experiences in various cultural, political, scientific, economic, and religious settings and draws on methods from humanistic and social science disciplines. Though the people I study lived long ago and far away, I have found that engaging with the traces of meaning they left in various archives allows me and my students — graduate and undergraduate — to consider the implications of those experiences here and now. As we work to decipher and contextualize fragmented historical sources, we interrogate data that can help recreate daily practices or broader cultural shifts, for example, how members of different faith and language communities came to know and treat each other following military conquest, or how politicians and their legal and religious advisors worked to create new categories of belonging in their societies. We see how the powerful and the powerless crafted their arguments, and we find examples of both compassion and terrifying cruelty, which resonate with similar debates taking place now across the world. We feel the disappointment of the merchant whose cargo was lost following difficult negotiations in far-off lands while we learn of innovative financial instruments developed to mitigate that same risk, reflecting new modes of communication and collaboration across local and global networks. We find glimpses into the same kinds of intellectual excitement that we ourselves might feel, as scholars recount debates among their scientific community over information distributed through new media technologies, and we realize how ideas wend serendipitous paths through time, shaped by the hands and minds that held them.

And through this kind of discovery, the SLU humanities community finds itself asking again and again: “What did this mean for those who experienced it?” and “What does it mean for us to know this?”

These are the fundamental questions that allow humanities scholars to broadly shed light on the ways in which humans have understood themselves and others, and how this understanding shaped their decisions about how to treat each other and to pursue their individual and collective goals. In the past, as now, humans undertook these decisions and pursuits against the backdrop of political conflicts, economic instabilities, cultural developments, environmental change, and social division, all of which shaped their ideas and the consequences of the actions that resulted. Considering how those in the past faced such challenges gives context and perspective to the challenges we now face, and reflecting on such comparisons and experiences can give us insight into how we might approach our shared future.

So often, we take humanities research for granted. Yet those disciplines and approaches take seriously the question of what it has meant and can mean to be human. And such scholarship can provide an antidote to the plagues of misunderstanding and unkindness that can and do divide societies and destroy communities. As historian Charles Tilly and Jesuit philosopher Michel de Certeau each explained, humanities reflect on the situatedness of knowledge and question what it means to ask “why” from different times and places.

Humanists create new concepts for understanding the human condition and (as is the case with any rigorous researchers) generate more questions. In this unceasing asking, we can find an inherent good, a quest for truth and understanding that requires us to imagine experiences and identities beyond our own. The quest almost invariably cultivates a perspective from which we may better understand and respect diversity and thereby find common ground through the human condition we share across time and space. This balance of seeking, understanding, and serving is what I have found pursuing research in the humanities at SLU, where I have been honored to join colleagues engaged in this enterprise from a variety of perspectives and commitments. This diversity enriches our scholarship and reveals the enduring importance of humanistic inquiry in academia and in modern society. Commitment to that inquiry is a hallmark of the preeminent Jesuit research university that SLU has become.

Headshot of Claire Gilbert

Claire Gilbert, Ph.D.

Claire Gilbert, Ph.D., is an associate professor of history and director of scholarly research initiatives in the Office of the Vice President for Research, a position she has held since 2022.

Read Other Essays in the Series

Ken Olliff, "What Does It Mean to Be a Preeminent Jesuit Research University?"