Director's Letter (2016–17)

As the director of IPRH, I find myself on the receiving end of a veritable avalanche of news about the fate of humanities scholarship and teaching. Hardly a day goes by when someone does not share a headline story about the imminent demise of the humanities with me.

Falling enrollments, fiscal crises, the priority of STEM—all of these are said to test the “value proposition” of humanities work. At a time when departments of religion, African American studies, women’s studies, French and philosophy are facing closure in some institutions, and the future of American Indian Studies at Illinois remains unclear, these are not merely rhetorical questions. The stakes are high and the consequences, real.

Pundits across the globe are engaged in vigorous debates about these issues. As at Illinois, some of the most powerful voices are scientists and engineers who understand that universities have an obligation to support research across many domains of inquiry and cultivate graduates with equally broad horizons. Alumni too recognize that the grand challenges facing them in the workplace can and must be tackled imaginatively as well as via technological fixes. We know that faculty doing research in the humanities and their many cognate fields train students in a diversity of approaches to thinking about where they come from, where they are going, and why. Humanists, in short, enable us all to navigate the fractious terrain of the world not just as data collectors but as fully informed citizens.

These days, directors of humanities centers like IPRH are arguably the defenders-in-chief of the humanities in question. To be sure, there is a lot to defend and preserve. But there is a lot to adapt and transform—not simply to meet the times but to shape the horizons we can see now and anticipate those that are unforeseeable as well. A feminist historian by training, I incline toward a future-oriented, offensive mode. We need to acknowledge the importance of the past and recognize its entanglement with the present and the future. This is the promise of the humanities now: to be fully engaged in the contemporary world while building frameworks for interpreting how and why that world unfolds as it does.

Last year’s IPRH theme, “Intersections,” spoke directly to that promise. In addition to hosting a talk on the poetry of John Donne and a screening and Q&A with the director of the film The Search for General Tso, we welcomed the chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, William Adams, and sponsored a “Cell Phone Slam!” event, where we heard a dozen presenters tell us what their cell phone means to them—in six minutes or fewer. We opened and closed our year with creative writers, spotlighting Wallace Stevens Award-winning poet Joy Harjo and the U.S. poet laureate, Juan Felipe Herrera. And we launched a popular blog, Reading Matters@IPRH, where we heard about what people at Illinois and in our community are reading.

At the intersection of public university research and private foundation partnerships, we have benefited tremendously from generous grant support from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. We were awarded a renewal of our Humanities Without Walls grant for $4.2 million. Relatedly, we partnered with the Library, the I School, and African American Studies to win a scholarly communications grant, Publishing Without Walls, from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, even as we launch the Bio-Humanities Research Group funded by our recent Emerging Areas in the Humanities grant, also from the Mellon Foundation, this fall.

This coming 2016–17 year at IPRH we grapple with a concept that hails past, present and future all at once: “Publics.” Last fall, I invited faculty and students to assemble and talk about what kinds of programming we should envision to build out that concept. From parks to housing, to local history to surveillance, to art to queer publics, we are sponsoring a broad range of talks, walks and performances that illuminate what “Publics” signify both today and going forward. We are joining with a number of units in these efforts, including the Program in Jewish Culture and Society and the Russian, East European, and Eurasian Center, which are hosting the Russian journalist and LGBTQ spokesperson Masha Gessen on campus in October. Look for our new blog series, Philosophy in the Public Square, hosted by Kirk Sanders. And once again, we will frame our year through poetry, with readings by our own Janice Harrington in October and the former U.S. poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey in April.

A year ago, IPRH was on the move—from its location on Pennsylvania Avenue to its newly refurbished digs at the Levis Faculty Center. My profound thanks to Stephanie Uebelhoer, Kelly Delahanty, Jason Mierek and Nancy Castro for enabling everything we do at IPRH to run smoothly. In large part due to their labors, we are now happily at home in Levis. But I would not say we are “settled.” The humanities at Illinois remain unsettled—restless and perpetually unsettling, in the best sense of the word. Please read on to see what we have been up to. Keep abreast of current events at IPRH through our website and on Twitter. And please, contribute a short piece to Reading Matters! Meanwhile, my door is always open.

Antoinette Burton

IPRH Director Antoinette Burton