Above: Humanities Division Dean Jasmine Alinder (left) and Arts Division Dean Celine Parreñas Shimizu (right) | Photos by Carolyn Lagattuta
UC Santa Cruz’s recently appointed deans of the Arts and Humanities divisions are bringing their commitment to creativity, community, and social justice to the campus community.
The award-winning filmmaker and scholar Celine Parreñas Shimizu started work as the new Arts Division dean in July, and Jasmine Alinder, a historian of photography, race, and civil rights, settled into her new position as Humanities Division dean last summer during the heart of the COVID pandemic.
“Celine Shimizu and Jasmine Alinder are respected ambassadors for the arts and humanities,” said UCSC Chancellor Cynthia Larive. “Both are dedicated to increasing the presence, impact, and visibility of the varied disciplines their divisions encompass. At a time when many colleges are slashing liberal arts budgets, UC Santa Cruz is reaffirming its commitment to these important fields by hiring these accomplished leaders.”
In interviews this July, Alinder and Shimizu reflected on their roads to UC Santa Cruz, and the importance of joining a university that is emerging from a long period of social distancing and uncertainty.
They also spoke about the critical importance of supporting and raising the visibility of the humanities and arts during a time when these essential disciplines are increasingly being pushed to the margins, in spite of their power to deepen critical thinking, heighten sympathetic imagination, and prepare students to lead in a rapidly changing world.
Strong commitment to the arts
When Shimizu was invited to apply for the Arts Division dean position, she found the campus’s prioritization of the arts inspiring.
“In many universities, arts are a subset of the humanities, but arts has its own division at UC Santa Cruz,” noted Shimizu, whose family immigrated to the United States from the Philippines when she was 13. “That shows a strong commitment to the arts. What is so special about the arts, and what is, unfortunately, so undervalued, is the way it can communicate feeling. Art can explore and confront intergenerational trauma. Art can communicate through facial expression, through physical gesture, how pain is felt.
“The history of a family can show up in a look, a face, the comportment of a body, and whoever is watching on screen, or hearing the music, can feel that,” Shimizu continued. “This experience becomes imprinted in their body in a way that can undo isolation and trauma, and take grief and redirect it toward regeneration.”
Shimizu is one of those rare scholars who is equally comfortable talking about film from a theoretical and practical standpoint, a combination that set her apart from other contenders for the job. She also blends creative thinking with rigorous organization.
“She is a proven leader and an exceptional filmmaker and film scholar,” noted Campus Provost and Executive Vice Chancellor (CP/EVC) Lori Kletzer. “Our campus will benefit greatly from her creativity, insight, and experience.”
Blending scholarship and filmmaking
In conversation, Shimizu can drill down into nuanced arguments about representations of Asian Americans in movies from the beginnings of Hollywood, but she can also talk in detail about budgets, lighting, and the practical realities of movie sets.
“I need both in my life to feel fully alive,” Shimizu said, referring to scholarship and filmmaking. “Both are creative enterprises. Both are intensely social.”
Shimizu’s creative projects, like her new job, required a rigorous discipline and organization, as well as a sympathetic imagination, curiosity, an ability to listen, and a strong desire for community connection.
Those skills were essential for Shimizu when she researched and filmed her most recent project, The Celine Archive, an eclectic documentary that melds animation, portraiture, interviews, site visits, and archival materials to explore the story of Celine Navarro, a Filipina immigrant woman murdered by her community in Northern California in 1932. The film earned the Culver City Film Festival’s Grand Prize for Best Documentary Feature.
The documentary hinges on the question, “Where are the women in Filipino American history?” Shimizu, who has a long track record of highlighting the misrepresentation of Asian Americans in cinema, and the hypersexualization of Asian American women in popular culture, said she hungered for authentic stories about “Filipino women’s American stories that came from traversing continents.”
Shimizu comes to the campus from San Francisco State University, where she had been director of the School of Cinema and professor of cinema studies, as well as a member of the graduate faculty in sexuality studies. Prior to that, she was a professor of Asian American, film and media, and feminist studies at UC Santa Barbara for 15 years.
Shimizu received her Ph.D. from the Program in Modern Thought and Literature at Stanford University; her M.F.A. in production and directing from the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television; and her B.A. in ethnic studies from UC Berkeley.
One of Shimizu’s goals as the Arts Division dean is to build upon and celebrate art’s transformative power. She also intends to cultivate a strong culture of compassion—a value that connected her to UCSC long before she took the top job in the Arts Division.
In her years as a UC Berkeley student, she often visited UC Santa Cruz to take part in a film festival featuring women of color. There, she first met the author, activist, and UC Santa Cruz Humanities Professor Emerita Angela Davis. Shimizu spent time here as a visiting professor in 2013. That year, the UC Santa Cruz community reached out in comfort after the sudden death of Shimizu’s 8-year-old son, Lakas Parreñas Shimizu, from a common virus that attacked his heart within 24 hours.
“I survived and continue to contend with what it means to experience an unexpected, devastating loss,” Shimizu said. In this position, she wants to carry forward the sense of care she experienced in the UCSC community.
“One of my priorities—and one of my ways of working in the world—is to establish a compassionate culture where work doesn’t overwhelm the faculty and staff because demands are endless,” Shimizu said. “And I wish to support the scholarship and creative work of faculty and students both.”
As she guides the Arts Division, she will fall back on the lessons she has learned as a filmmaker and scholar.
