Spring 2009, Vol. 17, No. 2 (requires Adobe Acrobat)

Putting It Together: Creative Humanities

Edward H. Friedman

“A man only learns in two ways, one by reading, and the other by association with smarter people.” — Will Rogers

From ?the mid-1960s forward, an exciting trend began to influence literary studies: the rise of theory. Literary theory is, of course, hardly new. The concept of a poetics, which could be both prescriptive and descriptive, dates from classical antiquity. Aristotle’s Poetics, for example, uses audience reaction to Sophocles’s Oedipus Rex and other plays to formulate the basis of catharsis, the purging of the emotions of fear and pity produced by tragic drama. At the same time, one can go back to classical antiquity for the foundations of rhetoric, initially the art of persuasion. Orators developed certain skills and strategies for emphasizing their major points—for influencing their listeners—and these elements evolved into the tropes and figures of poetry. Rhetoric becomes the base for argumentation and for linguistic embellishment, for language that can be stirring, enlightening, forceful, and beautiful, at the service of poets and of spin doctors. The interplay of poetics and rhetoric serves to unite old theory with new, and similitude with difference. Equally significant, a shared commitment to theory, which in its most recent manifestations has dropped the adjective literary, can unite disciplines.

Theory has become a type of lingua franca among academic fields, so that, for example, historians have been able to interact more fruitfully, and less territorially, with specialists in literature, or anthropologists with researchers of popular culture, and the list could go on and on. Theory fosters interdisciplinarity, and, as would follow, interdisciplinarity encourages dialogue among scholars whose paths have not regularly converged. The first decade of the twenty-first century is a good moment for the humanities, because it is a good moment for the exchange of ideas and ideologies, for collaborative ventures. When he delivered a Chancellor’s Lecture at Vanderbilt on September 5, 2008, Bruce Cole, chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, addressed the role—and the fate—of the humanities in colleges and universities. Dr. Cole recognized the need to promote the humanities curriculum and humanities programs, which have faced some decline, but he also noted, if not exactly in these words, that the humanities are alive and well at Vanderbilt. We are fortunate that this is the case; it is not just good luck, but hard work on the part of faculty, students, and administrators, that has allowed the humanities to thrive. The wide-ranging and diverse interests of the faculty and a willingness to cross, or elide, traditional disciplinary boundaries assure that students have an exceptional range of offerings. By the same token, Vanderbilt students at all levels opt to explore multiple areas of the sciences, social sciences, and humanities. Our undergraduates often select double, and even triple, majors, and the combinations can be most impressive. I take delight in knowing that future doctors, lawyers, social workers, and entrepreneurs who have taken Spanish literature courses with me will approach their careers with a knowledge of language and culture and with an eye on diversity. The more students branch out, and the more critical and theoretical models to which they have been exposed, the more prepared they will be for their professional and personal lives.

In the last three or four decades, theory has taught us to be more self-conscious, to acknowledge the models that we use and the strengths and limits of our work. This shift generally makes its way into the classroom, where we may be more inclined to share with students our objectives and the tools of our trade, as it were. We can be unapologetic for not having all the answers or for not providing “definitive” solutions to the problems raised by our inquiries, but the ceding of authority can be paradoxically empowering, given that we are in the business of encouraging analytical thinking. We are not so much deconstructing the operating premises of our disciplines as demonstrating that the acquisition of knowledge is an ongoing process, constantly subject to reassessment and change. While the boom in theory may have served to shake the foundations of the humanities, the results have been strikingly positive, pushing us to seek greater depth and breadth in our academic endeavors. We can let students in on our uncertainties as we impart our discoveries and our hypotheses. In turn, classes can focus simultaneously on a specific topic and on the broader implications of a particular approach. This phenomenon also affects the ways in which we describe our work to scholars in other disciplines and helps to bring us together intellectually and in a comfortable space. The Warren Center faculty seminars have done precisely that for many years, as do formal and informal study groups for faculty and graduate students, conferences, invited speakers, and other Center-sponsored activities. Now in its third year, the Graduate Student Fellows Program builds on the Center’s role in facilitating individual development and partnerships in research.

The Warren Center has celebrated twenty years of serving Vanderbilt University, and the welcome mat at the Vaughn Home in the heart of the campus has seen considerable traffic over that period of time. The Center has become—and wants to continue to be—a comfort zone for the humanities at Vanderbilt, and a site for lively discussion and debate. The executive director Mona Frederick, staff members Sarah Harper Nobles and Polly Case, and I extend an invitation to the university community and to our neighbors to visit the Center and to become involved in its programs, to partake in a tradition of excellence, and to contribute to new projects and to traditions-in-the making.

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

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