UT Humanities Center: Impact on Scholarship

Thomas Heffernan

An Interview with Thomas Heffernan

The Tennessee Humanities Center (UTHC) has now completed its second academic year of operation. Thomas Heffernan, founding director and the Kenneth Curry Professor in the Humanities Emeritus, agreed to an interview to share his thoughts about the impact of the center’s work on the college’s teaching, research, and outreach mission.

What has been the greatest impact on humanities scholarship resulting from the establishment of UTHC?

TH: The UTHC is the principal advocate for the crucial importance of the humanities to the intellectual life of the university community and celebrates the creative work of these UT scholars. It also provides an intellectual and collegial center not previously available—a welcoming place where faculty from disparate disciplines can come together for a common purpose.

Elaborate on the view that traditional structure and organization of departments might impede faculty working across disciplines.

TH: I completed my doctoral degree at Cambridge in the history of religion of the European Middle Ages. My archival study focused on Medieval Latin and Old & Middle English homiletics in manuscript. Although I was hired by the Department of English, I likely knew less about English literature than a bright undergraduate. But the department needed an historical philologist and my training allowed me to teach those courses. We clearly suited each other in some hard to quantify manner!

Through conversations and collaboration in a setting—where faculty and students discover connections between different disciplines—we create a powerful synergy. The traditional departmental structure sometimes unwittingly fosters isolation between disciplines. Whereas, the best scholarship in the humanities is almost always interdisciplinary, the UTHC provides that additional arena where it can flourish. Furthermore, the very environment at UTHC breaks down such disciplinary isolation and brings together scholars from different programs to share and learn from each other.

Please share an example of a faculty fellow in 2014 class who discovered a new avenue for scholarship during the year in the center?

TH: I could cite any number but Nancy Henry, professor in the English department, and a resident National Endowment for the Humanities Scholar in UTHC this academic year, is embarked on a new project—women investors in the 19th century. Nancy is an historian in the English department, not an economist, yet her work will reveal much about what women did as private investors in Victorian England. Nancy’s talk at our weekly luncheon stimulated considerable discussion among faculty and graduate students whose interests ranged from ancient China, 18th century Virginia to renaissance England and Spain. Such sharing of ideas happens on a daily basis as people converse and interact in seminars, lectures, in their offices, and over coffee in the UTHC.

How is UTHC encouraging interdisciplinary conversations and research among faculty across campus?

TH: We currently have eight research seminars, e.g., The Caribbean Region in a Global Context, Centers and Peripheries in East Asia, Freedom from All Sides—Philosophical Issues, Late Antiquity, Modern Germany and Central Europe, Nineteenth-Century British Studies, and The Transatlantic Enlightenment.

Additionally, we seek to encourage new seminars. Charles Sanft, associate professor of history and a fellow in the center this year, has proposed a new seminar on Manuscript Studies. This seminar is designed for scholars who work with hand written documents, whether millennia old or written last year. Ten individuals from different departments will begin meeting fall of 2015. This seminar would not have happened if UTHC did not exist.

UTHC is also partnering with the UT Confucius Institute to inaugurate a new series of distinguished lectures in Chinese culture. Our hope is that this program will begin in the fall semester of 2015.

How has the work at UTHC had a positive impact on undergraduate education?

TH: The humanities are the core of liberal arts education and remain central to our educational objectives. They are essential to nurturing students’ intellectual and moral growth and are, therefore, the most transformative part of the undergraduate experience.

The humanities provide access to civic and historical knowledge, ethical reasoning, and writing skills. History provides a map of past human activity and our understanding of a complex canvas enables the creation of character and human values.

This crucial component of education thrives if instruction is by our best teachers and engaged scholars—faculty enthusiastic and excited about their subject. UTHC affords faculty the opportunity to participate in an intellectual community that fuels their passion for their discipline. Lastly, I believe the humanities faculty teach the great majority of the general education courses required of all students.

This past year UTHC became involved in community outreach. Why is outreach an important aspect of the mission?

TH: Liberal arts education creates a desire for lifelong learning. UTHC partnered with the Orangery, a local restaurant, to provide a program of thirty-minute talks on faculty research followed by Q & A on the first Tuesday of the month. It has proven very successful and goes under the rubric “Conversations & Cocktails”.

UTHC is also sponsoring the Tennessee Ethics Bowl which promotes critical thinking and collaborative work and prepares East Tennessee high school students who participate to be active and engaged citizens.

Spotlight some highlights of the accomplishments of the faculty and graduate students in the 2014 Class of Fellows.

TH: The UTHC faculty and graduate students have been very productive during their tenure. Space does not allow a report on all their work and so this small sample of their accomplishments must suffice.

Emily Cope (graduate fellow, 2014-15 department of English) completed a book chapter entitled “Coming to (Troubled) Terms: Methodology, Positionality, and the Problem of Defining ‘Evangelical Christian’” which will appear in Mapping Christian Rhetorics: Connecting Conversations, Charting New Territories. Ed. Michael-John DePalma and Jeffrey M. Ringer. New York: Routledge, 2014:103-124.

Lauren K. McMillan (graduate fellow, 2014-15 department of anthropology) had two co-authored articles on the archaeology of 17th-century Virginia published in late fall 2014. Additionally she submitted articles on her clay tobacco pipe analyses for peer review in the fall 2014 semester and has had one accepted for publication early next year. Lauren is writing a chapter on smuggling and illicit trade in the Colonial Chesapeake for a book on the archaeology of consumerism. In November, she was awarded the Kneberg-Lewis Dissertation Scholarship by the UT Department of Anthropology.

Flavia Brizio-Skov, (faculty fellow 2012-13, professor of Italian) completed two essays while in residence “Novelistic westerns of the 1950s” in Luci e Ombre, n.2 Marzo-Giugno, Anno II, 2014. Pp. 82-117. “Spaghetti Westerns and Their Audience,” in the Italian Cinema Book, ed. Peter Bondanella. London: BFI-Palgrave-Macmillan, 2013. Pp. 181-187.

E.J. Coffman (faculty fellow 2013-14, associate professor of philosophy) The book he worked on in the UTHC last year was published as Luck: Its Nature and Significance for Human Knowledge and Agency (Palgrave McMillan; 2015).

Gregory Kaplan (faculty fellow 2014-15, Lindsay Young Professor of Spanish) His manuscript “Spinoza’s Rabbi:

A Critical Edition and Study of Saul Levi Morteira’s ‘Arguments against the Christian Religion in Amsterdam’” has been accepted for publication by Amsterdam University Press in 2016.

Jacob Latham (faculty fellow 2013-14, assistant professor of history) The book project he completed during his fellowship year has been accepted by Cambridge University Press and will appear in 2015 as Performing the Pompa Circensis from the Late Republic to Late Antiquity.

Christopher Magra (faculty fellow 2013-14, associate professor of history) The book project he was working on as a fellow at UTHC is now under contract with Cambridge University Press. Poseidon’s Curse: Naval Impressment and the Atlantic Origins of the American Revolution is scheduled to be published in 2016.

Anthony Welch (faculty fellow 2014-15, associate professor of English) has completed an essay on the “Anthropology and Anthropophagy in The Faerie Queene,” which will appear in the journal Spenser Studies in January 2016.

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