Mellon Foundation gives $500,000 to support humanities seminars

Three-year grant to WUSTL enables collaboration and mentoring among graduate students, postdoctoral fellows and faculty

Washington University in St. Louis has received a three-year, $500,000 grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to support a series of five “Vertical Seminars” in the humanities.

The seminars are part of a pilot program to introduce an innovative format of collaborative research, called “The Vertical Seminar,” to the humanities.

“The Vertical Seminar” will include scholars of different levels — dissertation students, postdoctoral fellows and junior and senior faculty — working together to examine a series of overarching questions in the humanities.

“The Vertical Seminar” was developed by Steven Zwicker, PhD, the Stanley Elkin Professor in the Humanities and professor of English in Arts & Sciences, and Gary S. Wihl, PhD, dean of the faculty of Arts & Sciences and the Hortense and Tobias Lewin Distinguished Professor in the Humanities in Arts & Sciences.

“The Vertical Seminar” format is pioneering and may come to serve as an important model for a new generation of humanities scholars, Wihl says.

“Zwicker’s ‘The Vertical Seminar’ proposes an entirely new approach that not only brings together scholars of different ranks but furthers intellectual inquiry by exploring foundational questions in the humanities,” Wihl says. “I’m delighted that we have the collaboration and support from the Mellon Foundation to pursue this extremely promising project.”

Zwicker says that humanities scholars of all levels have something to gain from participating in the seminars, which will examine how questions are posed in academic disciplines and why scholars study the texts, images, historical questions and philosophical problems that constitute the core of humanities teaching and research. Zwicker says he hopes the seminar will initiate a “conversation across the academic generations.”

“It is clear that the more junior members of a seminar will benefit from the archival experience and intellectual engagement of their senior colleagues, and that ‘The Vertical Seminar’ will provide an ideal occasion for socializing graduate students and postdoctoral scholars in the kinds of intellectual exchange that we hope will characterize their future research and collegial work,” Zwicker says.

The seminar will hold equal value for senior scholars, who will interact with graduate students and postdoctoral scholars freshly trained in the latest theoretical and methodological issues, Zwicker says.

In addition, Zwicker says, the seminar will provide an opportunity for all scholars to reflect on foundational questions. It will allow scholars to pursue what he calls a “deep inquisitiveness about how and why we continue to do the work that we do and how we all can do this work better.”

The seminars will be under the direction of Zwicker. A faculty steering committee — comprising Jean Allman, PhD, the J.H. Hexter Professor and chair of history, Erin McGlothlin, PhD, associate professor of German, and William Wallace, PhD, the Barbara Murphy Bryant Distinguished Professor of Art History, all in Arts & Sciences — will guide the program.

The first “Vertical Seminar” will be held in fall 2011 on the Early Modern field. Topics will rotate into other fields for subsequent seminars.

In the past decade, humanities scholarship at WUSTL has received significant support from The Mellon Foundation. In addition to funding Dissertation Seminars for graduate students, The Mellon Foundation helped to endow the “Modeling Interdisciplinary Inquiry” program in 2008. “Modeling Interdisciplinary Inquiry” began in 2000 with support from the foundation.

“Modeling Interdisciplinary Inquiry” — directed by Zwicker — helps to foster the development of both interdisciplinary scholarship and teaching by supporting two-year postdoctoral fellowships in Arts & Sciences. A senior faculty member serves as a mentor for the fellows’ teaching and research endeavors.

The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation supports a wide range of initiatives to strengthen selective private research universities in the United States, with particular emphasis on the humanities and the “humanistic” social sciences.

The philosophy of the foundation is to build, strengthen and sustain such institutions and their core capacities. The foundation currently makes grants in five core program areas: higher education, museums and art conservation, performing arts, conservation and the environment, and scholarly communications and information technology.