Letters Archive

Spring 2008, Vol. 16, No. 2 (requires Adobe Acrobat)

The Robert Penn Warren Center: A Place for the Humanities

The Robert Penn Warren Center

By Nicholas S. Zeppos, Interim Chancellor, Vanderbilt University

As someone who recently celebrated his own twentieth anniversary as a member of Vanderbilt’s faculty, and who, this past year, was appointed to serve as Vanderbilt’s Interim Chancellor, I am acutely aware that composing a retrospective can be difficult. To sum up two decades of an individual career full of many different phases is daunting enough—to characterize and pay tribute to two decades of a Center for the Humanities that has intersected and interwoven with multiple aspects of Vanderbilt’s life is a true feat, but an important one if one wants to understand the significance of the humanities and its faculty to Vanderbilt University.

Vanderbilt’s own faculty officially proposed a Center for the Humanities in 1987 with the purpose of fomenting and encouraging research and accomplishment in humanistic study on Vanderbilt’s campus. From the very moment of its inception, in its very conception, the Warren Center has been interdisciplinary and collaborative: the initiative which created it was the product of the minds of Enrique Pupo-Walker from Spanish and Portuguese, George Graham from political science, Paul Conkin from history, and Alisdair MacIntyre from philosophy. Jacque Voegeli, Dean of the College of Arts and Science, was instrumental in seeing the program brought to manifestation. The Center began its programming in 1988 with Charles Scott from the Department of Philosophy as the first faculty director. The post of Faculty Director has subsequently been fulfilled by Paul Freedman from the Department of History, Paul Elledge from the Department of English, and Helmut Smith from history. Mona Frederick, the Center’s Executive Director, arrived at Vanderbilt with experience from the National Humanities Center, and she has proven essential to the figuration of the Center’s programs and its identity as a whole; her ongoing influence and leadership have ensured the Center’s programmatic continuity and integrity.

The original intention of the faculty members who created the Center was to create and cultivate a place, an actual physical space, in which scholars could discuss their work in an interdisciplinary environment— in which scholars would 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. The original ideas for the program were so fundamental and so necessary that they are still present and functioning within the Center’s core twenty years later: the Center would have a Fellows program; it would support ongoing faculty study groups; it would offer and sponsor opportunities for special programs within the University.

Since spring of 1988, the Center has been home to dozens upon dozens of programs, projects, and reading groups. Books have arisen out of the collaborative work of the Warren Center, and original art has been commissioned and debuted. The sheer volume and disciplinary array of programs in the Center’s history gives any observer an idea of the Center’s reach and range, and it is demonstrated easily by the scope of the projects that will celebrate its twentieth year: a lecture by the Chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities; a working conversation with Franz Rosenzweig; a collaboration with the Center for Latin and Iberian Studies; a co-sponsorship with the Blair Appalachian Concert Series that will debut in performance music from the novels of Laura Ingalls Wilder; and, most spectacularly and significantly, a series of events considering Robert Penn Warren’s Who Speaks for the Negro?, a collection of the poet’s interviews with individuals involved in the Civil Rights movement, that will address civil rights issues in our own dawning century.

Following Robert Penn Warren’s death in 1989, the Center was named in his honor. Robert Penn Warren, as much as any person, could be an emblem of Vanderbilt University’s tradition of humanistic study. He was a collector of voices and a 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. He wrote an accurate and considered response to the pivot of time he inhabited within his own century. He was of his moment but also had a poet’s consciousness of himself as an inhabitant of a much longer, broader history. As well as collecting voices and creating cultural documents, he added his own voice; as well as serving as a mediator and as a narrator, he was also a participant in his culture to the end of his life. He represents an engaged, multivalent capacity that fits and inspires the Center’s work and that aligns with Vanderbilt’s own development as an institution.

Since the Center is not dominated or owned by any one disciplinary strain, and since it is whole-heartedly supportive of the research of its participants, every faculty member who walks through the heavy wooden door of the Vaughn Home can feel that she is entering her own place. When, in 2000, a central fund—the Academic Venture Capital Fund, which furnished resources to transinstitutional ‘startups’ throughout our university’s colleges and schools—was created out of Vanderbilt’s endowment, the Warren Center served as a model and a benchmark for successful interdisciplinary collaboration. Because the Center had been so successful, we were able to know what to look for to gauge progress and achievement in our new transinstitutional centers. As we move toward even larger efforts in interdisciplinary humanities study at Vanderbilt, we continue to look to the Warren Center as a model; since its inception, and just like its namesake, the Robert Penn Warren Center has never ceased in its own evolution.

I barely had a chance to know Vanderbilt before the birth of the Robert Penn Warren Center for the Humanities. But since I have been here, and the Center has been here, I have never witnessed anything less than the fullest and highest achievement that Vanderbilt has to offer; much of that immense achievement has been empowered by the Warren Center. To imagine humanities at Vanderbilt without it is not really impossible, but it is depressing, because the Warren Center and Vanderbilt have grown together in such a way that the former is simply inextricable from the latter.

The interface between the Robert Penn Warren Center and Vanderbilt’s other humanities departments and centers is so porous, so vascularized, that it is impossible to tell where one program ends and another begins. That is as it should be. Over the twenty years of its existence, the Warren Center has made itself indispensable to the practice of the study of the humanities here. The expectations it has established continue to inform and inspire our faculty’s style of interaction with each other as colleagues and collaborators in making connections and raising considerations that expand the possibilities of the human mind and of human culture.

If you looked at an aerial map of the campus, you would see the Robert PennWarren Center right at the campus’s cartographic heart. The Center is also within this university’s subtle heart. Humanities has become part of who we are, part of how we are recognizable to ourselves as Vanderbilt. Over its two decades on our campus, the Robert Penn Warren Center has helped make all of Vanderbilt University a place for the humanities.

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

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