Mellon Foundation supports creation of a new Pathways minor in Tech for Humanity
July 1, 2020
“This grant is immensely important and transformational for Virginia Tech,” said Sylvester Johnson, director of the Center for Humanities and principal investigator for the grant. “At a time when the university is providing human-centered leadership of technology, such significant support could not be more timely or necessary.”
Pathways minors are a key feature of Virginia Tech’s general education program, which includes core and integrative concepts as well as learning outcomes for undergraduates. The new Tech for Humanity minor will focus on humanistic approaches to technology.
“The fundamental pillars of democracy are under threat when society fails to recognize that technology is not simply a technical issue, but also a deeply human, comprehensive issue,” Johnson said. “Technology has implications for ethics, culture, race, gender, politics, history, justice, and the human condition.”
The minor takes its name — and its impetus — from Tech for Humanity, a university-wide initiative that uses human-centered principles to explore the societal impact and governance of technological innovations. Johnson also serves as executive director of Tech for Humanity.
“The Tech for Humanity moniker for both the program and the minor is meant to be doubly meaningful,” Johnson said. “It signifies that technology must be guided by human-centered approaches — and that Virginia Tech is committed to serving humanity. The Mellon grant will elevate the efforts of our faculty to prepare a new generation of learners to understand technology through a comprehensive lens.”
The faculty will develop courses that focus on technology policy, the ethics of artificial intelligence, inclusion and diversity, historical and cultural knowledge, democratic outcomes, and the role of social justice in making technology accountable to the public good. The grant will also fund the creation of nearly 100 case studies that will be made freely available to anyone seeking to teach about technology from a humanities approach.
The idea for the new minor took root in 2019, when Rachel Holloway, vice provost for undergraduate academic affairs at Virginia Tech, and Stephen Biscotte, director of general education, met with Johnson to discuss the possibility of incorporating the Tech for Humanity initiative into the undergraduate curriculum.
As a Pathways minor, the Tech for Humanity curriculum will be available to undergraduates in all majors. Pathways minor credits count toward general education requirements, so students can pursue the minor without increasing the cost or time to completion of their undergraduate education.
“To create ethical, equitable, and socially just outcomes for the challenges that technology innovation is creating, we need to propel humanities to the center of our technological society,” Johnson said. “This initiative will help redefine the very meaning of ‘technologist,’ to emphasize the role of humanists and humanities education.”
The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation also recently awarded Virginia Tech a planning grant to enhance the searchability of the National Archives and Records Administration. This second initiative, led by Bill Ingram, assistant dean for archives and technology services in University Libraries at Virginia Tech, will determine how the university might help ensure researchers nationwide continue to be able to search, in a meaningful way, the exponentially increasing volume of digital records that capture the actions of the U.S. government. University Libraries and the Center for Humanities will both partner with the National Archives to lead the project.
“Both of our projects resonate with the Mellon Foundation’s mission,” Johnson said, “which focuses on the centrality of the humanities and the arts to human flourishing and to the well-being of diverse, fair, and democratic societies.”