A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum

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It became the Wolf Humanities Center.


When the Penn Humanities Forum launched in 1999, its goals were similar to what they are now: to “demonstrate how vital the humanities are to the life of the mind and the health of society, and how fundamentally connected they are with many areas of urgent inquiry in medicine, law, business, and the sciences.”

Last summer, the Forum became the Wolf Humanities Center, courtesy of a gift from Noelle and Dick Wolf C’69. Since the center now has a real home in Williams Hall, the transformation is physical as well as intellectually substantive.

“For the past 18 years, the Forum has been supporting innovative scholarship and promoting conversation between scholars, students, and an ever larger array of non-academic constituencies,” said James English, the John Welch Centennial Professor of English who has served as the center’s director since founding director Wendy Steiner stepped down in 2010. Noting that “hundreds of scholars have received our fellowships,” and that the public events “draw thousands of people every year,” the Wolfs’ gift is both a “recognition of the Forum’s achievements and an endorsement of our ambition to make Penn a major hub” for humanities research.

The theme of this year’s program is “Afterlives.” Last semester that included talks by novelist Colson Whitehead (“Ghosts, Zombies, and the Afterlives of Slavery”); classics scholar Edith Hall (“The Ancient Greeks and the Future of the Human Race”); and Jan-Werner Mueller (“Democracy After Populism”). Upcoming offerings will range from a performance of Beethoven’s Opus 131 by the Daedalus Quartet to “Death, Burial, and the Afterlife in Early Mesopotamia.”

Emily Wilson, professor of classical studies and this year’s topic director, explains that she and English “worked to come up with a theme that would be broad enough to encompass the whole range of exciting work that’s going on in the humanities, but also narrow enough that we’d feel as if we were all talking about a shared set of ideas, and we’d have some common ground.” Having done a “lot of work on the ‘afterlives’ of classical Greco-Roman literature in later periods and cultures,” she notes, this topic represents an ongoing quest to “figure out how to breathe new life into dead people’s words.”

Since we live in a “very presentist age,” Wilson adds, “I love that this theme showcases how much the humanities have to offer to counteract that cultural blindness.”

English is stepping down July 1 when Karen Redrobe (the Jaffe Professor of Cinema and Modern Media who chairs the art history department) takes the reins. Having helped build the Humanities Forum into a major center, he says he’s proud to have attracted the major gift to support it—not to mention “launching a Digital Humanities initiative and finally getting new, dedicated, purpose-built space on the central part of campus.” That space is in Williams Hall, co-housed with the Price Lab for Digital Humanities, the Penn Program in Environmental Humanities, and the Humanities Mapping Lab.

The Forum is supporting 30 research fellows this year, and their numbers will likely increase over time, says English. “A strong fellowship program makes clear that a humanities center provides valuable support for the humanities faculty’s research.” —SH

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