Pitt’s New Humanities Center To Foster Collaborative Work

Issue Date: 
January 19, 2010
Jonathan Arac, the Andrew W. Mellon Professor of English and director of  the new Humanities CenterJonathan Arac, the Andrew W. Mellon Professor of English and director of the new Humanities Center

It is fitting that the University of Pittsburgh’s new Humanities Center is housed in the Darlington Memorial Library, the former home of a treasured collection comprising 11,000 books; 3,000 photographs; and hundreds of maps, letters, and other materials pertaining to the history of Southwestern Pennsylvania, Colonial America.

The treasures—which shed light on America’s history, culture, and art, among other topics—are now part of the University Library System’s (ULS) massive digitization project at its Archives Service Center in Point Breeze. And in their place within the Darlington, located in Room 602 of the Cathedral of Learning, is the new Humanities Center, which opened in November.

On Jan, 20, there will be a by-invitation-only event to celebrate the center’s creation. Rush Miller, ULS director, will discuss the history of the Darlington Library, and Jeff Slack and Greg George, of  the Downtown architectural firm Pfaffmann + Associates, will address the Darlington historical renovation project. The newly renovated space, designed by architect Rob Pfaffmann, maintains much of the former library’s ambience.

For Jonathan Arac, the Andrew W. Mellon Professor of English at Pitt, the Humanities Center fulfills a long-held dream. He is the inaugural director of the center; Todd Reeser, a Pitt professor of French, is the center’s associate director.

According to Arac, since the 1980s, humanities centers have become an important part of how American universities foster learning.

“The idea for a humanities center is to invigorate research and teaching by developing an active dialogue,” said Arac. “Few humanists are accustomed to collaborative work.”

While those in the humanities generally don’t write collaborative papers, the benefit to having a center is that there is discussion—a give-and-take—which provides additional perspective for the articles and books that result from the academic interplay.

The Pitt center’s mission is to promote research in the humanities through interaction across departments and to help faculty do research.

“Humanities centers do two things,” said Reeser, who came to Pitt after spending a year working at the National Humanities Center in North Carolina. “They help faculty do research better, promoting humanities-based research. One way of doing this is by offering fellowships, grants, and bringing in outside speakers. Secondly, they provide a collaborative element. Faculty work together on research that is humanities based.”

Pitt’s center offers humanities seminars and lectures as well as a colloquium series, which involves reading groups. The colloquium discussions are usually led by a Pitt or visiting faculty member who has authored a piece of writing, either already published or en route to publication. The writing is circulated in advance and then is discussed, with the author, by a roomful of colleagues from various departments.

Fellowships also are available through the center, including an early-career fellowship, offered to a recent PhD of extraordinary promise; visiting short-term fellowships, lasting for a few days to a few weeks; and a one-semester, advanced-career fellowship, hosting a distinguished faculty member from another institution.

Sabine MacCormack, the Rev. Theodore Hesburgh Professor of Classics and History in the University of Notre Dame, visited Pitt’s center on a recent short-term fellowship. Her book, On The Wings of Time: Rome, the Incas, Spain, and Peru (Princeton University Press, 2006), was discussed during a colloquium. MacCormack also presented a lecture, “The Poetics of Representation in Viceregal Peru: A Walk Round the Cloister of San Agustín in Lima.”

In addition to collaboration between faculty and graduate students, the center also fosters interaction between programs, departments, and schools. Research can be shared, and undergrad and graduate students have opportunities to work with distinguished scholars.

Another of the center’s programs will occur annually during the week following Pitt’s commencement. A visiting scholar participating in a short-term fellowship will lead a cross-disciplinary seminar for Pitt faculty. Graduate students and faculty members from other local institutions may also participate, depending on space availability.

Bruce Robbins, the Old Dominion Foundation Professor in the Humanities at Columbia University, will lead the first seminar, titled “Rethinking Cosmopolitanism,” May 3-7.