Emory Report
October 4, 2004
Volume 57, Number 7


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October 4 , 2004
A flood of ideas

Bruce Knauft is executive director of the institute for comparative and international studies and samuel candler dobbs professor of anthropology

The more things stay the same, the more they change—or at least they have for me. Last year, during a fellowship year in Santa Fe, N.M., I was considering the American use of geopolitical power and the ways different world areas perceive the United States following 9/11. I did not know that I would be returning to Emory in a new capacity, nor that my interest would inform a plan for Emory’s own place in the world—or that coming back to campus would put me under water.

This past July, I became executive director of the Institute for Comparative and International Studies (ICIS) in Emory College. ICIS encompasses eight world area studies programs, international funding for faculty, the Emory College Language Center, the Emory Center for International Living, the outreach programs of Emory’s international community connections, and the Center for International Programs Abroad, through which some 40 percent of college undergraduates study overseas.

As I began my position, President Jim Wagner was asking the University’s divisions and units to chart their objectives, goals and aspirations as part of Emory’s strategic planning process. So, during a series of lively meetings, lunches and conversations in August with more than 40 faculty and administrators, a plan for the future of international and comparative studies at Emory College took shape. Its keystone concept, voiced by Professor Ivan Karp, is the notion of “global citizenship”: that as members of modern humanity, we have not just the intellectual mandate but the moral responsibility to take responsibility for our place as citizens in a larger world.

The difficulty here is that “the world” is not a singular place. Across the globe, we find worlds of social and cultural differences (as well as similarities) refracting like colors through a prism. If this prism is that single thing called humanity, its colors are brilliant gradations of race and ethnicity, religion and nationality, custom and culture, gender and generation.

In short, the world of which we are citizens is a plural world, a world of differences. In many if not most circumstances, we need to understand and appreciate these differences, not rail or polarize against them. And when opposition is called for, it needs to be targeted carefully, not brandished in broad-based stereotypes against entire groups of people. To really solve problems, we need to understand and respect the extent of human diversity; history shows that even the best laid plans for helping others can have unanticipated or negative consequences when these differences are not taken into account.

At Emory, we have an imperative to understand human similarities and differences by using our most rigorous scholarship. We also have a mandate to appreciate this diversity in moral, personal and broader human terms. This dual charge requires both our deepest erudition and our most inclusive values, our most rigorous academics and our strongest humanitarianism. Put simply, it requires the strength of our heads and the power of our hearts.

Within the theme of global citizenship, our plan took shape in more specific ways. We proposed named professorships, scholarships, fellowships and programs in global citizenship. These help crystallize the larger needs of Emory College and the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, including the great need for increased financial support for our undergraduates and graduate students, for increased numbers of faculty, and for a faculty-student ratio that equals or betters that of our peer institutions.

Each of these priorities takes on new significance as Emory pursues global citizenship in a plural world. Under this broad theme, we have identified specific initiatives for study and outreach that draw upon Emory’s unique strengths. We also have reconsidered the general education requirements for international study, underscored the importance of staffing foreign language courses and emphasized our dialogue with international scholars. Our plan can be viewed in full on the ICIS website at www.icis.emory.edu/about/strategic_plan.htm.

Establishing this strategic plan has been as exhilarating as it has been demanding. Some of the college’s best minds have come together to see a bigger picture, to view a larger forest beyond individual trees. This vision is not just for the college but for a larger audience of potential donors and foundations—those with dollars who can make our dreams become real. It isn’t hard to envision these goals as part of Emory’s upcoming comprehensive financial campaign.

In the wake of these aspirations came our flood. Early Thursday evening, Sept. 16, two inches of rain from Hurricane Ivan fell on the Emory campus in a half-hour’s time. The creek behind ICIS erupted, filling our parking lot to a height of five feet and pouring into the building. Suddenly the bottom half of our building (including my office) was swimming in 18 inches of water, and by 6 p.m. we were hip deep, frantically hoisting equipment and files, including the institute’s computer server, to the second floor.

In my initial frenzy, I piled a year’s worth of archives and notes from Santa Fe (material
for my eighth book) on a large conference table on the lower floor—not knowing the table top was unattached to its supports. As the water rose higher, the table top floated up and off its base, and the weight of my materials then tipped it over, dumping my notes into the flood. I found their remains the following day, a total loss.

Emory’s challenge is to define its place in a world that is uncertain. We live in a world of crazy forces that outstrip our own. Floods of many kinds can come, leaving problems long after they recede. In the wake
of our flood at ICIS, as the walls were ripped out and our offices temporarily moved, I felt this lesson in my own role as director.

What is Emory’s place in the world? It is buffeted by larger forces sometimes beyond our control. These include the challenges and struggles of the U.S. economy, the forays and foibles of national and international politics, and so on. Like the rising and falling levels of Peavine Creek, we don’t know these futures, but one thing is certain: If we don’t have a vision and a plan, our dreams will be washed away. If Emory’s educational structure and daily operations locate our University in a practical sense, its vision defines its future path.

After the flood, the ICIS staff came together. During the coming six weeks, most of us will be crammed in the building’s upper floor while renovations are made below. I am now appreciating life in a cube, that office culture of working in a cubicle, of hearing each word across the way and knowing that mine are heard as well.

As an ethnographer, this reminds me of my fieldwork with the Gebusi people in the rainforest of Papua New Guinea. The Gebusi live in communal houses; everybody hears and knows everything about everybody else. Though their customs and beliefs were very different from those I had known, I came not only to appreciate their life but to enjoy and adopt much of it as my own. When people come together, their lives get richer.

Emory’s place in the world, like all of our own, is sometimes uncertain. But for that very fact, it is all the more important to have a larger plan, a deeper mission, and a broader strategy for coming together. Particularly in times of change, it is important to reach outside ourselves and become citizens of a larger world. For me, global citizenship links scholarship with responsibility, objectivism with ethics and wordly understanding with respect for diversity. It means being citizens of a world in which uncertainty is surpassed by the richness of humanity.