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WHC provokes dialogue across academic faultlines

Jinjin Sun/YH

Jinjin Sun/YH

Jinjin Sun/YH

Jinjin Sun/YH

Under Director Maria Rosa Menocal, the Center and its Fellows expand the humanities.

The Fellows start to amble in at 12:15. As they enter, their eyes flit between the lunch buffet (roast potatoes, sautéed green beans, lightly browned tilapia filets) and the Fellows who have already arrived. They assemble in groups of twos and threes, discussing their latest research and their classes. Michelle Addington from the School of Architecture tells Kishwar Rivzi from Art History about her recent trip to Cairo. They swap war stories about corrupt Egyptian developers and urban growth in the United Arab Emirates. Two yards away, Justin Zaremby, CC ’03, LAW ’10, Whitney Humanities Center veteran, expounds on the virtues of Directed Studies to Richard (“Rick,” here) Prum, the MacArthur-winning ornithologist. Meanwhile, Maria Rosa Menocal, director of the WHC and Sterling Professor of the Humanities, flutters around the room, making sure everything—from the curtains to the salad dressing—looks perfect.

A few minutes later, Menocal gently prods everyone towards the food so proceedings can begin.

I fill my plate and grab a Mango Açai Honest Tea (produced, naturally, by a Yale alum), then sit down next to Zaremby and Rob Nelson, chair of the Art History Department. Others continue to trickle in and grab food.

“I just absolutely love these,” Nelson gushes. “My Fellowship is now over, but I still come. Once you’re a Fellow, you can come for life.”

Is that Dean Miller sitting across from Prum? That’s definitely WGSS professor Maria Trumpler next to Philosophy chair Michael Della Rocca.

Nelson is a helpful guide. “Sitting over there,” he says, indicating the table nearest the buffet, “is Jonathan Spence, who is the expert on China. He’s technically retired now, but he’s giving the Jefferson Lectures in Washington this year.”

“That’s pretty much the most prestigious thing you can be asked to do in the Humanities,” Zaremby explains.

Minutes later, Menocal stops by our table and tells us to go to the buffet to get coffee and lemon squares. “This is the most important part of the meeting,” she says, walking to the next table.

“She doesn’t want people getting up in the middle of a talk to get dessert. That’s gauche,” Nelson says.

With everyone caffeinated and sugared up, Sarah Weiss stands at the front of the room to discuss her research on the authenticity of music with these 40-odd academic luminaries—with the Whitney Humanities Center Fellows.

***

The Whitney Humanities Center was founded in 1981 under the directorship of Peter Brooks, longtime—and hugely influential—Sterling Professor of Comparative Literature, who now teaches at Princeton. In 1976, with money donated by the Whitney family for two residential colleges that never got built, the University purchased the Parish House of the Trinity Church on the Green. The building, located at 53 Wall St., was to combine under one roof several academic programs and groups—along with a new venue for academic discourse.

“There was a lot of talk about the need for such a thing,” Brooks said. “Geoffrey Hartman, Sterling Professor of English, was part of a group who argued that Yale faculty did a very good job teaching students but didn’t do a very good job teaching each other.”

From the beginning, the core of the WHC was its fellowship program. Fellows were appointed by the President, working with Brooks, to two-year terms (there are now some one- and three- year terms as well; the fellows are also now appointed by an executive committee headed by Menocal rather than President Levin). The Fellows were to “talk about research work they were doing, but also problems in the humanities in general,” Brooks said. Since the program began, they have met each week for lunch and a talk from among their ranks. They came from across the University, often from the humanities, but also from the social and hard sciences.

Brooks was the WHC’s director for 10 years. The Center then went through a period of upheaval, going through two directors in five years. Brooks was brought back in for another five-year term in 1996. Once this elapsed, President Levin had to appoint a successor.

Menocal, who was then head of Special Programs in the Humanities—comprising Directed Studies and the Humanities major—quickly became the clear choice.

***

One of the first things Menocal did when she assumed the directorship in 2002 was change the food.

Norma Thompson, DUS of the Humanities program and Associate Director of the WHC, said that before, Fellowship lunches consisted of “cold cuts and white bread for people to make their own sandwiches. It was decidedly not what you want when you come for a special lunch.”

Menocal, universally described as a great foodie, brought in caterers from outside the University to rectify the situation. “I am a great believer in the importance of food,” Menocal said, “and it doesn’t even have to cost more to serve something nice.”

