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Celebrating the humanities

By Cindy Weiss, CLAS Today

In the long history of the humanities, ten years is a blip.

But it marks a milestone for the UConn Humanities Institute in CLAS, which will celebrate its tenth anniversary with a two-day conference April 7-8, capped by Nobel Prize-winning author Toni Morrison’s keynote speech.

The anniversary comes at a time when critics around the country are questioning the value of studying the humanities.

Institutes such as UConn’s highlight the importance of the humanities and raise its profile at the University, say those associated with the program.

“We’re deeply, rigorously, intellectually engaged in research,” spanning topics from the ancient world to the digital humanities, says its director, Sharon Harris, professor of English.

And the relevance of study centered on the human condition in an age of high-tech advances? “After all, you’re asking human beings to USE that technology.” Furthermore, she says, “As we talk about our global missions, how can we not have languages and cross-cultural study?”

At a world-class university, the humanities play a central role in fostering higher learning and critical thinking, says Jeffrey O.G. Ogbar, professor of history and associate dean of CLAS.

“At the end of the day, the Humanities Institute really enriches the intellectual vitality of the University,” he says.

Each year the institute brings together faculty from inside and outside the university for fellowships. They work on books, present their research in seminars and formats open to the University community, and meet informally to share ideas and critique each other’s proposals.

The institute also sponsors two or three graduate dissertation fellowships a year, and the graduate students participate in the faculty fellow activities.

The fellowships free faculty and grad students from some teaching responsibilities, providing what they all say is a critical benefit of extra time to think about and work on books, proposals, and scholarly research.

“It’s really invaluable – it’s given me the time to settle down and read some theory,” says Emma Gilligan, assistant professor of history and a current fellow. She is studying language and violence in Russia in the 20th century, work that grew out of a book she wrote about Chechnya. “For those of us who don’t work in English, often we need more time, just to get access to things,” she says.

For philosopher Paul Bloomfield, a fellow in 2007-2008, “talking with my fellow fellows allowed me to try out different ways of communicating my ideas to non-philosophers, and that’s always helpful.”

Toni Morrison tickets

Tickets to Toni Morrison’s keynote address at 4 p.m. on April 8 at the Student Union Theatre are being sold in advance at the Student Union ticket booth from noon to 8 p.m. this week. Tickets are $5 and are restricted to faculty (emeritus and current), staff and students. A UConn ID must be presented; two tickets per person; Husky Bucks are accepted. The SU ticket booth is located on the concourse level near the ATM and information booth.

Miloje Despic, a PhD candidate in linguistics and one of this year’s graduate student fellows, says the experience has provided him with new perspectives on his dissertation topic, language without definite articles.

By interacting with scholars in other fields, “I was able to look at my work from the outside,” he says. It helped him better define what he is doing and to validate his approach.

The advice and interaction with others also played a huge role in helping him land a Mellon fellowship for postgraduate study at Cornell, he says. “The whole discussion in the humanities really helped me write the application.”

And that is part of the aim of the institute – to increase the success rate of fellowship and grant proposals to funders such as the National Endowment for the Humanities.

When former CLAS Dean Ross MacKinnon decided to create a humanities institute, “the first priority of the Institute was to enhance faculty research and external fellowships,” says Richard Brown, emeritus professor of history and the Institute’s first director, serving from 2001 to 2009.

A multidisciplinary advisory board that included faculty from the School of Fine Arts was a vital contributor of ideas, says Brown. The Institute quickly expanded beyond CLAS to include support from the chancellor’s office (now the office of the provost), and the graduate school. Collaboration with the Human Rights Institute resulted in a major conference, a book and a new program in Foundations of Humanitarianism.

A yearly Day in the Humanities, introduced by a previous associate director, anthropologist Francoise Dussart, includes dramatic arts performances, panel discussions, and presentations centered on a theme.

This year, the day has expanded to a two-day conference on “Understanding the Past, Transforming the Future.” It will include panels such as “A Defense of Poetry” and “Humanities and Medicine” along with a plenary panel on “The Evolving Humanities” that will include speakers from humanities centers at Princeton, Brown, and Boston universities. (Princeton’s dates back to 1953, and BU’s to 1981.)

The Connecticut Repertory Theatre will present a dramatic reading of Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye,” and a scholarly panel will discuss her contributions to the humanities. Her keynote address on the importance of humanities in the 21st century will end the conference on April 8. Tickets to her talk are on sale the week of March 28 at the Student Union box office.

Beyond the activities of the Institute, its presence on campus can be a recruiting tool. Christopher Clark, professor of history, was among the first external fellows at the Institute, studying here in 2002-2003, when he was a historian at the University of Warwick in the UK.

He wrote the first draft of his book, “Social Change in America from the Revolution to the Civil War” that year, and later applied for a job at UConn.

His year as a fellow coincided with the beginning of the war with Iraq, and feelings before and against U.S. involvement ran high.

“People were able to talk about their differences and talk about it in a civilized way,” he recalls. “This (the Humanities Institute) was a place where you could do that.”

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