The Robert Penn Warren Center marks 20 years of fostering transinstitutional collaboration.
by Missy Pankake
photography by Daniel Dubois
Nestled in the geographic heart of campus, the Robert Penn Warren Center for the Humanities has quietly played matchmaker for the past 20 years. Not in the traditional sense of “boy meets girl”; rather, the center’s mission to kindle relationships and promote dialogue among faculty in complementary fields of study has facilitated untold collaborations across disciplinary lines for the past two decades.
“The study of the humanities – which includes languages, literature, history, philosophy, archaeology, comparative religion, ethics and the history, criticism and theory of the arts – is essentially the study of what it means to be human,” said Mona Frederick, executive director of the Warren Center. “The study of the humanities provides us with the rigorous tools we need to make sense of the overall human experience.
“This kind of close examination and intense reflection is ever more important in our current global community and its increasingly specialized technologies,” she said.
The center opened its doors in January 1988 under the sponsorship of the College of Arts and Science. It began its institutional life at Vanderbilt with seed money from the Mellon Foundation. A Challenge Grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities in 1989 generated a long-term endowment fund for the program that has insured its vitality and strength over the years. Initially begun as a faculty development program, the Warren Center has in the last few years increased its scope to include graduate students in its funded programs.
The center was named in honor of Robert Penn Warren (1905-1989), one of Vanderbilt’s most prominent graduates in the arts and humanities. A three-time Pulitzer Prize winner and the first U.S. Poet Laureate, as well as a novelist and literary critic, Warren was part of the influential literary group known as the Fugitives that originated on Vanderbilt’s campus in the 1920s. Warren is the only person to win a Pulitzer Prize for both fiction (awarded in 1947 for his most famous novel, All the King’s Men) and poetry, for which he was awarded two Pulitzers, one in 1957 and the other in 1979.
“Robert Penn Warren, as much as any person, could be an emblem of Vanderbilt University’s tradition of humanistic study,” according to Interim Chancellor Nicholas S. Zeppos, writing for Letters, the Warren Center’s newsletter. “He was a collector of voices and chronicler of cultural moments, but throughout his whole life as a writer, we see his own mind and his own ideas continue to take shape.
“As well as collecting voices and creating cultural documents, he added his own voice,” Zeppos writes.
A central feature of the center is its annual theme-based Fellows Program, which attracts faculty representing a diverse range of interests. Tenured faculty members from the College of Arts and Science apply, and once selected are afforded the unique opportunity to work cooperatively on an issue of common interest. The fellows meet weekly and maintain offices at the center for the duration of the academic year. Participants are allotted research funds as well as program funds for speakers and conferences.
Michael Bess, the Chancellor’s Professor of History, has participated three times as a fellow, including co-directing “Constructions, Destructions and Deconstructions of Nature” during the 1999-2000 academic year.
“It is no exaggeration to say that through the years, the Warren Center has played a critical role in my personal development as a scholar,” Bess said. “It has broadened my intellectual horizons … and profoundly enriched my teaching and my writing through the new ideas, literatures and fields to which it afforded me sustained exposure.”
John Sloop, associate dean of the College of Arts and Science and professor of communication studies, was selected a fellow at a time when he was dissatisfied with his professional life and had even considered leaving Vanderbilt.
“While my research career was going along well, I had made few interesting contacts on campus. Suddenly, I had multiple interdisciplinary contacts and was engaged in numerous conversations that led to a number of projects. My time at the center confirmed my commitment to Vanderbilt by providing me with an incredible link to a number of top-notch scholars.”
Catherine Molineux, an assistant professor of history who has participated in two different Fellows programs at the center, agrees with Sloop. “One of the most important considerations for me when I was looking for a faculty position was whether the university supported interdisciplinary work. My research has taken me from my home discipline of history into literary criticism and art history.
“The Robert Penn Warren Center has been … a place that rejuvenates my own interest in social science and humanities research because it offers me the rare opportunity to talk about my work, to read my colleagues’ work, and to be challenged to think in new ways.”
