Frost to House Humanities Center
Issue   |   Wed, 03/12/2014 - 02:19
Olivia Tarantino ‘15 Photography Editor
Frost Library will be the site of the new humanities center, which will provide a space for faculty research and collaboration in the humanities.

The second floor of Frost Library will soon be the site of the College’s new humanities center, expected to open in 2015.
In interviews earlier this week, Amherst administrators and professors described a recently approved proposal to transform a portion of the library into a space that will both support the scholarship of resident faculty and provide space for visiting scholars.

“I think first and foremost, we see this as a means that will bring colleagues together, giving them opportunities for conversation about their work and opportunities to invite other scholars to campus,” said Dean of the Faculty Gregory Call, one of the people spearheading the project.

The current plan calls for a humanities center that will include offices and group gathering space on the west side of Frost’s second floor. Each year, the center will host scholarship and programming based on a particular theme.

“We’re going to ask the faculty to propose themes, and so the themes will come from faculty bringing ideas forward,” Call said.

The director of the center will work together with a faculty advisory council to determine the final theme for each year. According to Call, the center’s director will be an Amherst faculty member who has yet to be named.

The idea to invite visiting scholars to engage with the Amherst community while exploring a particular theme is not new. The College’s Copeland Colloquium already brings scholars together for a yearlong event centered on a theme — this year’s topic is “Catastrophe and the Catastrophic.” However, the humanities center programming will be focused specifically on the humanities, and visiting scholars may be able to use the new office space on the second floor of Frost.

Once programming for the humanities center begins, the Copeland Colloquium will be held every other year instead of every year.
According to Professor Austin Sarat, Associate Dean of the Faculty, the Copeland Colloquium has also provided a valuable lesson in the importance of physical space.

“One of the things we learned from the experience of the Copeland Colloquium is that the absence of physical space inhibits the kind of interaction which we think generates lots and lots of good ideas,” Sarat said. “It’s just harder if one person is on one side of the campus and the other person is on the other side of the campus.”

To remedy this problem, the new humanities center will focus on providing a flexible space that encourages collaboration as well as individual research. And part of the center’s collaborative aspect will involve encouraging students to become involved in research as well.

“A model might be something like the Mellon Tutorials, where we might have some small classes associated with the themes that are being highlighted in the center in a given year,” Call said.

The humanities center will also be open outside of business hours as a place for students to study.

“The task force that made the proposal for the humanities center agreed that the space in the humanities center would be open for students at 7 p.m. at night, which is when study space is so badly needed,” said Bryn Geffert, the Librarian of the College.

Additionally, the center will have a strong focus on creating a space for postdoctoral fellows in the humanities. Call said he anticipates that the center will have offices for three postdoctoral fellows each year. These scholars will spend the first year of their two-year appointment associated with the center, then move to offices in their respective department buildings for the second year.

“This will be a means of bringing young scholars to Amherst and introducing them to what a life of doing teaching and research at a great liberal arts college is like,” Call said. “It’s potentially an opportunity to mentor them and to learn from them in terms of their scholarship, and also perhaps to recruit some of them here.”

Other offices in the center will likely be used for the center’s director, an administrative assistance and two senior scholars who will be associated with the center each year. Two or three offices per year could house Amherst faculty members who choose to have offices in the center because they are particularly interested in the current year’s programming. These offices might also provide an opportunity for professors on sabbatical to have a place to work on their research.

These new offices and group areas will displace some of the bookshelves and faculty carrels that currently reside on Frost’s second floor, a change that has sparked some concern among some professors.

“There was some worry that we would have to move a great deal of print material out of the library to make room for this,” Geffert said. “Fortunately, we have figured out that it’s not going to have much of an impact on the collection. In fact, our best estimates are that we’re only going to have to move between one percent and two percent of the collection off site.”

As for the carrels, there are 14 currently available in the library, and 12 will be removed to make room for the humanities center. As a result, there will be enough space to accommodate all the displaced faculty members, although some have expressed their reluctance to abandon offices that they have had for many years.

However, despite the minor problems with the space, professors and library staff voiced their agreement that Frost is the building best suited to host the humanities center.

“The centrality of the location I think is important to the prospective success of the humanities center,” Sarat said.

The planning group considered other locations on the periphery of campus, but ultimately decided that the center would be more attractive to faculty and students if it were located in an easily accessible location. Faculty also thought that the library would be an appropriate location for the humanities center because of its intellectual mission.

“The humanities center is going to be one of the centers of intellectual life on campus, and that should be in the library, which in some ways is the intellectual center of campus,” said History Professor Catherine Epstein, who is involved in the planning process and will become the Dean of the Faculty next academic year.

“I think a vision of the library as not only a physical repository of important materials for scholarship but also a center itself which brings people together is really the direction in which we see our library evolving,” Call said.

Plans for some sort of humanities center have been over a decade in the making: Call said that the College started getting proposals for humanities-related research centers at least 15 years ago. In the spring of 2011, a group of faculty presented the proposal that eventually became the current plan, and President Biddy Martin expressed her support the idea when she joined the College later that year.

Since then, faculty in the planning group have been studying humanities centers at other liberal arts colleges to see what kind of humanities center might be best for Amherst.

“We’ve talked in some depth with colleagues at Williams and Wesleyan and Smith, and we’ve investigated about a dozen total humanities centers,” Call said. Sarat and other members of the faculty then wrote a report and presented their findings to President Martin.

The planning process for is now well underway, and work will begin on the center later this year.

“We’re pretty excited,” Epstein said. “I think that if we can make this a humanities center that lots of faculty are engaged in, then it will really be successful and really help to bring even more intellectual dynamism to campus.”