Letters

Letters Archive
Spring 1998, Vol. 6, No.2
  • Examining Secrecy and Sexuality
  • Celebrating Ten Years
  • Fellows Look Back at the Center's First Decade
  • His Long Home
  • Fellows Look Back at the Center's First Decade

    As part of the Warren Center's celebration of its tenth anniversary, Letters asked former participants of its Fellows Programs to reflect on their experiences at the Center. Following is a selection from the comments we received.

    I have participated in two Fellows Programs: the 1990/91 seminar on "Eastern European Literature and Political Change" and the 1994/95 seminar on "Science and Society." In both cases I found myself stimulated, challenged, humbled, continually exhilarated; I learned intensively, ferociously; I had the carpet pulled out from under my feet; I began to see my own field, my own research, in a new light; I struggled to articulate my own assumptions and came to understand them better in the process; again and again I kept thinking to myself: "This—what is happening in this room right now—is what I hoped would happen if I took up academics as my livelihood."
    We all had in common the rather unnerving experience of leaving behind a familiar landscape—our own disciplinary backyards—and setting out (recklessly at times) to explore the brambly territories beyond. But interdisciplinary encounter was not the main factor that rendered the seminars so fruitful; for anyone can pick up books on physics or politics or poetry and discuss them with colleagues from other departments. What made all the difference at the Warren Center was the fact that we kept coming back, getting to know each other's habits of speech and modes of thinking, our discussions building on foundations already laid. It is the luxury of sustained analysis, probing deeper into half-muddled questions, pursuing them as far as they will go. In this way the recklessness of venturing into new Intellectual territory gradually gives way to something more constructive, and ultimately more interesting; you start to recognize a new set of landmarks here and there; your own mental horizons subtly shift. Pretty soon your own writing, your own teaching, begin to seem somehow narrow, parochial. You ask yourself: "How can I have been leaving out so much? How can I bring to bear all these other ideas we've been discussing? What are the implications for my own work?"
    At this point, you end up rethinking many of the things that you do, whether in the classroom or in your own research. You throw away old lectures. Looking over your own manuscrlpt-ln- progress, you find yourself crossing out entire paragraphs, and feverishly scribbling in new ones in the margins. There's no going back. —Michael D. Bess, Associate Professor of History

    During my year as a participant and co-director of the 1991/92 Fellows Program, Transatlantic Encounters," I developed a much broader and deeper appreciation of work being done in disciplines outside my own. In particular, the seminar altered the ways I think about the encounters of Native Americans, Africans, and Europeans that began in 1492. In my teaching and research, I now spend much more time reading works in literature and literary theory, and the reading assignments in my classes now consist of a wide variety of texts in history, anthropology, and literature. My own thinking and my teaching about Latin America, especially the initial encounters of peoples that began in 1492 with the voyage of Columbus, were profoundly altered and reshaped by my year working with my colleagues at the Center. —Marshall C. Eakin, Associate Professor of History

    I was one of the very first bunch of fellows, organized by Hans Schultz. It was totally informal, in deed, one could say, unorganized. What we discussed depended on what one or other of us was interested in and wanted to argue about. This sounds like a recipe for disaster, but it was wonderful. I felt at the end that there were seven people whose minds I knew as one doesn't often get to know one's colleagues, and I learned a great deal. The talk I gave them on Jane Eyre and what some modern critics have made of it was published in Nineteenth Century Literature under the title "Bertha and the Critics," and I think I'm right in saying that this was the first published paper that grew directly out of a Fellows Program. Since everybody, not only literary people, argues about literary theory nowadays, that year of arguing seems to me in retrospect an important part of the ongoing engagement with poststructuralism, gender issues, and the politics of literature that, like everyone else, I've been through. —Laurence Lerner, Edwin W. Mims Professor of English, Emeritus

    I have two distinct, fond memories of the Center outside my participation in seminars and Fellows Programs. The first is when the first director of the Center, Charles E. Scott, invited me out to lunch during my second year at Vanderbilt to discuss the plans for the programs to be sponsored at the Center. This marked in my mind the sense that I belonged to a collegial community that would offer an opportunity to engage in intellectual discourse. The second fond memory is of Mona Frederick's arrival. She has contributed a tremendous amount to the Center and to Vanderbilt. My participation in seminars and Fellows Programs has enabled me to grow intellectually and has challenged my knowledge, assumptions, and methodologies, resulting in new directions in my teaching and scholarship that embrace interdisciplinary work as well as feminist considerations. —Vivien Green Fryd, Associate Professor of Fine Arts

    My years at Vanderbilt were made memorable by the collegiality and interdisciplinary esprit de corps embodied in the Fellows Program at the Warren Center. I started out as a fellow and then moved on to direct and then co-direct year-long programs. I was touched and impressed by the combination of rigor and good-will in discussion and debate.
    Looking back, I realize that the various Fellows Programs helped me to do several things. First, I recognized a couple of paths I did not want to travel down, areas in which I had a passing interest but came to understand, as a result of fellows' discussions, were not quite my cup of tea. Appreciating what one is not best equipped to do is surely as important as finding one's secure vocation.
    Second, I secured one or two areas of scholarly inquiry as directions for future interdisciplinary research, most importantly the ongoing debate about the nature and future of civil society here and abroad. This is an area I explored in my 1995 book, Democracy on Trial, and that I continue to plumb in my work, and it was the explicit focus of much of one of the Fellows Programs I co-directed. So I appreciate the warm and beckoning space offered by the Center, the remembrance of intense and friendly discussions, and the energetic and engaging leadership of Mona Frederick. My fondest academic memories of Vanderbilt are quite literally enhoused at the Ce ter. —Jean Bethke Elshtain, Laura Spelman Rockefeller Professor of Social and Political Ethics at the University of Chicago