This year’s fellowship theme is “Conceptualizing Diaspora, Reconceptualizing Europe: Black Europe, or Diaspora Studies in Europe.” The dialogue generated by the topic will explore the question of how Black European Studies “will define itself in the shadow of America’s hegemony,” according to Tracy Sharpley-Whiting, professor of African American and Diaspora Studies and French and co-director of this year’s program.
“This investigation has fascinating implications for the field,” she said. “I think the seminar is trying to really understand the divergences – tensions – in what we call African Diaspora Studies in the U.S. and the emergent field of Black European Studies in Europe, which the U.S. has been engaging in for a good long while.”
Lucius T. Outlaw, assistant provost for undergraduate education, agreed to co-direct this year’s Fellows Program with Sharpley-Whiting.
“Such gifts of engagement are one of an intellectual-scholar’s most ardent desires,” he said. “The Warren Center, in my judgment, is one of the most valuable jewels in the Vanderbilt University crown.”
The 2008-09 fellows will examine “New Directions in Trauma Studies” and the emergence of trauma studies as an interdisciplinary field of study. Next year’s program will be co-directed by Monica J. Casper, associate professor of sociology and women’s and gender studies, and Vivien Green Fryd, professor of history of art. A visiting faculty member also will join the conversation, which will focus on recent large-scale traumas in the United States such as 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina, as well as historical events such as the Holocaust. The seminar also will examine violent crimes such as rape and incest.
“I hope to further explore the ways that notions and theories of trauma inform the fields in which I work: sociology of health and medicine, women’s and children’s health, and gender studies,” Casper said. “I’m also deeply interested in the health aspects of war and conflict. With so many injured veterans returning home with post-traumatic stress disorder, brain damage and amputations, how might a more complex understanding of trauma help us to help them?”
Casper said she hopes to create a space for dialogue about what trauma means, and for whom, in a post-9/11 world.
“It is imperative that we understand how experiences and meanings of trauma circulate through public life,” she said.
The impact of the Warren Center’s fellowships is far-reaching. The year-long programs have resulted in newly offered courses for undergraduate and graduate students, as well as international conferences, alumni and community education programs, and the publication of books and articles. The center also offers university-wide lecture series, including the Harry C. Howard Jr. Lecture Series, which was established to bring outstanding scholars to Vanderbilt to speak on significant topics in the humanities.
“Over its nearly quarter-century of existence, the Robert Penn Warren Center has evolved into a site of deep exploration for Vanderbilt’s faculty as well as for national and international scholars,” according to Zeppos. “Through its promotion of the work faculty from different departments and disciplines can do together, the Robert Penn Warren Center confirms all of Vanderbilt to be a place for the humanities.”
Did you know?
The Robert Penn Warren Center for the Humanities is housed in one of seven structures originally used as faculty residences shortly after Vanderbilt opened in 1875. It was the home of William J. Vaughn, professor of mathematics and astronomy, who lived there with his wife and five children from 1884 to 1912.
Upcoming 20th Anniversary Events
Thinking with Franz Rosenzweig
Scholars from Europe and America will convene to discuss Franz Rosenzweig, one of the most influential intellectuals of the 20th century.
We Speak for Ourselves: A Poet, a Prophet and Voices for Change in the 21st Century
Robert Penn Warren interviewed major civil rights leaders for his book Who Speaks for the Negro? published in 1965. The conference, which takes place on the 40th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, will feature individuals interviewed by Warren, as well as other human rights activists, scholars and community leaders.
Appalachian Music Concert Series
Many popular song lyrics of the day were embedded in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie books. Vanderbilt Professor of Musicology Dale Cockrell worked with a number of musicians and performers to produce faithful recordings of the traditional tunes.
Lecture: Bruce Cole, Chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities
The eighth chairman of the NEH will speak about the “We the People” initiative.
For more information, visit www.vanderbilt.edu/rpw_center.