Director's Letter (2017–18)

Headline news about the crisis and imminent demise of the humanities—as a field and a core set of values—abounds these days. Articles on the subject fly across my desktop at an ever-accelerating pace.

Meanwhile, the work of humanities faculty and students at Illinois is uncommonly vibrant. Both north and south of Green Street, faculty and students in the humanities and related fields are busy chasing new ideas, debating universal truths, and developing new methodologies in both their research and their teaching. Despite the gloom and doom of national debates about the fate of the humanistic disciplines, then, amazing things continue to happen here. From luminous poetry to histories of democracy to investigations of American literature to analyses of media coverage of black motherhood to studies of youth in the creative city, humanists at Illinois meet the challenges of the present with groundbreaking new work. That work, our work, engages what’s happening now by looking to the past, witnessing the present and imagining a variety of futures—in word, in image, in sound and in deed. We are alive, in short, to all the possibilities the contemporary moment presents.

At IPRH in particular we’ve spent the past year thinking through the theme of “Publics.” Our annual themes are typically chosen well in advance of the academic year, and this one was no exception. Former Director Dianne Harris set the idea of “Publics” in motion before she left Illinois because it has long been clear that the very concept itself was up for grabs, subject to forces both global and local that have been years in the making. We recruited a group of IPRH faculty and graduate Fellows whose research is dedicated to some aspect of the public for our bi-monthly seminar. In addition to a series of lively discussions and cross disciplinary exchanges, what emerged from that collective experience was evidence of what a protean and adaptive thing “publics” have been, and remain. Whether the consequence of state formation, religious community, civic strife, global indigenous movements, the world of the novel, the rise of mass media, the sexual encounter or the political photograph, “publics” are as symbolic as they are real. They seize the imagination; they enable and constrain; they bind and divide; and they are always multiple, practically wherever you look.

We took that pluralism seriously in our IPRH programming as well. We filled the spaces of Levis with the sound of jazz and poetry and with talk of queer theory in dark times. We heard readings about experiences in Tehran’s Evin prison and Chicago’s public housing projects; we saw images of the surveillance state and of how those subject to it talk back. Through our Andrew W. Mellon Foundation grant, Humanities Without Walls, faculty and students had the opportunity to reach new publics through collaborative research projects and to pursue opportunities in the public and private sector for newly minted humanities PhDs (see page 8). And our Mellon-funded Bio-Humanities Research Group moved all kinds of conversations about the intersection of scientific and humanistic endeavor forward (see page 7)—with ramifications for public debates about epigenetics, the social life of race and the nature of the human itself.

Last but certainly not least, we celebrated 10 years of public engagement through the Odyssey Project, whose students pursued a foundational entry-level suite of courses in Literature, Philosophy, History and Art History and presented their work on campus for the first time this year as part of Illinois’ Undergraduate Research Week in April.

Across all our events we thought carefully and self-critically about what kinds of publics we at IPRH reach, and how we should be thinking differently about audience ourselves. The December Work-In (see page 15), which gathered over two dozen local and campus social action groups in information sharing sessions, was a major effort in that direction. Look for a reprise of that event, slated for the end of the first semester, on our 2017–18 calendar.

The work of the humanities is not just alive at IPRH. Its very definitions and parameters are being stretched and tested and reconfigured wherever humanists and their collaborators are at work at Illinois. This year, as Illinois marks 150 years of the public land grant research university, we are commemorating the 20th anniversary of IPRH. Appropriately enough for the start of a new decade, our theme is “Paradigm Shifts.” We kick off the anniversary with a campus visit from Dr. Earl Lewis, President of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, whose public address, “Paradigm Shifts? Thinking through the Humanities of the Future,” will set the stage for a year of rethinking our work and our role as humanists on campus and in the community.

To that end, our 20th-anniversary year programming looks north and south of Green as we begin to reimagine what humanities work needs to be in 2017. In collaboration with the Coordinated Science Lab, we are staging an interdisciplinary event series on “Speculative Futures,” which brings creative writers and artists into “conversation” with some of the technological wonders on campus in order to see how their work might be transformed by the encounter. We are bringing more music into Levis through events with the Jupiter String Quartet and School of Music composer Stephen Taylor. We’re pleased to participate in the Pygmalion Festival for the first time, partnering with Ninth Letter to bring George Saunders, author of Lincoln in the Bardo (see page 12), to campus. Anne Trubek, founder of Belt Publishing, will talk about career opportunities beyond the academy for PhDs in the humanities. You’ll have a chance to see a robotics demo in March and to hear the poetry of Ocean Vuong in April. And if you want to find out about what humanists are doing all around campus, visit our monthly “Humanities in The Public Sphere” blog at

There is no doubt that change is afoot globally and that the ground is shifting beneath our feet. If you are curious about what those who choose to inhabit the dynamic world of humanities research and teaching are doing now, please visit us at or come by the 4th floor of Levis. My door is always open.

Antoinette Burton

IPRH Director Antoinette Burton