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Director's Reflections

I am pleased to have this opportunity to celebrate our Humanities Center in this our first newsletter, Paideia – the ancient Greek pursuit of excellence through study.  Although still a quite young member of the University of Tennessee community, we have made considerable strides since we opened our doors in lovely old Melrose Hall in February 2013.

We are all aware of the diminished interest in the arts and the humanities in American higher education. There is a genuine drop-off in students studying the humanities and an increased interest in professional schools and the sciences. Some of this is due to the great recession and attendant anxiety about employment.  While I do not wish to minimize these issues, there is also much inspiring, groundbreaking work taking place in the humanities and at our center which goes unreported.  Let me briefly address the positive side of the humanities ledger and the crucial contributions they make to an educated citizenry, ever mindful of Cicero's observation that those of us in the humanities have an obligation to teach; that such teaching should bring pleasure; and most decisively, that such pleasure must lead to action.

First, a bit of history:  the Humanities Center was chartered in 2011, to promote inventive and collaborative forms of inquiry, and in so doing, to deepen an understanding of the humanities within the university and in the community.  In order to achieve this goal, we provide an integrated program of residential fellowships for faculty and graduate students, distinguished visiting lecturers, and faculty research seminars.  Our mission, unlike other humanities centers which provide residential fellowships for visiting scholars, is exclusively focused on fostering the intellectual richness on the Knoxville campus.  Following Voltaire's advice, we believe "tending our garden" will produce the best fruit.  We define humanities broadly, and so in this year's class, we have an architectural historian, an anthropologist, a sinologist, literary historians, a medievalist and a student of rhetoric.

Each year the Center accepts applications for a year's residence from the faculty and advanced graduate students.  All applicants invited to be in residence compete for places.  The vetting process is rigorous as an independent committee of external reviewers makes the selection.  This exacting selection process ensures that only the best applicants are admitted.  While in residence, all fellows are engaged in full-time work on their research projects.  All fellows participate in a weekly seminar luncheon at which they present a talk on their work.  These lively luncheon seminars are open to the public.  If you wish to attend, please contact us.  For a list of this year's luncheon seminar talks and dates, see "Luncheon Seminars" inside.

I am happy to announce that the 2014-15 class of seven faculty fellows and five advanced graduate students have been in residence since August 2014.  They are a distinguished group of scholars who represent a variety of disciplines and subjects from trade in tobacco in 17th century Virginia to ancient Chinese letters composed by common soldiers to post World War II architecture and its impact on American culture to a study of the writing of self-identified undergraduate evangelicals at public universities.  For more on these and other fascinating projects please see "Fellows."

In addition to the scholarly work of the fellows, the Center sponsors a lecture series of "Distinguished Speakers."  We have had very notable speakers in the past two years, namely Professor Martha Nussbaum – University of Chicago Law School, Professor Anthony Appiah – Princeton University Philosophy Department, and Edward Hirsch – President of the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation.  This academic year promises to be even more ambitious as we have invited ten prominent leaders in their fields to campus.  Please see inside under "Distinguished Speakers" for the complete list of distinguished speakers for academic year 2014-15.  All are invited to the public talks. Also, if you are interested, we do hope that you will try and make one of their seminar talks at the Center.

The Humanities Center is also proud to sponsor faculty interdisciplinary research seminars.  These seminars meet 8 to 10 times during the academic year and provide an opportunity for scholars in related disciplines to work collaboratively.  All humanities center fellows, both faculty members and graduate students, are encouraged to participate in a faculty research seminar.  Please see the breadth of these interesting seminars under "Faculty Research Seminars."

The founding philosophy of the Center to promote and disseminate serious research is bearing fruit.  Our fellows and graduate students are reaping distinguished national awards.  The humanities faculty of the University of Tennessee now ranks 8th in the nation in both public and private institutions in the number of National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowships we have won in the past ten years, ranking just behind Columbia but ahead of Cornell, Stanford and Vanderbilt.  I invite you to read about the fellowships, grants and prizes our fellows have received under the heading "Fellowships, Grants and Prizes."  We are so very proud of the achievements of our fellows.

The humanities must engage the issues of our time, and a unique way to enter that conversation is through the press.  We are pleased to announce that as of 2014 our center is jointly sponsoring with Johns Hopkins University Press a brand new journal ASAP, a publication edited by our own 2013-14 faculty fellow Amy Elias, dedicated to the arts of the present.  The journal will have its editorial offices in the center.

The study of the humanities is a lifelong process.  All understand that the most crucial learning takes place long before college.  Accordingly, the Humanities Center has now partnered with the Department of Philosophy to co-sponsor an "Ethics Bowl," for high school students.  This competition is designed to introduce high school students to the crucial importance of civic and civil discourse.  Read about this exciting new endeavor under "Ethics Bowl."

The study of the humanities is also life-enhancing.  Our center is committed to supporting these ageless disciplines since without them we would be an impoverished people lacking an understanding of our place in history.  An articulate and educated citizenry with a commitment to moral principles founded on the best that has been thought and read is vital for the future.  Surely Kierkegaard is right "Life must be lived forward, but it can only be understood backward."  

Thomas J. Heffernan

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