As Vanderbilt strives to make graduate education more interdisciplinary, it need look no further than its longtime humanities center
by Missy Pankake
Regular, ongoing, interdisciplinary conversations among top-notch scholars? Check.
Opportunities for professional development and improvement? Check.
Intellectual synergy resulting in new projects, research and courses? Check.
As Vanderbilt moves toward a more concerted effort in interdisciplinary study for graduate students, it can look to a model that already exists on campus: the Robert Penn Warren Center for the Humanities. Since its inception in 1988, the humanities center has served as a catalyst for scholars to come together around ideas and learn from one another.
“The intention of the center is to create and cultivate a place in which scholars can discuss their work in an interdisciplinary environment – in which scholars can learn, with curiosity and respect, the tools of one another’s methodologies in order to be able to apply those methodologies to their own work when appropriate,” said Mona Frederick, executive director of the center.
One way the humanities center encourages such collaboration is through its annual Graduate Student Fellows Program, now in its fourth year. The center’s Executive Committee selects seven Vanderbilt students from a variety of backgrounds to receive the highly sought fellowships, enabling them to focus on completing their dissertations
during the year without the need to have other employment.
The “young scholars,” as Frederick prefers they be called, are integrated into the center’s interdisciplinary scholarly community through participation in a weekly seminar, occasional seminars with visiting speakers, and special events. To cap off their fellowship experience, each fellow presents a public lecture during the spring semester.
“Dissertation writing can be a very lonely process,” said Gesa Frömming, a 2009-10 graduate student fellow and a doctoral candidate in German. “You are alone with your thoughts, with your adviser as your only reader. As a fellow, you have to be comfortable making your work clear to others, which is a huge help in clarifying what you are thinking.”
Jonathan Wade, a former humanities center graduate fellow and now an assistant professor of Spanish at Meredith College, agrees.
“Hearing what others found intriguing and difficult about my work was extremely helpful,” he said. “Supposing that I was fortunate enough to finish my Ph.D. this past year without the fellowship, I am certain that the final product would not have been as good.
“The process gave me numerous opportunities to talk about my research in a number of different settings,” Wade said. “Each instance strengthened my own understanding of what I was doing and how it related to other disciplines. This proved vital to my success in the job market, as I was able to present my research in such a way that both made sense and appealed to those in and outside of my discipline.”
The humanities center also sponsors a variety of seminars, study groups and workshops that involve graduate students and faculty members. Graduate students may propose and co-direct the seminars, which give them valuable professional experience.
The range of seminar topics reflects the broad intellectual interests of faculty and students. This year’s topics include “Ancient and Medieval Studies,” “Food and Sustainability,” “Gender and Sexuality,” “Artists and Scholars in Public Life,” “Reclaiming Citizenship” and “Feminist Theory.”
“We really are a revolving door of people coming through, with many different areas of specialties addressing a variety of topics,” Frederick said.
In addition, the center serves as a partner to the Graduate Student Research Symposium Planning Committee, which sponsors an annual day-long interdisciplinary conference featuring public lectures, panels and poster sessions by Vanderbilt’s diverse graduate student body, and ends with a keynote address by a visiting speaker selected by the Graduate Student Council. Graduate students from all departments of the university are encouraged to submit presentations and attend the symposium.
As the future of graduate education takes shape at Vanderbilt, “The Warren center looks forward to continuing to play a role in fostering a sense of intellectual community for graduate students,” Frederick said.