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Center With a Mission

by Sandy Smith No Comment

A scholar who relished interaction with other innovative thinkers, Robert Penn Warren would heartily applaud the purpose of the center named in his honor.

From left, 2007-2008 graduate fellows David Solodkow, MA’05; Megan Moran, MA’05; George Sanders, PhD’08; Nicole Seymour, MA’04, PhD’08; Josh Epstein, MA’04, PhD’08; Heather Talley, MA’04, PhD’08; and Michael Callaghan, BA’98.

From left, 2007-2008 graduate fellows David Solodkow, MA’05; Megan Moran, MA’05; George Sanders, PhD’08; Nicole Seymour, MA’04, PhD’08; Josh Epstein, MA’04, PhD’08; Heather Talley, MA’04, PhD’08; and Michael Callaghan, BA’98.

Founded in 1988 to promote interdisciplinary research among faculty, the role of the Robert Penn Warren Center for the Humanities has expanded to serve as a catalyst for people in the humanities to come together around ideas and learn from each other.

Collaboration and Discovery

The center, originally known as the Vanderbilt Center for the Humanities, grew out of the Mellon Regional Faculty Development Program, a seminar housed at Vanderbilt each summer from 1979 through 1987, recalls Charles Scott, Distinguished Professor of Philosophy, who directed the seminars and chaired the philosophy department for a decade. The collaborative seminars generated so much energy and excitement among faculty that the need for the center was clear.

“A major problem that the center was designed to address was the relative isolation in which most humanities faculty members did their work. There were few occasions for collaborative endeavor,” says Scott, who served as the first faculty director of the Warren Center and is now director of the Vanderbilt Center for Ethics.

Renamed for Vanderbilt’s most famous literary alumnus after his death in 1989, the Robert Penn Warren Center serves as a site of discovery for Vanderbilt’s faculty, as well as for national and international scholars. Each year the Warren Center Fellows Program brings together eight professors from different departments to focus on an area of exploration. A visiting fellow joins the Vanderbilt faculty in the yearlong study of the topic, which may include discussions, meetings, lectures and seminars.

In addition to the fellows program, the center is home to a number of monthly seminars, with topics ranging from food politics to ancient and medieval studies.

“We really are a revolving door of people coming through with many different areas of specialties addressing a variety of topics,” Executive Director Mona Frederick says.

Supporting Young Scholars

Today the humanities center also serves graduate students, or “young scholars,” as Frederick prefers they be called. The Graduate Student Fellows Program, now in its third term, appoints seven graduate students who are expected to complete and defend their dissertations by the end of the following summer. Unlike the faculty program, it is not themed. The participants meet together, give presentations from their research, and provide feedback to each other.

David Richter, PhD’07, now an assistant professor of Spanish at Grinnell College, was in the first Graduate Student Fellows Program. “I knew the experience of working in the moderately structured environment that the Warren Center program provided would be a good motivation for me to be productive and finish my dissertation,” he says. “It was an exciting environment of intellectual growth and stimulation. This was key for me as a young scholar. Our conversations were relaxed, but intellectually rigorous.”

Such programs fit with the center’s mission to “provide a space for countless meetings of the mind,” says the center’s new faculty director, Edward H. Friedman, Chancellor’s Professor of Spanish and professor of comparative literature. “The Warren Center promotes innovative scholarly undertakings and collaborations, and at the same time, foregrounds the role of the humanities at Vanderbilt and in academia in general. Our students—notably, our undergraduates—have not forsaken the humanities. On the contrary, they seem to realize that, whatever their ultimate professional goals, it behooves them to take classes in literature, philosophy, history, religious studies and theater.”

photo credit: Steve Green, Daniel Dubois

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