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Getting Centered

Humanities CenterTufts' new Center for the Humanities seeks to create an 'intellectual fulcrum' for faculty and students across multiple disciplines.


To kick off its official opening in March, the Center for the Humanities at Tufts organized "The Art & Ethics of Translation," a symposium with a star-studded academic lineup including keynote speaker Peter Cole, 2007 John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Fellow, and Lydia Davis, a 2007 National Book Award Finalist in fiction. Scholars who have translated works by Haruki Murakami, Mario Vargas Llosa and other renowned authors also peppered the lineup.

So just how did a newly formed center attract such luminaries to its inaugural event?

"That's why I'm the director," jokes Jonathan Wilson, professor of English and the head of the new center. "I can't give away my Rolodex secrets."

For Wilson, the chance to flex his Rolodex prowess is 15 years in the making. Tufts faculty had been working that long to make the Center for the Humanities a reality, and their efforts have now borne fruit. The Center opened this spring at a newly renovated 48 Professors Row—most recently home to the music department and the one-time residence of former provost Sol Gittleman.

The Center will serve as an interdisciplinary hub for the humanities at Tufts, encompassing the departments of English; history; classics; German, Russian and Asian language; romance languages; drama and dance; comparative religion; music; philosophy; art and art history and portions of anthropology.

"I'm hoping [the center] will be a gathering spot and intellectual fulcrum for all the humanities faculty, for grad students in the humanities and for postdoctoral fellows."

— Jonathan Wilson

"This is a center for primarily humanities faculty who for years have been saying 'I don't know what anybody's doing in philosophy, I don't know anybody in classics,'" says Wilson. "I'm hoping this will be a gathering spot and intellectual fulcrum for all the humanities faculty, for grad students in the humanities and for postdoctoral fellows."

The fellows to whom Wilson refers are the Mellon Fellows, four postdoctoral scholars in the humanities who will spend a year teaching and researching alongside Tufts faculty and students. The fellows program is being funded for six years by a $992,000 grant from the Mellon Foundation.

With an increased focus on careers in the sciences and the rise of interest in fields like international relations, Wilson says there is a renewed emphasis on the importance of the humanities as "the heart and soul of a liberal arts university."

"I'm glad this university has come forward and said, 'Let's not push the humanities to the side, let's push it to the center,'" he says.

Cultivating Enrichment

One of the Mellon Fellows at the Center for the Humanities is Mary Lacanlale, who is writing a book based on her dissertation research on the music of the Magindanao, a Muslim minority group in the Philippines. The music, called kulintang, features gongs and drums and is stylistically similar to Javanese gamelan.

Lacanlale received her doctorate in ethnomusicology from UCLA in 2005 and taught there for the past two years before her sister Grace Talusan (A'94)—who also teaches at Tufts—encouraged her to apply for the Mellon fellowship.

"It's absolutely invaluable," Lacanlale says of the Center. "It brings us outside of our departments and allows us to connect broadly across different fields in the study of humanities. We all share common issues, but we're coming from different disciplines."

She praised Wilson for accommodating the Mellon fellows and helping them carry out their work.

"He's really supportive and wants to make sure that we accomplish what we need to in terms of our work," says Lacanlale, who is teaching a class called "Music of Asia."

Humanities Center

Assistant Professor of Drama Claire Conceison, Haruki Murakami translator Jay Rubin and author Suzanne Jill Levine on a panel at "The Art & Ethics of Translation" symposium in March.

Maxence Segard, another Mellon Fellow, teaches "Archeology of Gaul and the Alps" with Professor Bruce Hitchner, chair of the classics department. He applied for the fellowship at Hitchner's urging and has found the cross-departmental collaboration refreshing, both in terms of interacting with his colleagues and seeing the mix of students in his classes.

"In France, students are more specialized," says Segard. "Here I have students from classics, but also from geography and geology. They are very interested."

Bringing humanities scholars like Lacanlale and Segard to Tufts is part of the Center's goal of enriching the intellectual life of the university. Two faculty fellows will also be connected to the Center, and fellows from outside the university will have several week-long stints as well. Next spring, writer James Wood will spend a week on campus as a visiting fellow at the Center, engaging with the academic community across the university. (continued)

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Profile written by Georgiana Cohen, Office of Web Communications. Additional reporting by Marjorie Howard, Office of Publications.

Wilson photo by Joanie Tobin, University Photography. Center and symposium photos, including homepage photo of Wilson and Lacanlale, by Alonso Nichols for University Photography.

This story originally ran on Apr. 28, 2008.