Since its inception in 1965, the National Endowment for the Humanities has battled the perception that the fine arts and social sciences are less serious than the “hard” sciences. In a valedictory lecture in May, outgoing NEH Chairman Jim Leach questioned the dichotomy between the so-called STEM curriculum—science, technology, engineering, and math—and the humanities. “My thesis is that the humanities and fields of inquiry related to [STEM] are complementary rather than competitive,” he said.
Watson, his successor at the agency, has done her part to obliterate the distinction between hard and soft fields of inquiry by moving forward with NEH’s equivalent of the Human Genome Project. In collaboration with the Library of Congress, the agency is digitizing a hundred years of reportage: every article published by an American newspaper between 1836 and 1922.
NEH, one of the smallest points of light in the constellation of federal agencies, has been especially hard-hit by the 2011 Budget Control Act. “We are definitely feeling the pain of sequestration,” Watson says. For every dollar the agency withholds from its Challenge Grants program, it loses $3 in nonfederal matching funds.
A Kansas native, Watson holds a bachelor’s degree from Pittsburg State University in southeastern Kansas, a master’s degree in English and American literature from St. Louis University, and a Ph.D. in American cultural history from George Washington University. Before joining the NEH Office of the Chairman in 1995, she directed intercultural programs at the Lindenwood Colleges in Saint Charles, Mo., and was founding English department chairman of the Abraham Lincoln Opportunity School in St. Louis.
Watson, who declined to give her age, is a well-known scholar of African-American literature. She compiled one of the first bibliographies of novels by African-American women by poring over volumes at Howard University and the Library of Congress. “I found that most of the novels weren’t any good—they were written to put a positive face on African-American life for white audiences or to serve as exemplars for African-American readers. They were full of principles of behavior.” One notable exception, she says, is Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neale Hurston.