Emory Report

October 25, 1999

 Volume 52, No. 9

Gustafson Seminars carry on interdisciplinary legacy

Professor James Gustafson is retired now, but faculty at Emory continue to walk in his footsteps--three of them, in fact, were needed to fill his shoes, quipped Walter Reed, professor of English and one of three Gustafson Scholars guiding this year's Gustafson Seminar.

Now in its second year at Emory, the seminar provides an opportunity for about a dozen faculty members from across the University to "peer over the walls of their disciplines" and talk to each other. The seminar is based on but not identical to the Luce Seminar, founded and shepherded by Gustafson from the time he came to Emory in 1987 until 1996. Funded by a multi-year grant from the Henry Luce Foundation, the Luce Seminar allowed selected faculty members a semester free of administrative and teaching responsibilities to look at connections among and between the humanities and the social and natural sciences.

Laurie Patton, associate professor of religion and a current Gustafson Scholar, was one participant. "When I finished the Luce Seminar, I knew this was authentic intellectual exchange and something I would do everything I possibly could do to preserve at Emory," she said. "And in Jim Gustafson's absence, the only possible choice is to carry on his legacy, patiently and persistently, one creative year at a time."

Although he hadn't participated in the Luce Seminar, Reed also felt the idea was wonderful. After the Luce funding ended, Reed began talking with Gustafson about keeping the effort going with a lower budget and time commitment--dubbed by one participant as "Luce Lite."

"For two years we held a faculty seminar with no name but very much led and inspired by Jim Gustafson," said Reed, who by this time was an ongoing participant. When Gustafson announced his retirement, a "post-Luce, pre-Gustafson" group of scholars continued to meet, among them Patton, Reed and Mikhail Epstein, associate professor of Russian studies.

The three were asked by Provost Rebecca Chopp to plan a program to be named in honor of Gustafson, and a preliminary version of the seminar began in 1998-99. "Part of the reason to support the Gustafson Seminar is to provide opportunities for cross-school conversation and to reap the benefits from those conversations," said Chopp. "But part of the motivation is the importance of finding ways to take the time to think and talk together, and to enjoy the work of thinking in new ways and with new partners."

Like the Luce Seminar, the Gustafson Seminar is based on a theme designed to attract and challenge faculty from a broad array of disciplines. Faculty now meet six or seven times during the semester instead of weekly, since they do not receive leave time to participate.

Last year the inaugural Gustafson Seminar looked at "The Fate of Disciplines." Each participant identified an article or chapter in a book that featured a particular problem, crisis or significant change in his or her own discipline. All completed the readings on their colleagues' respective fields, and one or two were assigned each week to give formal responses to those readings.

This year, the Gustafson Seminar will sail under the banner "Disciplines in Disarray, Knowledge All in Order: The University at the Turn of the Millennium." The theme will also address the larger divisions of human knowledge: the humanities, sciences and social sciences, or what some call the "superdisciplines." Faculty will come together to explore "what these collections of methodologies are either holding up or rending obsolete by new mergers and morphings that seem to be going on around us," as Patton put it. Peering over the disciplinary fence, it would seem, is getting more complicated.

The three seminar leaders hope the mix of faculty will continue to be representative of the University as a whole; half of last year's participants were from outside Arts & Sciences, representing medicine, business and theology. They will send out more detailed information to faculty about the application and selection process soon.

The Gustafson Seminar isn't the only interdisciplinary faculty forum springing up on campus, a fact that greatly cheers Epstein, who has developed a procedure called "collective improvisation" as a way of creating productive interdisciplinary communities. "[The Gustafson Seminar] is the place where the idea of the university becomes palpable," he said. "For me, it's one of the magical things I'm doing at Emory."

Reed sees tackling energizing intellectual challenges as fundamental to one's effectiveness as a teacher. "Faculty need the opportunity to be students as well as teachers because it lets them appreciate the problems and needs of their own students," he said. After all, he added, someone who has been put in the position of being a rank amateur in a field--an unfamiliar sensation for most experienced academics--will get a fresh reminder of the frustrations and obstacles that impede understanding new concepts.

Gaining "a wider range of tolerance and understanding" may seem like a fuzzy concept, but it's not, according to Susan Frost, vice provost for institutional planning and research, who has investigated the influence of the Luce Seminar on the intellectual interaction of faculty at Emory.

"The future of research is much more dependent on ability of the scholar to understand and value other viewpoints," Frost said. "It's not just about being a warm intellectual community, but also about the reputation of individual scholars and our ability to compete with other schools and be at the cutting edge."

-Elaine Justice

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