Director's Letter (2019–20)

Last spring, during Undergraduate Research Week, students from the Odyssey Project were presenting their research in the Levis Faculty Center. The Music Room was full of poster boards that showcased a variety of projects, from art history to philosophy to literature.

As I went around and listened to each student explain their work, I was impressed and inspired as I always am—by what they had accomplished and by the unsolicited admiration and gratitude they felt for the Odyssey instructors who had helped them with the work at hand. But I was suddenly struck by something equally astonishing. Thanks to two different poster projects at different ends of the room—one on Ida B. Wells Barnett and one on Toni Morrison—I realized something I had never had occasion to think about. These two powerful African American women share the date 1931: that’s the year Wells died and it’s the year Morrison was born. The research that our Odyssey students did helped me to appreciate this random but miraculous fact: There has been a kind of uncanny continuum in the universe of social justice for just short of a hundred years thanks to the way the stars aligned to shape the lives of two exemplary African American pioneers, radicals, heroines—and, of course, humanists in every possible sense of the term. I could hardly sleep that night for thinking about what that harmonic convergence means, the energy it brings to our work and the object lessons it holds about where and how new knowledge happens.

After four years of directing IPRH, I continue to be amazed at what research in the humanities at Illinois can do to break open the universe and change the way we see time, politics, history, self, community and the struggle for a livable future for all. This past year is no exception. Under the auspices of our theme for 2018–19, Race Work, we sponsored a range of interdisciplinary programming designed to backlight the labor involved in keeping racial systems in place and challenging their material and discursive power as well. We had speakers on race and the classics and race and contemporary European politics. We heard the Black Chorus, under the direction of Professor Ollie Watts Davis, sing gloriously about the lessons of African American history for the present. And we watched the ceiling rise in Levis as they did so, such was the magical, kinetic energy in the room. We hosted a panel on the race work of war machines and an interactive Performance/Talk on dance and its role in shaping the multiracial creative economy. Our IPRH Fellows’ seminar fairly crackled with the intellectual energy of faculty and graduate students whose research on race work in subjects as diverse as masquerade, “American” rice, Viking imagery and the Chicago housing market shaped and reshaped our understanding of the question. And in yet another uncanny coincidence, Brazil expert Tianna Paschel spoke to a riveted crowd about race politics in Latin America the same week as Jair Bolsonaro’s election.

Beyond our annual theme, IPRH continues to be a beehive of humanities research energy and activity. Our Andrew W. Mellon Foundation-funded Environmental Humanities initiative, led by Professor Bob Morrissey, has brought scholars, artists and public intellectuals to campus, and the intergenerational research group he has led has added new voices to environmental studies on campus (see page 9). Our Humanities and Arts in the Age of Big Data conference in October was a resounding success and helped draw faculty and students from all over campus into conversations about how and why we should engage big tech questions holistically as well as critically. IPRH’s Research Clusters and reading groups continue to thrive. Thanks to the efforts of Rana Hogarth, Justine Murison and Stephanie Hilger, the Medical Humanities Cluster won an award from President Tim Killeen’s system-wide Arts and Humanities Initiative, which will allow them to develop stronger links with the Carle-Illinois College of Medicine. The academic year 2018–19 was a big one for such wins. The Mellon Foundation awarded $650,000 in funding to the Odyssey Project over the next five years, support that has already enabled us to enhance our support for this important program, which offers courses in core humanities subjects to incomeeligible adult learners in Champaign-Urbana and provides them opportunities to develop skills and display their knowledge as they did at Undergraduate Research Week.

The year ahead looks just as inviting. We’ll be kicking things off with an August retreat focused on models of undergraduate research in the humanities in collaboration with the Office of Undergraduate Research. Our program roster includes a September Inside Scoop with Urbana native and RuPaul’s Drag Race victor Sasha Velour; an October showing of And Then They Came for Us, a film about Japanese internment in conjunction with Asian American Studies; and a November conversation on antisemitism with Jewish Culture & Society visiting speaker Mark Roseman. Thanks to another award from President Killeen’s Arts and Humanities Initiative, IPRH will be hosting a year-long series featuring the work of some of the most engaging of today’s creative writers and artists, in collaboration with Professor Janice Harrington and the Creative Writing Program at Illinois, across the whole of 2020. These include playwright and actress Anna Deavere Smith (in conjunction with Krannert Center for the Performing Arts and the Center for Advanced Study); Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Tyehimba Jess; novelist/journalist/critic Roxane Gay; and many more (see page 15). We are beyond excited about this showcase of authors who will share their current work and their reflections on the creative process with campus and community audiences alike.

A propos, we’ve been working on ways to extend our public humanities efforts and to strengthen our relationships with a variety of people who share our conviction about the key role of humanists’ and artists’ contributions in generating all kinds of new knowledge. We screened a film, Mississippi Masala, at The Art Theater in downtown Champaign last February, followed by a public discussion with our 2018–19 IPRH Fellow Professor Rini Mehta. For the secondyear in a row IPRH sent delegates—Jon Ebel, Religion, and RenéeTrilling, English—to Capitol Hill for National Humanities AdvocacyDay in March, where they met with staff of Illinois representatives andreturned with lots of insights and ideas about how to be proactivearound issues of local and national concern (see page 19). And weare very pleased to announce a new partnership with Seth Fein andthe Pygmalion Festival. Keep your eyes peeled for IPRH-sponsoredspeakers in and around Urbana in late September—we are lookingforward to seeing you there, and at many of our other events in thecoming year. You will want to mark your calendars for our 4th annualDecember Work-In, led by the faculty in the IPRH Community Healing& Resistance Through Storytelling (C-HeARTS) Research Cluster (watchour website and calendar for details on this and all our  programming). For a full listing of the upcoming year’s events, see page 12.

Last but not least, 2020 is an exciting prospect because we will be in the process of applying for official Institute status at the university. Though we have effectively functioned as an Institute since the move to the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research in 2015, we now seek codification as part of the campus’ strategic planning for the university. With our official Institute status will come a new name: We are working on that! Come to the third of three Town Hall meetings in Levis on September 5th to hear more and offer your feedback on the new name possibilities.

As is occasionally the case, IPRH is “themeless” this year. Our 2019–20 Fellows will be pursuing a dazzling range of research projects in our bi-monthly seminar, which is typically the highlight of my intellectual life as director. In 2020–21 our annual theme will be “The Global and Its Worlds,” a signal of our boundless and inclusive critical vision and our commitment to thinking capaciously about the many terrains humanists work on and think with. Tony Pomonis, Director of Development at the Foundation, and I have covered a lot of ground ourselves this past year, meeting Illinois alums from Chicago to California. It’s been truly energizing to get to know supporters of the humanities with Illinois connections. If you are interested in meeting up, please let us know; we’d welcome the chance to connect with you if you don’t live in Champaign-Urbana. As for me, I’d love to welcome you to IPRH and introduce you personally to all we are doing to energize lovers of and advocates for the humanities, wherever they may be.

All the best,

Antoinette Burton

IPRH Director Antoinette Burton