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Old house of new ideas: Society for the Humanities to plug into digital culture as Murray takes helm

The Society for the Humanities moves with the times. Although housed in the Victorian splendor of the Andrew Dickson White House, home of Cornell's first president, the society has for more than four decades spearheaded propagation of new knowledge and introduced interdisciplinary approaches to study that have had lasting institutional consequences.

Arguably the most prominent think tank of its kind in the United States, the Society for the Humanities is Cornell-based but has an impact around the world: It's a recruitment tool for graduate students and professors as unprecedented numbers of faculty retire; an accelerator for the careers of junior scholars, postdocs and graduate students; a hub for innovative thinkers who benefit Cornell students through teaching; and perhaps most important, a catalyst for national and international dialogue about emerging issues in the humanities.

On July 1, Professor Tim Murray will begin a five-year term as Society for the Humanities director, succeeding Brett de Bary, professor of Asian studies and comparative literature. Murray joined the Cornell faculty in 1979 in English and taught drama and Shakespeare for a number of years. Much like the society itself, he has repeatedly reinvented his career by following his curiosity into new fields. Now a professor of English and comparative literature, he is deeply involved in digital culture and digital humanities and is the founding curator of the Rose Goldsen Archive of New Media Art, housed in Kroch Library.

Murray notes that the Society for the Humanities' 1966 founding occurred against an unsettled backdrop of war, protest and intellectual ferment, including the Free Speech Movement in the west and the rise of poststructuralism in East Coast universities. Legendary Cornell professors M.H. (Mike) Abrams (English), Max Black (philosophy) and Henry Guerlac (history of science) were among the society's founders.

Michael Kammen (1977-1980): "I faced two major issues when I became director in 1977: an urgent need for fundraising, which I accomplished, and meeting my goal of getting folks from the entire campus involved. So we organized conferences where natural and social scientists would interact with humanists, and featured very diverse lectures. Looking back, I have wonderful memories, such as co-sponsoring with Archie Ammons a visit by the inspiring poet Josephine Miles. And the time when Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, a brilliant but otherworldly historian, removed all the draperies in the guest suite to sleep under because he never thought to open the great armoire for blankets. I was also blessed with a wonderful support staff."

Jonathan Culler (1984-1993): "The Society for the Humanities, among the oldest humanities centers in the country, serves as a site of interdisciplinary discussions for Cornell faculty members and fellows from elsewhere and as a sponsor of lectures and conferences of broad appeal to humanities faculty and students. My years as director were a time of ferment and innovation in the humanities, and the society was able to bring to Cornell young faculty and some eminent senior scholars doing exciting work in areas where Cornell was not yet strong, such as feminist theory, film and television, and gay and lesbian studies."

Dominick LaCapra (1993-2003): "The task of any director of the Society for the Humanities is to build on and further extend a tradition of excellence. Over time the society has broadened its mission and the multiple ways it interfaces with other groups at Cornell and in Ithaca. This broadening was a primary goal of my directorship, combined with furthering the equally important role of the society as a stimulant or gadfly for events in the humanities. When I began my directorship, the great wave of critical theories that had swept through the academy had crested, and the challenge was how to draw from their insights and sustain their sense of excitement while not simply repeating their contributions. This was perhaps the greatest challenge at the time, and, with the cooperation of the Humanities Council, I tried to meet it in several ways."

Brett de Bary (2003-2008): "My time at the society has given me a sense of the depth and range of the humanities at Cornell I would never have had otherwise. When I assumed the directorship in 2003, I was most struck by the disparity between the necessary subtlety of humanistic thought and the stark backdrop of a U.S.-led, newly globalized War on Terror. I'm not embarrassed to say that, in the face of that disparity, I saw my main challenge as maintaining a delicate balance between the humanities' obligation to conserve and transmit, and its commitment to critical, innovative thinking. Being involved with extraordinary weekly conversations among our fellows, and with the nearly 100 academic events per year that take place at A.D. White, I've seen the society's role as that of a catalyst of interactions across the humanities, but never as centralizing them. For above all, the society, like humanistic thought, should be open to the unforeseen and the spontaneous. I feel in all respects this vision has been richly rewarded by the creativity of my colleagues."

"We're one of the oldest humanities centers in the country and one of the best endowed," Murray says, "also being one of the few that offer resident fellowship programs for outside scholars. Every year these deeply innovative scholars offer a course for Cornell graduate students and undergraduates, and that's had innumerable positive impacts. I hear great stories from students about the value of the encounters they've had with the society's visiting faculty."

Traffic becomes intense during the academic year at the A.D. White House, where fellows are given offices. Each year the society invites one or two senior scholars, whose participation helps attract eight or nine other outside scholars, the majority of them junior level and chosen in a highly vetted selection procedure. Another four to six Cornell faculty scholars are also in residence each year along with two Cornell graduate student fellows and three to five postdoctoral fellows, all funded by the Mellon Foundation. Each conducts research on a common theme, which is discussed during the society's legendary weekly luncheon seminar. Still other scholars visit the society briefly to deliver lectures or participate in conferences.

Drawn by the society's international reputation (an invitation to join the society as a fellow or to give a lecture is a plum CV highlight), visiting international and U.S. scholars also teach one course, which allows them time off from administrative and other responsibilities connected with their academic posts. "Visiting fellows have complete freedom in the classroom, freedom to interact with all participants without their normal institutional burdens," Murray says. "In the best-case scenario, this expands horizons. In the professional scenario, it expands collaborations. Many Cornell faculty over the years have co-authored books, edited journals, organized conferences and collaborated on research projects with society scholars."

Scholars are under no pressure to quantify the results of their stay, Murray notes with pride. "This is an old-fashioned research institute," he says. "Its importance is precisely to provide scholars with the time for reflection and writing. We do hope and expect important books and creative projects will come out of residencies in this house, but we also understand that really important thoughts and projects sometimes take long periods of time to incubate."

Other ways society ideas are disseminated: Graduate students take courses with visiting scholars, write dissertations on those subjects, ask society fellows to serve on their dissertation committees, get teaching jobs and publish books. "Changes happen," Murray says. "Borders are crossed."

Academic emphases at the society continue to evolve quickly, and often the society itself helps propel such change. Feminism and queer studies, postcolonialism, postmodernism and multicultural studies have been reflected in society focal themes. In 1990, when Murray joined the society as a Cornell faculty fellow to study the theme "The Humanities and the Challenge of Mass Culture," few people at the university taught film, television or popular music.

Looking ahead to his term as director, Murray predicts the society will investigate issues of biopolitics, biohumanities and digital culture. "These issues become especially important because of the growing role of the life sciences, engineering and computing at Cornell," says Murray. "Brett de Bary opened a lot of doors to make sure that there are bridges between what goes on in the humanities and what goes on in other colleges and universities around the globe."

New areas of inquiry allow the Society for the Humanities to retain its "intense visibility," according to Murray. "Whether through co-sponsorships, conferences or as the site of dialogue -- we really serve as a magnet for discourse for the humanities and across the humanities. Almost every major international figure in the humanities has passed through this house. People know about it. They want to be here. They have very good experiences here. And few people turn down an offer to lecture here; that happens very rarely."


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