May 5, 2003

VM program celebrates its three-year run

By Michael Terrazas

A modest cohort of students, friends and colleagues gathered April 29 in the Woodruff Library’s Jones Room to commemorate the passing (maybe) of one of Emory’s more innovative—and prolific—initiatives, as the Vernacular Modernities (VM) program nears the end of its grant funding this summer.

Founded in 2000 and directed by Bruce Knauft, Samuel C. Dobbs Professor of Anthropology, the VM program was the successor to “Crossing Borders,” which operated from 1997–99 and was directed by Ivan Karp, NEH Distinguished Professor and current director of the Center for the Study of Public Scholarship. Both the VM and Crossing Borders programs were funded by the Ford Foundation (with matching grants from Emory College, the graduate school and other Emory sources), and both represented new, interdisciplinary directions in area studies.

“It all began ‘P.I.’—pre-internationalization [at Emory],” said Karp, who joined Knauft on a panel of two last Tuesday in chronicling the work of the two programs. “This was about four to six years ago, which represents an entire academic generation, and Emory was a university in search of a policy of internationalization.”

As Phase I of the Ford Foundation grant (Crossing Borders) drew to a close in 1999, Karp and the program’s executive committee cast around for a worthy successor, and they invited Knauft—fresh from six months in the field studying indigenous tribes in the New Guinea rainforest—to direct the grant application for Phase II.

Knauft accepted, and the VM program was born and began awarding fellowships to graduate and postdoctoral students, arranging lectures and symposia on “vernacular modernities”—which Knauft explained as a term (coined by Karp) that connotes the myriad ways cultures all over the world cope with modernization.

“That alternative ways of becoming modern have their own vernaculars foregrounds the language and linguistic component of studying them,” Knauft said. “This has been a correspondingly large element in the VM program—that is, enabling language training and pilot study in different world areas, especially for graduate students but also for undergraduates.”

In its first two years, Knauft said VM’s 29 graduate fellows and awardees secured nearly $240,000 in external grants and fellowships, equalling a return of 166 percent on the VM funds they received. They also produced 13 publications, three museum curations and made 52 presentations at professional meetings, he said.

“And none of these figures reflect the pending accomplishments of this year’s graduate VM cohort, still in progress,” Knauft said. “Research by VM fellows has circled the globe, across Asia, the Mideast, Africa, Europe, Latin America and North America. Undergraduates have been funded for independent summer research in countries such as Vietnam, Uzbekistan, Poland, Ghana, Cuba, Argentina and Australia.”

The program has reached across disciplines as well as political boundaries; VM-supported students have hailed from philosophy, art history, English, comparative literature, women’s studies, anthropology, sociology, political science and religion, said Knauft, adding that all of the faculty on the program’s executive committee have during its course published scholarly books on issues relevant to alternative modernities in various world regions.

“For me, a major benefit has been the opportunity to teach each of the graduate fellows,” Knauft said. “Our discussions have kept the pull of broad theory against the hard reality of ethnographic, historic, aesthetic and political specifics. Leading the seminar for the last three years has been an incredible and rewarding experience.”

Though VM’s grant expires in August, both Knauft and Karp expressed some hope that a Phase III component could materialize, but they also acknowledged a change in funding direction from the Ford Foundation, which itself has been hard hit by the sluggish economy; Karp said the foundation’s endowment has lost 40 percent of its value in recent years.

Both Knauft and Karp expressed their thanks to the two programs’ executive committees and support staff, and in return the pair received crystal Tiffany globe paperweights for their direction. Following a brief testimonial/Q&A period, the roughly three dozen in attendance adjourned to a buffet dinner.