Wesleyan just announced a very generous 2 million dollar challenge grant for our Center for the Humanities from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. The challenge for us will be to raise another $4 million for the Center’s endowment. Rising to that challenge will strengthen Wesleyan’s leadership role in creating programs in the humanities, broadly conceived, that advance scholarship while making a deep impact on the lives of students.
Wesleyan’s Center for the Humanities began as a place for scholars, artists and public intellectuals to develop their ideas with support, encouragement and without the disruptions of their normal working routines. Hannah Arendt worked on Eichman in Jerusalem at the Center, and C.P. Snow revised his thinking about the “two cultures.” Stanley Cavell’s The Senses of Walden developed there, as did Gayatri Spivak’s work on the subaltern. John Cage presided over many a conversation in the Center’s early years, and while I was a student the Director Hayden White brought in one extraordinary thinker after another. The current director, Jill Morawski, has kept the Center at the leading edge of important interdisciplinary scholarship. This term the focus is on how facts are constructed and recognized in a variety of fields, and next semester the Center’s Fellows will deal with the role of affect in the political sphere. Future projects at the Center will tie directly into pedagogy as well as research, and I’m very excited about that. The grant will also allow us to expand our reach into public life and to promote collaborative projects on and off campus.
While I embrace any opportunity to strengthen Wesleyan, this challenge grant has a special feel for me. As an undergraduate, I attended the Center for the Humanities lectures with devotion (if not always comprehension). I loved the atmosphere of experimentation, boldness and rigor that I found there. I wrote my senior thesis as a student fellow at the Center, and it became my first book publication. Later, as a young professor, I started the Scripps College Humanities Institute with Wesleyan’s Center as my model. My undergraduate advisor Henry Abelove invited me to lecture at the Center, and it was very moving to stand behind the podium in Russell House that I had so often looked up to from the audience.
Faculty and students here today often tell me how valuable their time at the Center has been for their scholarship, teaching and learning. I’m never surprised. With help from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the generous Wesleyan donor community, we will be able to enhance the work of interdisciplinary humanities work for many years to come!