Michele Berger

5 questions with … Michele Tracy Berger, the new director of the Baker-Nord Center for the Humanities

It isn’t easy to find cheerful assessments of the state of the humanities these days. From the decreasing volume of undergraduate humanities majors to the drop in relevant tenure-track jobs, the trends aren’t encouraging. But Michele Tracy Berger is unfazed by these challenges. 

“I believe there is no better time to be bold, engaged and courageous in how we tell the story about the value of the arts and humanities within higher education and to wider communities,” said Berger, who joined Case Western Reserve University this winter as director of the Baker-Nord Center for the Humanities and the Eric and Jane Nord Family Professor in the Department of Religious Studies.

Formerly a professor and associate chair in the Department of Women’s and Gender Studies at University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill, Berger has been devoted to interdisciplinary research and community building throughout her career. She previously served as director of the Faculty Fellows Program at UNC’s Institute for the Arts and Humanities and vice president of the National Women’s Studies Association. In 2006, she received the “American Fellow” award from the American Association of University Women. 

Berger, who holds a PhD in political science and a graduate certificate in women’s studies from University of Michigan, is an award-winning creative writer who uses speculative fiction and Afrofuturism to explore concepts of race, gender and identity. A past president of the North Carolina Writers’ Network, she has served as a judge for several fellowships and book prizes.

Most recently, Berger authored Black Women’s Health: Paths to Wellness for Mothers and Daughters, the first monograph to focus on the role of southern African American mothers and their adolescent daughters in shaping health practices in the face of sustained gender and racial inequities. Her first book, Workable Sisterhood: The Political Journey of Stigmatized Women with HIV/AIDS, won a “Best Book” Award from the American Political Science Association and was nominated for a “Distinguished Book” award from the American Sociological Association. 

In addition, she is the co-author of Transforming Scholarship: Why Women’s and Gender Studies Students Are Changing Themselves and the World, the third edition of which was published in 2021. 

Learn more about  Berger and her roles at CWRU in this week’s five questions.

1.  What attracted you to the Baker-Nord Center and, more generally, to Case Western Reserve? 

The core missions of the Baker-Nord Center and the College of Arts and Sciences align with my values as a scholar, educator, creative entrepreneur and artist. I was immediately attracted to the public-facing nature of the Baker-Nord Center, with its  numerous endowed lectures and lecture series, faculty and graduate works-in-progress lectures, and events co-sponsored with other CWRU departments and centers. The fact that all these events are free and open to the public encourages a continuous engagement with humanistic inquiry. 

The Cleveland Humanities Festival, and the center’s extensive programming for humanities undergraduates are distinctive and also drew me to the position. I deeply appreciate the vision and generosity of Jane Nord and her family in creating and sustaining the center, and I am so honored to lead it in the next stages of its evolution. 

Moving from a mid-career to senior scholar presented a clarifying moment to consider anew how my academic leadership skills can be fully utilized. CWRU’s commitment to innovation, the “Think Big” Strategic Plan, and the university’s emphasis on tackling both local and global challenges is exciting. I am energized by exploring how the Baker-Nord Center’s humanistic and interdisciplinary endeavors can play a key role in the advancement of CWRU’s ambitious vision.

2.  What is your first priority as the Baker-Nord Center’s director?

I’m spending my first months listening and learning in an immersive way. I’m connecting with colleagues and students through informal one-on-one meetings, attending departmental meetings and sitting in on undergraduate classes across the college. I am also meeting with our community partners, especially those involved in the Cleveland Humanities Festival.

In all of my conversations, I am interested in learning what has been valuable and transformative to people in their experience interacting with the Baker-Nord Center, and in identifying key areas of growth and opportunity.

3.  How do you see the role of the arts and humanities in higher education and in the larger community? 

As an interdependent community of educators and learners, we must reaffirm our belief that the humanities are critical to individual and collective advancement and to the development of a globally competent, ethically oriented and responsible citizenry. And at a moment when democracy is under siege globally, we need to remake the case that universities and liberal arts have a pivotal role to play in fostering democratic thinking and ways of being. 

The arts and humanities investigate common questions such as what it means to be human, what constitutes a good life, and what is truth (with a small “t”). We can deepen these questions beyond abstractions by applying them in service to solving our society’s most vexing, tangible concerns. Scholarly communities that wish to advance the arts and humanities must continue to be innovative in thinking about what students they wish to reach (traditional and nontraditional) and how to reach them (with flexible and adaptable pathways).

4.  You work in an interdisciplinary field—women’s and gender studies. Can you talk about the value of interdisciplinary research and collaboration? 

I am lucky that my career has allowed me to play multiple roles within and across scholarly and public communities. One of my core commitments has been to facilitate work that centers the value of interdisciplinarity and intersectionality in asking transformative questions, solving problems and promoting equity. 

Scholars have historically been trained to hyper-specialize, which has led to disciplinary silos. Therefore, it is critically important to support and encourage faculty to explore interdisciplinary inquiry. When faculty are able to do this through various mechanisms (e.g., fellowships, grants, special initiatives), they have conversations they wouldn’t normally have in their home department or subfield of expertise. Over the course of my career in supporting interdisciplinary research, I’ve watched projects get unstuck, academic renewal happen, and scholars imagine their work in fresh ways. 

I have found that interdisciplinary collaborations generate a unique intellectual generosity, because we can’t rest on disciplinary assumptions or conventions. The research that emerges from these collaborations is often applicable to a wider audience and has its focus on big questions that can align with the broader mission of a university.

5.  What did you find rewarding about your previous leadership experience—for example, as director of the Faculty Fellows Program at UNC’s Institute for the Arts and Humanities? What lessons from that experience will you bring to your new position? 

When I became director of the Faculty Fellows Program, my formal duties were to convene scholars in a weekly conversation, organize the sessions and provide structure and accountability. I expanded the role substantially: creating programming that deepened the academic community and connected faculty members to interdisciplinary projects. Eventually, I engaged and mentored more than 100 faculty members in UNC’s College of Arts and Sciences. That experience provided me with a unique vantage point to understand faculty needs and the changing demands across our career life cycle. 

One of the many lessons I’m bringing forward is that there is a tension between the often-stated desire for a vibrant faculty culture and community and the actual development of one. Building and sustaining a community is hard work. It takes time, investment, and the deployment of interpersonal resources. One of my goals for the Baker-Nord Center is to engage faculty and others about what a dynamic faculty culture and community looks and feels like.