“An institution is composed of people, who bring their particular histories and backgrounds to their work,” she continued. “All of us who work together should feel a strong sense of belonging, affirmation, and recognition. I approach my work with a sense of genuine curiosity about other people and their stories. When I meet people, I always want to find out about them. What are you working toward, where do you come from, and what brought you here?”
A central role for the humanities at UCSC
Both Alinder and Shimizu made decisions to join UC Santa Cruz in the middle of a pandemic. The situation was especially surreal for Alinder, who assumed this new leadership role in August of 2020.
When she should have been walking down the halls and knocking on office doors, meeting colleagues, and getting used to her new surroundings, she found herself at home, connecting with workmates via Zoom.
She also started the job just before devastating wildfires hit, threatening the campus and forcing its evacuation.
“It has been a strange year,” said Alinder, who came to UC Santa Cruz from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, where she was a professor of history and associate dean of the humanities in the College of Letters and Science, a position she held since 2017.
But now that some in-person meetings have returned to UC Santa Cruz, Alinder has been making up for lost time, while getting to work on her highest-priority goals: building on the strengths of the humanities while raising their visibility and making them a high-profile aspect of campus culture.
One of her ambitious goals is to have UC Santa Cruz play a leading role in national conversations about the relevance of humanities for all career-prepared college students as well as graduate students, providing invaluable communication skills, creative flexibility, and a lively questioning of received ideas.
CP/EVC Kletzer called Alinder “exactly the leader we need and deserve, and I am excited to be working with her.”
“As an interdisciplinary, community-engaged scholar and teacher of public history and the history of photography, Alinder’s leadership is framed by her commitment to humanities in the public sphere and as a necessary component of understanding what it means to be human,” Kletzer said.
Alinder looks forward to working closely with The Humanities Institute (THI) at UCSC, a hub for new directions in research and teaching, cross-discipline collaboration, and public engagement.
THI is known for its high-profile public events and collaborations, including The Deep Read, which invites curious minds to think deeply about literature, art, and the most pressing issues of our day.
The institute recently co-sponsored a virtual appearance by the celebrated Native American writer Tommy Orange, author of the prize-winning novel There There.
“We are so excited to have Jasmine Alinder as the Humanities Division dean,” said THI Managing Director Irena Polić. “Jasmine brings with her a true commitment to public scholarship, a passion for public education, and the belief that the humanities have the power to transform lives and create a better, more just world.
“Already, she is already leading an impressive effort to rethink humanities education for non-humanities majors, and is an important partner and participant in our public programs,” Polić said. “We look forward to working with her on new initiatives, and building on our existing relationships with campus and community partners.”
Pushing back against humanities marginalization
Alinder is part of a movement that is pushing back against the notion that the humanities are somehow “soft” or expendable compared to the hard sciences, and that these disciplines, far from being at odds with one another, are complementary.
“The humanities can help us ask and answer the key questions we are grappling with as a community and larger society,” Alinder said. “In the past year, there has been a lot of focus on the pandemic, and issues around racial justice. If the humanities are not part of those discussions, there is little chance that we can come up with solutions that are resonant and durable, that speak to history and context and help us understand how we are at the place we are now.
Alinder spoke of undeniable, practical benefits of exposure to the humanities.
“Since the Great Recession there has been a crisis for the humanities, and more recently we have seen students leave the humanities major in pretty large numbers and gravitate toward STEM [science, technology, engineering, and math],” she said.
“But there are arguments we have to make that are based on what employers say they want. They are looking for communication skills, the ability to understand evidence and arrive at independent conclusions. This is at the core of what humanities does. Humanities trains graduates who are highly employable with durable sets of skills, including analysis of evidence, written and verbal communication, deliberation, ability to recognize different points of view, and a strong empathetic sense.”
She also wants to seek out new partnerships and collaborations between the humanities and academic divisions across the disciplines on campus. Alinder has been working with faculty members, mostly in the Humanities Division and Baskin School of Engineering, to create a new humanities certificate geared toward immersing engineering students in topics such as the ethical issues of artificial intelligence technologies as well as social justice issues.
Getting a certificate is a way to develop students’ capacities as deliberative, critical thinkers about social and cultural systems and to train students who can attest to the relevance of humanistic thinking not simply for their occupational life, but for navigating their values and place in the world, Alinder said.
The certificate will ensure that UCSC’s School of Engineering students use humanistic methods to explore and understand the social, cultural, and historical ramifications of new technologies, she said.
Alinder earned her doctorate in the history of art at the University of Michigan, with an emphasis on the history of photography; her M.A. in art history at the University of New Mexico; and her A.B. in art history from Princeton University.
She is an interdisciplinary, community-engaged scholar and teacher of public history, the history of photography, and the history of Japanese-Americans during World War II. As a historian of photography, her research investigates what she characterizes as “the presumptive right to the camera.”
Taking the Humanities Division dean job at UCSC feels like “a chance to come home again,” said Alinder, who grew up in Monterey, less than an hour’s drive from the campus. She was also drawn to UC Santa Cruz’s status as a public university interested in both top-tier research and hands-on student experience, as well as the campus’s strong traditions of social justice and interdisciplinary learning.
She hopes to play a leading role in bringing humanities to greater respect and prominence throughout the United States.
“I really want to re-center the humanities at the core of what it means to have an excellent and relevant college education,” she said.