Menocal’s culinary finesse indicates a broader quality she brings to the Whitney Humanities Center: a kind of rigorous inclusiveness that allows her to bring together exciting people and ideas from around the university. Whenever I mentioned her name, people raved about her warmth and energy. She has a miraculous flair for getting people on her side; somehow, she seems supportive and encouraging even when voicing harsh criticism.

“She’s always on the lookout for somebody who might be in some small department, who actually has broad interdisciplinary reach, who should be brought into this community,” Thompson said. “She’s great that way, and is such a dramatic and strong presence at the Whitney that people are happy to be here.”

But if Menocal is a social butterfly (and she is), she is also a formidable scholar. Since getting her PhD in Romance Philology (“which practically doesn’t exist any more,” she says) at Penn, where Menocal was also an undergraduate, she has published widely acclaimed books on Islamic Spain and the influence of Dante on Western literature, among others. In 2006, she was named a Sterling Professor, the highest honor the Yale can bestow on faculty.

For these reasons, in recent years, whenever there has been a vacancy in University leadership, her name has been floated as a potential candidate. But Menocal dismisses such talk.

She said, “I’m not interested. I really think this is the best job in the entire University.”

***

Menocal’s job wasn’t always so nice. When she became director of the WHC, the building was in a state of disrepair. The ceilings leaked and the rooms looked dingy. The physical grounds began to be renovated in 2001. But what was going on inside was just as remarkable.

Menocal had two priorities: to strengthen the relationship between the WHC and the other programs housed within the building, and to make the WHC a vital force for undergraduate—not just faculty—education.

“It used to be that no undergraduate set foot in this building, unless they had to for some bizarre reason,” she said.

In hopes of attracting more students, Menocal has made the WHC a space for art. There had always been events at the Whitney—talks, conferences, symposia—but few of them had undergraduate appeal. Under Menocal’s directorship, the WHC has added a broad profile of arts events. Music at the Whitney, a concert series organized with the help of former JE master Richard Lalli, showcases classical musicians from the university and beyond. The walls of the first-floor Fellows Lounge act as an art gallery that was recently host to an exhibition of paintings by faculty members who are not known as artists.

Arguably the Center’s most visible artistic endeavor is its film series. The WHC Auditorium long housed the only 35mm projector on campus (there’s now a second, but it’s in a much smaller room). In 2005, a group of students approached Menocal with the idea for a weekly film series. She was enthusiastic, and helped bankroll the program using her own discretionary funds as director. Cinema at the Whitney was born.

But according to Mark Bauer, who joined the WHC as an associate director three years ago to head the Center’s arts programs, Cinema at the Whitney became increasingly problematic over time.

“There were just too few people involved in, kind of, every sense,” he said. “They did wonderful programming, but it wasn’t going to be viable, especially once the budget crunch hit.”

The spring 2009 semester was the Cinema at the Whitney’s last. This year, Bauer has worked with Ron Gregg, senior lecturer and programming director in Film Studies, to collaborate with students and faculty on short film series, in a model they are calling Films at the Whitney.

“When people want excellent 35mm projection and sound, this is the obvious place to come, and we’re really interested in having a diversity of presenters,” Bauer said.

Often, the shows the Whitney puts on—in film, music, and visual art—support programming going on at the Center and across the university. Susan Cahan, the new Associate Dean for the Arts, who will be a Whitney Fellow next year, praised such an approach.

“The way in which they’ve gone about coordinating their programs with curricular needs is very smart, very productive, and very exciting,” she said. “The WHC is like a candy store for art.”

***

While teaching Directed Studies (DS) in the ’90s, Menocal had become close friends with Thompson and Jane Levin, GRD ’75, senior lecturer in the Humanities. When Menocal became director, one of her mandates was to integrate the Humanities major and Directed Studies more closely with the WHC—and because she for several years kept her post as Director of Special Programs in the Humanities, Menocal was in an ideal position to do so. Knowing they would be key allies, Menocal asked Levin to be DUS for Directed Studies, and Thompson to be DUS of the Humanities program—and associate director of the Whitney.

With this kind of pseudo-interlocking directorate in place, Menocal also worked to integrate the programs physically. Thompson’s office is right across the hall from Menocal’s on the first floor of the WHC; Levin’s is directly above that on the second floor. More crucial still was the decision to locate DS within the Whitney Humanities Center.

“It was very much Professor Menocal’s vision that Directed Studies, as part of the Humanities department, would have a home in the WHC,” Levin said.

