The Humanities at Emory
New center makes a case for relevance

By Martine Watson Brownley, Goodrich C. White Professor of English, Winship Distinguished Research Professor, and Director of the Center for Humanistic Inquiry

In the months since becoming director of Emory’s new Center for Humanistic Inquiry (CHI), I’ve been asked again and again: “Why a Humanities Center?” And inevitably, the follow-up question has been: “Why now?”

The answers to both involve the current situation of the humanities at Emory, as well as concerns about the status of the humanities in general. Our culture continues to be increasingly focused on science, technology, and knowledge as a business. Questions of quality too frequently are lost in the focus on quantity. We continually read about the unfolding “crisis in the humanities,” usually couched in terms of complaints about students seeking college educations simply as a way to procure high-salaried future jobs, or humanists talking only to each other in opaque language. Such commentary is skewed in part because those of us in the humanities have failed to make the powerful case for the continuing relevance and crucial importance of humanistic study that its long heritage and enormous potential deserve.

The CHI is part of Emory’s ongoing effort to redress the imbalance in contemporary discourse about the humanities. Currently, we have twenty-three departments and programs categorized as “humanities” at Emory. These academic enterprises are varied and vibrant; they’re making impressive advances in their intellectual areas, and some notable and longstanding collaborations have evolved over the years.

Despite such collaborations, the humanities at Emory remain compartmentalized in crucial ways. At a recent college chairs’ retreat, one humanities chair somewhat ruefully referred to “that forest of proliferating programs called the humanities.” Her apt remark reflects both the powerful organic vitality and the sometimes unorchestrated growth that characterize humanities endeavors at Emory.

The was envisioned as a focal point to enhance this vitality and coordinate this growth. As a residential center for humanistic scholarship and a nexus for programming, the center looks to foster and energize connections across the university. Through its residential role, each year the CHI will host four senior fellows and three junior and postdoctoral fellows, all funded by Emory College, as well as three dissertation fellows funded by the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. These fellows will have a year free from their regular teaching and service obligations to concentrate on their research. But the CHI was never envisioned simply as a retreat for academic monads. All fellows will take an active role in CHI programming to share their work with the rest of the university.

As a residential focal point for humanities research, the CHI will be a literal center. In its other major role as a metaphorical center, the CHI will encourage conversations not just among the humanities disciplines, but also between the humanities and the professional schools. The importance of that second conversation, conducted across the university as a whole, explains the CHI’s nomenclature. The original planning committee called for a “center for humanistic inquiry” rather than simply a “humanities center” because they envisioned the CHI as serving not only the humanities as traditionally defined, but also all faculty and students throughout the university who are interested in humanistic issues.


At Emory the humanities already abound with a variety of programming—speakers, lecture series, reading groups, workshops, colloquia, symposia, and conferences. Singly and cooperatively, existing units currently put together a plethora of academic events, some on specialized professional topics and others for the university as a whole and the wider community.

Thus the pressing need now is not for more programming, but for more accessibility to the humanities programs already available at Emory. A prime example is four days last October, when David Lodge was delivering the Richard Ellmann Lectures in Modern Literature, while Jaroslav Pelikan was giving the inaugural McDonald Chair Lectures. Shoshana Felman lectured in comparative literature and Mariana Torgovnik in English, along with a history department lecture about the Atlanta Campaign during the Civil War and presentations during assorted brown-bag lunches and colloquia. Films were offered in the Female Director Film Series, the Hispanic Heritage Month Series, and the Cinema from the Margins Series; the Emory Wind Ensemble performed; and several exhibitions opened across the campus. In addition, a number of other programs took place that for one reason or another do not appear in the “Emory Events” listings for that period.

Riches, yes, but also excess: the humanities need better coordination of the exciting programs that perpetually occur simultaneously, and better communication so that everyone in the university community can know what is happening. The CHI will be working with the Humanities Council, which has agreed to serve as the CHI’s Advi-sory Committee and programming arm, to find ways to improve scheduling and offer better access to all programs.


The CHI will also originate some programming. Our inaugural event was a Response Forum, what we plan as an annual event giving Emory faculty members a chance to discuss humanistic perspectives on immediate contemporary concerns. For this year’s Response Forum I, “The Humanities and Terror,” sixty-one faculty met in small groups to explore topics ranging from “Divine Love and Holy Terror” and “The Paradox of Aesthetic Terror” to “En-gendering Terror” and “Existentialism and Violence,” and then continued their discussions over dinner.

“The Humanities and Terror” shows three primary characteristics of most CHI programming currently planned. First, it was interdisciplinary. The forum was co-sponsored by the Center for Language, Literature, and Culture; Dean Gary Wihl and the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences; the Violence Studies Program—and every single department and program in the porary discourse about the humanities. All these departments and programs responded immediately and generously, and we hope this reaction presages a great future of cooperation among us.

The second programmatic characteristic is closely related: the forum included faculty from across the university, including the humanities, the social sciences, the natural sciences, public health, theology, and the medical school. Law and business were absent this round, but we will target their future participation.

Third, and very importantly, the Response Forum focused on Emory faculty, not outside speakers. Too often, time constraints limit Emory faculty conversation to campus politics or committee work. Moreover, the Emory faculty is invited all over the world to address other audiences, but ironically, their fellow faculty members seldom hear them. The CHI hopes to play a role in building the kind of intellectual community in which we can all learn more about the diversity of humanistic work going on in our midst.

Significantly, at a time when humanities budgets in universities across the country were being slashed, deans Robert Paul, then of the graduate school, and Steven Sanderson, then of the college, established the CHI to affirm the crucial role of the humanities at Emory and in the larger culture. Since that time, Emory College under Dean Paul has generously supported the endeavor as a whole, while Dean Gary Wihl of the graduate school has provided the dissertation fellowships, along with programming funds for Response Forum I and a commitment for future programming support.

The administration has done its part. Now it rests on the faculty and students at Emory to help those of us working with the CHI know what you want and need. Our e-mail address is; our phone number is 404.727.6424; our web site is Please get in touch.