Jonathan Gross (professor, English) has been the director of the DePaul Humanities Center since 2005, and in that role he’s come to appreciate the Center’s value in supporting scholarship and enabling creative, interdisciplinary explorations.
“Here, people from different departments come together to talk about ideas, sharing our many and varied perspectives, not just among ourselves but also with renown scholars from outside DePaul,” he says. “Through the Center, we’re all participating in a conversation: ‘What should a liberal education be?’ I think the word ‘humanities’ suggests people at their best (or most humane), and the Center keeps us in touch with that by allowing people and ideas to blossom.”
Each year, the Center supports as many as six fellows — DePaul faculty who are given a partial reduction in their teaching loads so they can pursue an academic project. Their proposals include an outreach component, which can mean taking their own work to the community outside DePaul or bringing a scholar to DePaul as a guest lecturer. In 2011-12, the Center’s fellow’s included these three:
Matthew Abraham (associate professor, Writing, Rhetoric, and Discourse) who invited Martha Nussbaum (professor, Distinguished Service Professor of Law and Ethics, University of Chicago) to address a packed symposium held at Cortelyou Commons.
Rachel Shteir (associate professor, The Theatre School) whose books include Striptease: The Untold History of the Girlie Show (2004), Gypsy: The Art of the Tease (2009), and The Steal (2011).
Kurt Westerberg (chair, Department of Musicianship Studies and Composition) whose works include Night Music I (1994), Fantasy for Violin and Piano (2005), Sargasso for String Quartet (1999), In Time of Silver Rain (2007), Einstein Dream Preludes (2007), and Ritual and Laments (2009).
“I like to imagine the Center as a place where we can promote the work of DePaul’s distinguished faculty and give them a forum to share their work with a broader public,” says Gross.” “For example, Rachel Shteir’s book, The Steal, garnered national attention with reviews in The Village Voice and the New Yorker. And this year she was selected as DePaul’s applicant for a National Endowment for Humanities Fellowship.”
Most years, the Center’s core activities are organized around a theme. In 2011-12, that was “literature and music” as evidenced in these events:
Fifth House Ensemble — a Chicago-based chamber music group whose performances integrate classical music with other art forms as diverse as film, dance, and theater — performed Black Violet, a collaboration with graphic novelist, Ezra Clayton Daniels, whose story tells of a black cat’s survival during the last major outbreak of the Black Plague in 17th century London. The Chicago Sun-Times wrote about the event: “Local narrative chamber music ensemble, Fifth House, likes to take risks, and its latest production Black Violet … seems likely to reward audiences who do the same.”
Kurt Westerberg (professor, Music) put the poetry of Dylan Thomas to music in his original performance of Vision and Prayer. Westerberg translated the poem’s vivid imagery and strophes into distinctive and haunting harmonies, noting that each strophe has its own tempo, image, and sound — a structure that allows for a recurring connection between the text and the music.
In his lecture, Miles Davis: The Jazz Musician as Dandy, John Swed (professor, Columbia University) said: “[His] gestures, the relaxed posture, the studied and inarticulateness, the calculated detachment verge on elements of the cool, a powerful metaphor for 20th century life. [But] cool … also resonates with a 19th century sense of the artful self, the dandy a type of aristocratic bohemian intellectual spelled out by Baudelaire, who said: ‘The distinguishing characteristic of the dandy’s beauty consists above all in an air of coldness which comes from an unshakeable determination not to be moved; you might call it a latent fire which hints at itself, and which could, but chooses not to, burst into flame.’” Before the lecture, DePaul jazz music students played for the audience.
Susan McClary (professor, Case Western Reserve University), author of the ground-breaking Feminine Endings: Music, Gender, and Sexuality, lectured on the stark differences between two versions of the story of Salome: 1) the opera of Richard Strauss, adapted from Oscar Wilde’s provocative play, in which Salome dies as punishment for her transgressions and 2) an early operatic composition by Alessandro Stradella (who wrote music for the outspoken and powerful Queen Christina of Sweden) in which Salome lives to celebrate her feminine cunning. The contrast illustrates a striking difference between 17th and 20th century notions of the “femme fatale.”
Francesca Royster (director, African Black Diasporas Studies) lectured on Michael Jackson, Queer World Making and the Trans Erotics of Voice, Gender, and Age, proposing that Jackson’s vocal aptitude connected to a transgendered sound that not only reverberated with his audience, but defied their expectations: “His grunts, clicks, rasps, groans, gasps and stops, his use of emotional expressiveness, vocal range, volume and pitch, provide a depth that often adds layers to the sometimes simplistic lyrics of his songs. Roland Barthes talks about the ‘grain’ of the voice. It is the aspect of authenticity that speaks of [the body’s] relationship to the symbolic.”
In addition, the Center hosts a year-long program of lectures and events. In 2011-12, guest lecturers included (in addition to Martha Nussbaum) Audrey Niffenegger (professor, Columbia College Chicago) and James Soderholm (professor, English, King’s School, Canterbury). In the spring, a one-day conference marked the 200th anniversary of the publication of Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. Scholars from all over the world participated, including Christine Kenyon Jones (King’s College, London).
“Without the help of associate director, Anna Clissold, and assistant director, Alecia Person, the Center’s achievements would not be possible,” says Gross. “But even the richness and depth suggested by our year-long programs don’t do justice to the work of the Humanities Center. Here, the sum really is greater than the parts — and the sum is DePaul’s commitment to interdisciplinary scholarship, intellectual importance, and academic rigor.”