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Humanities Forum to Start a Cultural Dialogue
you want an example of how estranged academic humanists have become from
the general culture of the United States, says Dr. Wendy Steiner, the
Richard L. Fisher Professor of English and chair of the department, consider
this: "There wasn't a single English professor" included on
the panel that selected the 100 best books of the 20th century compiled
for Random House's Modern Library imprint last summer. (True, the list
was widely dismissed -- for the near absence of works by women and minority
writers, among other reasons -- but it generated more talk about books
than any event in recent memory.) "That's symptomatic," Steiner
says. "I think we're just left out of a whole lot of things."
Countering that trend is one aim of the new Penn Humanities
Forum, launched last month by the School of Arts and Sciences with Steiner
as its director. The forum will serve as a vehicle for communicating and
collaborating across disciplines within the humanities -- as well as with
scholars in the social sciences, sciences, and the University's professional
schools. And its vision will be translated into courses and other programs
and events for students at Penn and audiences throughout the city.
The forum's first major event is scheduled for March
26-27, when "A Celebration of Philadelphia Writers" brings together
several dozen writers -- all associated with the city through their work
or lives -- for readings, discussions, and other events.
Creation of the forum fulfills a goal enunciated in
the University's strategic plan, The Agenda for Excellence.
It was designed by a committee of faculty from a variety of disciplines
in the humanities -- anthropology, history, classical studies, history
of art, music, and English -- and a similar group continues to serve as
a planning board. In the view of Dr. Samuel Preston, the Frederick J.
Warren Professor of Demography who serves as dean of the School of Arts
and Sciences, the forum will "add coherence and excitement to our
magnificent teaching and research programs in the humanities."
Preston said he was "delighted that a scholar with
Wendy Steiner's vision has agreed to lead this effort."
Some blame for the perceived irrelevance of the humanities
to "real life" rests with scholars themselves. "The humanities,
to some degree, backed themselves into a corner," Steiner says, "becoming
very sophisticated and specialized in their understanding of things and
not dealing with [the fact that] they could not communicate that outside
But it doesn't have to be that way. The national disaffection
with the humanities in the U.S. stands in marked contrast with their standing
in England, says Steiner, whose perceptions were fueled by the journalistic
work she did while living in London. "I was amazed at how easily
academics move in and out of cultural circles and general public circles,
where people feel as if what they're doing is important and valuable to
the general culture, and I couldn't figure out why no one here thinks
[that] what we're doing in the university is important to the general
Steiner, who describes one of her own books -- The
Scandal of Pleasure: Art in an Age of Fundamentalism -- as an "attempt
to bring academic thinking to the general public," notes that she
has "an investment, professionally and in every other way, in the
dialogue that we're trying to create."
That dialogue will take place both within the University
community and, Steiner hopes, between Penn and the city. "I think
about what goes on culturally in Philadelphia, which is very rich and
exciting, and the fact that people in the University know little about
it and participate very little, and the reverse -- the people of Philadelphia
don't come to the University, even though many things are free and open
to the public."
For the forum's official launch on February 18 (after
the Gazette had gone to press), representatives from a cross-section
of area cultural institutions participated in a ceremony at which Dr.
William Ferris, Gr'69, who chairs the National Endowment for the
Humanities, was the keynote speaker. Steiner also hopes to set up an advisory
board composed of members of the cultural community to create "connections
between the forum and their institutions."
The "Celebration of Philadelphia Writers"
falls suspiciously close on the heels of the February event, and Steiner
confirms that the idea had been developing for some time before the forum
entered the picture. Originally, she proposed the celebration as an English-
department project, involving various libraries and cultural institutions.
"I thought it would be really exciting for the English department
at Penn to give back to the community an image of Philadelphia literature,"
she says, "and that this would be a way for us to show people that
we are not just a bunch of dry scholars and that we care about the community."
It would also "help 'mythicize' the city," she adds, since "one
of the things that has always upset me about Philadelphia is how little
sense of itself it has -- when there are very interesting things that
have gone on here."
The celebration opens on Friday morning with a panel
discussion on "Communities and Writers" and concludes Saturday
afternoon with a series of readings at the Free Library. In between, offerings
range from readings from the works of Edgar Allan Poe at the Poe National
Historic Site to those of young experimental poets at Kelly Writers House,
from Quaker and historical documents to an evening of jazz and poetry.
Literary genres include poetry, fiction, non-fiction of various types,
as well as film and music, and there will also be several walking tours
of "Literary Phila-delphia" available. (For further information,
contact Wendy Steinberg, associate director of the forum, at 215-898-8220
or via e-mail at email@example.com)
In the future, notes Steiner, programming will be organized
around a central theme, chosen annually, and will be more interdisciplinary.
The first topic chosen could hardly be broader: human nature. "In
the social sciences and the biological sciences, human nature is a very
big issue right now," Steiner explains. "The only people who
haven't weighed in on it are the humanists." Alert to the potential
threats to diversity posed by such theories, "humanities scholarship
has been in a phase of denying or resisting the idea that there are universals
that are essential attributes of people that cause this or that to happen,"
Steiner says. For this reason, it's actually a "fairly controversial
subject for humanities to consider," she adds. "It also puts
us immediately in relationship with the sciences and the social sciences,
which is one of the stated aims of the forum."
In the fall, Steiner will "host" a general
requirements course offered by the forum on the subject, during which
a series of guest experts will "talk about human nature from their
disciplinary point of view." Besides being open to undergraduates,
the course will also be available to the Philadelphia public as a subscription
The forum has also begun administering an existing Mellon
Foundation grant to SAS that supports annual fellowships for visiting
junior faculty to pursue research during a year of paid leave. The program
has been reconfigured to ensure that applicants' proposed research will
have some connection with the forum's chosen topic. Besides sharing their
work among themselves and with the forum's planning board in regular meetings,
the faculty fellows will be expected to teach a course each term. "We're
hoping that those courses will be freshman seminars," Steiner says.
"The University is really invested in the freshman seminar program.
This is a way of beefing up that program, and the synergy is very nice."
In a program that mimics the faculty fellowships, the
forum is also awarding several student fellowships, and is working with
Perspectives in Humanities, a student group in Kings Court/English House.
One fellowship of $1,500 will go to a student coordinator between the
forum and Perspectives in Humanities for research support and to help
fund programming; smaller ones of $300 each will be for original research
in the humanities.
While a number of universities have established humanities
centers, most are traditional "think tanks" that are limited
to supporting research. "That model specifically was not what the
University wanted -- a self-regarding research-oriented humanistic support-system
for scholars to go on leave every year," Steiner says. "Supporting
humanities research is something we're interested in, but by setting it
up this way and by creating a connection between the kind of interests
[faculty fellows] have and the course that will be going on and the students'
work, we're hoping that that specialized research will have a payoff for
a lot of people."
What also sets the forum apart and makes it unique to
Penn, Steiner says, is the effort to forge connections with Philadelphia.
"When does a university provide a celebration of community art and
culture for the community?" she asks pointedly. "It doesn't
It does now.
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Gazette Last modified 2/17/99