College of Arts & Sciences


Tackling the Opioid Crisis—With a Book

While some predict a dim future for the humanities, literature professor Susan Mizruchi has plans to make them more relevant than ever

By Andrew Thurston | Photo: Istock/evgenniand

America is in the throes of an epidemic. Every day, 78 people in the country die from an opioid overdose. Health professionals have suggested improving access to treatment, changing attitudes on pain management, and cutting prescription rates. No one—so far—has suggested tapping into the wisdom of a historian or literature expert.

And yet library shelves bow with tales told by writers haunted by addiction and studies of historical wars on drugs. Just about every Romantic poet had used opium; David Foster Wallace’s 1996 bestseller Infinite Jest is a comedy set in a Boston recovery house.

“You could say that addiction might be the most significant, highly public, and intractable social problem of the decade,” says Susan Mizruchi, a professor of English literature and the new director of the BU Center for the Humanities. She thinks the center—stocked with knowledge on epidemics past—has a role to play in solving today’s problems. “People in the humanities have real contributions to make in helping to address the problem.”

Susan Mizruchi, the new director of the BU Center for the Humanities, wants to better connect the University's humanities experts with Boston. Bryce Vickmark, courtesy of Susan Mizruchi

One of her biggest ideas is to bring together health experts and humanities professors for a symposium on addiction.

“All of these literary works have so much to say about the subjective experience of addiction and the social stigma of it,” she says. “I would want to see people in medicine learning about these works and reading snippets of them introduced and conceptualized by literary people.”

It’s one of the ways Mizruchi is looking to better connect the center with the world around it.

“I see one of my goals as trying to enhance the profile of the center in the city of Boston and nationally. It’s an astonishingly rich place and I think it can easily be—and should be—better known.”

The BU Center for the Humanities was founded in 1981 by a National Endowment for the Humanities Challenge Grant that was matched by donors. It offers research fellowships to junior and senior faculty, allowing them to reduce their teaching loads to focus on new scholarship. The center also supports graduate and undergraduate students with fellowships and awards.

But these are perilous times for the humanities: federal funding is way down in real terms and the percentage of students picking up degrees is seemingly through the floor. Nationally, core humanities disciplines account for less than 10 percent of all bachelor’s degrees awarded, according to the American Academy of Arts & Sciences.

“There’s the ugly truth,” says James Winn, a professor of English, flashing a graph comparing federal funding by research area. “We spend $269 on science for every $1 we spend on the humanities. We spend the same crappy amount on the arts as we do for the humanities—and the budget for military bands is larger than the budget for the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities combined.”

“I only teach works that I love, and my goal is to get students to share my enthusiasm and recognize the insights these works have to offer. In a way, at the center I’ll be doing that on a broader scale, trying to bring to people’s awareness all the invaluable cultural resources that exist in the humanities.”—Susan Mizruchi

Winn is the outgoing director of the Center for the Humanities. He wonders how different the world would be if the humanities budget were increased tenfold: “They would be funding half of the proposals rather than 5 percent,” he speculates.

During his tenure as the center’s director, Winn says he was able to fund about half the faculty who applied to the center for support. The center also runs workshops to help professors secure those federal dollars.

“With crisis comes opportunity,” says Mizruchi. “I’m hoping we can take our moment of crisis and use it to actually expand the center and make it a more prominent institution. This is a moment when you have to fight for the humanities, you really have to teach students why it’s important.”

In addition to initiatives like the possible addiction symposium, Mizruchi plans a first conference in the fall of 2017 on archives, bringing in leaders from libraries around the world. She hopes to make other community contributions, such as growing a program that sees professors share their latest research findings and scholarship with local middle and high school teachers. She also plans to fundraise to expand the center’s physical space and grow the number of fellowships for undergraduates.

“In this era when the humanities are imperiled,” she says, “smart institutions like Boston University want to foreground their faith in the humanities and their commitment to the humanities, and my goal would be to find a promising place on campus that we could renovate in order to establish a new home for the center.”

Winn remembers President Robert A. Brown—an engineer—telling the English faculty that without a great English department, BU would not be a great university. For Winn, it was confirmation that institutions of higher education still have an important societal role beyond problem-solving research.

“We have a curatorial function, and it rests primarily with the humanities. We are the keepers of eons of wisdom and part of our job is not just to hold passively to that wisdom, but constantly to reexamine it.”

Mizruchi is excited about the prospect of helping the center share that wisdom beyond BU.

“I only teach works that I love, and my goal is to get students to share my enthusiasm and recognize the insights these works have to offer. In a way, at the center I’ll be doing that on a broader scale, trying to bring to people’s awareness all the invaluable cultural resources that exist in the humanities.”