    In the early 1990s, my research in Rabbinic moral thinking led me to an interest in the physical sciences. I noticed that many of the classical Rabbinic authorities were influenced by theories developed among scientists. This impact could be seen in the rabbis' overall assumptions about how the world was put together and how God functioned in it. It became clear to me that I needed a clearer understanding of the development of science and the way in which scientific discoveries interact with the surrounding society.
    It was at just this point that the Warren Center offered a Fellows Program in "Science and Society," to which I quickly applied. I had a chance to hear, question, and interact with a variety of people-working scientists, historians of science, humanists from disciplines other than my own-who were all interested in investigating how science and scientists affect and are affected by the surrounding culture. There is no doubt that the experience of being able to participate in this cross-disciplinary conversation played an essential role in defining how my research, writing, and teaching have proceeded.
    I have since developed thinking in ways that I would not have imagined possible before the fellowship. I have come back to my own field of expertise, Rabbinic moral writing, with a new level of sensitivity to the interrelationship of science and society. I now feel equipped to participate in current discussions about the relationship of science and religion in the modern world. I have developed one course in this field (which won a Templeton Award last year) and have several more in the works. —Peter J Haas, Associate Professor of Religious Studies

    I was a fellow during the year that marked the 500th anniversary of Columbus' voyage to the Americas. The seminar was a diverse, lively, and rewarding intellectual experience. What impressed me the most was that the Fellows Program provided a structure that facilitated in a substantive way what had been talked about and desired by so many: real interdisciplinary conversation. The Warren Center became the institutional locus for the cross-fertilization so essential to the life that I had envisioned to characterize a great university. —Howard L. Harrod, Professor of Social Ethics and Sociology of Religion and Professor of Religious Studies

    My two tenures as a Warren Center fellow have been among the most intellectually valuable experiences I've encountered at Vanderbilt. Our seminar on "Fin de Siècle, Millennium, and Other Transitions" has influenced my current book, especially its investigation of the end of the Russian Empire. The seminar on "Eastern European Literature and Political Change" has figured centrally in my teaching to Vanderbilt under graduates, to public forums, and to a group of Vanderbilt alumni in St. Petersburg, Russia. Finally, and most importantly, I have learned about interdisciplinary endeavor: the difficult yet rewarding task of tweaking out a commonly agreed upon set of ideas from the wildly divergent viewpoints of different disciplines. This last has had two important benefits. I am currently engaged with colleagues from economics and philosophy in the first year of teaching a new interdisciplinary undergraduate course, Inter disciplinary Studies 201: "Liberty," under a new interdisciplinary rubric in the College of Arts and Science curriculum. I have also be come a more humane thinker. —Frank Weislo, Associate Professor of History

    As in many truly valuable experiences in life, one's appreciation of the Fellows Program run by the Warren Center only comes in retrospect. While the weekly encounters are stimulating, they can also be frustrating, even bewildering, as faculty members tackle their immediate disciplines and areas of intellectual expertise. Plunged into the middle of previously unknown fields and debates, seasoned professors rediscover a type of undergraduate naivete. They command, however, the tools of scholarly research and critical thinking gained through years of experience.
    The seminar affords an opportunity to see things anew, from a different angle, through different questions. Old assumptions are tested and new possibilities emerge. This is intellectual exploration that breaks traditional molds. I took great delight in introducing my beloved Spanish and Spanish American literature to my colleagues, and was equally pleased to share in the joy that they felt when discussing their work. —Cathy L. Jrade, Associate Professor of Spanish

    My experience as the Spence and Rebecca Webb Wilson Fellow and co-director of the 1994/95 Fellows Program on "Science and Society" was one (if not the) high light of my career in higher edcation. I still yearn nostalgically for the intense debates with my colleagues from across the disciplines. The seminar was quite simply one of the most intellectually stimulating and personally re warding experiences I have ever had, not just here at Vanderbilt but also at the University of Pennsylvania, Swarthmore, and the University of Munich where I have also taught. I am most grateful for the opportunity to have participated in the activities of the Warren Center and hope that the Wilsons are aware of how important their support has been. —John A. McCarthy, Professor of German and Comparative Literature

    My participation in the Center allowed me to meet colleagues outside of my department, with different specialties and interests. Most importantly, we shared our expertise and learned from each other. The intellectual stimulation was exciting and reminded me of graduate school days, when everyone was anxious to read the next assignment and prepared to discuss it, except that we did not have to worry about a grade for the course. Whereas in our professional lives we learn to pursue our scholarly endeavors in isolation, the Center allows fellows to break away from this practice and work as a team toward a common goal. By its very nature, the Center encourages interdisciplinary study. I consider this to be the direction of the future in our profession. —William Luis, Professor of Spanish

    I would like to share my thoughts about last year's seminar, "The Question of Culture." I would also like to use this opportunity to thank Sherry Willis for making this seminar a highly efficient and well-organized affair. The seminar, directed by Jay Clayton and Jim Epstein, proved to be even more exciting and intellectually stimulating than I had expected. I had never before participated in this kind of continuous discussion in a forum with people of so many various fields of knowledge and professional interests. This seminar was very useful, and I am sure other participants would join me in praise. I hope this wonderful in situation will prosper and flourish for many years to come. —Konstantin Kustanovich, Associate Professor of Slavic Languages and Literatures

    Letters Archive Index

    For more information, contact the Center's executive director, Mona C. Frederick.


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