February 22, 2002

Series Hopes To Revitalize Humanities

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In an effort to revitalize the study of the humanities at Cornell, 15 faculty members, administrators and postdoctoral fellows have been meeting once a week since Sept. 2001 as part of the Andrew W. Mellon Humanities Seminar.

This year’s seminar is the first part of a five-year program which aims to “provide faculty with interdisciplinary opportunities to think about how to reinvigorate the humanities in their research and teaching at Cornell,” said Prof. Michele Moody-Adams, philosophy and director and Hutchinson Professor of ethics and public life. Moody-Adams is a co-leader of the program along with Prof. Mary Beth Norton, history and American studies and Prof. Nick Salvatore, ILR collective bargaining, law and history and American studies.

The program theme for this first year is “race and ethnicity.” Each year, the program will take up a different theme. According to Moody-Adams, topics for other years may include “visual studies” and “ethics and responsibility,” among others.

“The seminar focuses on scholarship on race and ethnicity in a variety of different fields — literature, government, sociology, history, philosophy, science, religion — in the context of the U.S.,” said Norton.

The subject of the seminar changes weekly, and pertains to readings done by program participants in preparation for the weekly meeting. Past and proposed seminars include discussion of the human genome project, race and gender, immigration patterns as related to race and ethnicity, and the philosophical controversy surrounding group vs. individual rights. Readings have included, Maxine Hong Kingston’s Woman Warrior, Matthew Jacobson’s Whiteness of a Different Color, and Toni Morrison’s Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination.

The scholarly enterprise is the result of a $1.4 million grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Initial discussion about the program began among senior administrators — many involved with the humanities — including President Hunter R. Rawlings III, Provost Biddy (Carolyn A.) Martin, Philip Lewis, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and Jonathan Culler, senior associate dean of the College of Arts and Sciences.

“The Mellon foundation was interested in proposals for programs that would support intellectual exchange and innovation in the humanities, while helping recent Ph.D. recipients in the humanities find stimulating positions at research universities,” Martin said.

“In consultation with President Rawlings and me, Vice Provost Walter Cohen wrote a proposal for funds to support an annual, year-long faculty and postdoctoral seminar on topics that would change from year to year,” she added.

Rawlings, Martin and Cohen all attend the weekly seminar.

This seminar was partially modeled on an on-going seminar in the Social Sciences, overseen by Prof. Peter Katzenstein, government, and funded for the past two years by Atlantic Philanthropies. Rawlings and Martin have also been attending the Social Sciences seminar for the past year and a half.

Rawlings described the humanities program as, “an intellectual free-for-all. It’s a chance for intellectual discussion with faculty members from different departments, a very able, talented [group].”

According to Martin, the selection of the coordinators was the responsibility of the president, the provost, vice provost, and the deans of Arts and Sciences.

The Mellon Foundation, a not-for-profit organization established in 1969, aims to aid and promote scholarship and public welfare programs, for charitable, religious, scientific, literary or educational purposes. In addition to offering grants to institutions of higher education, the foundation also endows various institutions associated with cultural affairs and the performing arts, with conservation and the environment and with public affairs.

Archived article by Laura Rowntree