Each of Directed Studies’ three weekly lectures and the thrice-semesterly Class of 1937 Colloquia for DS are given in the WHC auditorium, and some DS sections take place in the building’s basement classrooms. Many of its faculty have their offices in the Whitney Humanities Center.

After freshman year, some DS students—along with some students who didn’t do DS—choose to continue their study of Western civilization in the Humanities major, an interdisciplinary program that affords students the freedom to take classes across departments to create a cohesive, individually tailored academic trajectory. Humanities majors take a few required classes, but most of the credits in their major come from classes offered in other departments. The only requirement? Thompson has to approve.

“So if you were doing something like the philosophical ideas of Dostoevsky,” she said, “I might accept, for credit in the Humanities major, philosophy courses, as well as other literature courses, as well as history courses that might pertain.”

Perhaps as a result of this kind of interdisciplinary thinking, the Humanities major has attracted more students as others—foreign languages, the Classics—have seen their numbers decline.

R. Howard Bloch, Sterling Professor of French and Director of the Humanities program, said students have come to expect the kind of interdisciplinary work the major tends to encourage.

“Capacious-minded students have always wanted to work in more than one field at once,” he said.

This is difficult, he explained, in traditional departments because most faculty are locked into one area of specialty. “Universities are organized along department lines: appointments are usually made in specific departments, funding is allocated by departments, and so forth. And departments can get pretty territorial,” he said. “Which is good! You get people who are extremely accomplished in their field.”

The belief that divisional adherence breeds technical expertise has led some to see interdisciplinality and accomplishment as somehow opposed.

But Zaremby sees such an argument as a straw man. He said, “A good scholar is a good scholar. If it’s not rigorous, that’s the scholar’s fault, not the fault of interdisciplinarity.”

***

Few demonstrate this principle as well as Richard Prum, the MacArthur Fellow sitting across from Dean Miller at the Fellows’ lunch.

At this point, Prum’s research is well-known even outside the Ornithology community—he was on the team that discovered the intricacies of female duck genitalia and the one that revealed the 3-D image of a multi-colored dinosaur-bird. But he says that the multi-disciplinary interests he had early in his career, which contributed to the groundbreaking advances he’s made recently, hurt him in the academic job market.

“Even within science, my interests have always been really diverse,” he said. “Early on in my career, it was a real problem, because sometimes I felt I was too evolutionary for that behavioral job—and too behavioral for that systematics and museum job. It wasn’t a good fit.”

But in 2004, Prum found a good fit at Yale, when he joined the Ecology and Evolutionary Biology department. And it was here that he did much of the work for which he is so highly acclaimed—and for which he won the 500,000 dollar MacArthur Fellowship, often referred to as the “Genius Grant.”

He said being chosen as a MacArthur Fellow was rewarding partially because it meant that “all that diversity, all that breadth of interest turned out to be recognized, by this institution, in this really fortunate and unexpected way. So that was fantastic. The notion that somebody was looking at the big picture, and how it all added up, was really gratifying.”

More recently, the work Prum did with sexual selection and co-evolution in ducks has led him to the field of aesthetics. Most biologists, he explained, see sexual selection as indicative of underlying processes of basic natural selection—so that the peahen chooses a peacock mate with a beautiful tail because such a tail indicates fitness. But with his new research, he is trying to argue there is some element of “mere beauty” to the tail. He is arguing (against mainstream biology) that there is an element of pure aesthetic even a process as brutal as natural selection.

This line of reasoning has led Prum to explore what humanists say about aesthetics. And it was this research that has brought him to the WHC. Last summer, he met Maria Rosa Menocal at an administrative meeting. Soon after, the two shared a meal, and Menocal was so interested by the interdisciplinary aspect of Prum’s work that she invited him to be a Whitney Fellow. He gave his Fellow’s talk (“A Coevolutionary Aesthetic: Unifying the Natural Sciences and the Humanities”) the week before he won the MacArthur.

Of his experience in the Whitney Fellowship, Prum said, “I find that I thrive on the kind of intellectual stimulation you get from the breadth of stuff that’s going on in a university. I love it: good food, great people, and the talks are always great-to-amazing.”

The Fellowship gave him the opportunity to participate in another WHC tradition. Next year, he’ll be co-teaching (along with Jonathan Gilmore, Assistant Professor of Philosophy), the Shulman Seminar on Science and the Humanities, an endowed course and lecture series run by the WHC. The class will be called “Evolution and Aesthetics”—do you get much more interdisciplinary than that?

Cover and graphics designed by Jinjin Sun.