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Berkeley’s cradle of conversation
How do you get to the Townsend Center? Climb down from the ivory tower and start talking

| 27 October 2004

On most Tuesdays, as the Campanile’s bells chime noon, 16 Berkeley scholars gather in nearby Stephens Hall. Following small talk and a light lunch, the Townsend Fellowship Group — an interdisciplinary stew of select graduate students and faculty, including a MacArthur “genius award”-winner, historian Maria Mavroudi — trains its formidable critical skills on the work-in-progress of one of its members.

“It’s a little bit nervewracking,” acknowledges Minette Hillyer, a Ph.D. candidate in film studies, who offered up a nine-page chunk of her dissertation, tentatively titled “The Myth of Home: Ethnography, Home Movies and the Everyday,” for a September appraisal. Jitters notwithstanding, Hillyer found the two-hour session “really, really productive,” valuing the opportunity to “lay yourself open” to colleagues with disparate backgrounds and perspectives.

“It’s a unique experience because you don’t have to impress people in the way that you might want to in another environment,“ she explains. “You have the luxury, in a way, of exposing yourself, and putting forward ideas that are not bulletproof.”

Welcome to the Doreen B. Townsend Center for the Humanities, established in 1987 “to promote research and ongoing conversation among and within academic disciplines.” While that goal has remained a constant, the means have grown more ambitious over the years. An abundance of grant and fellowship programs, the Avenali and Una endowed lectureships, and a number of print and online publications have made the Townsend Center a kind of intellectual Petri dish for inquiring minds in the arts, letters, and social sciences, as well as a few — thanks to a determinedly expansive view of humanities research — whose careers were hatched in the science lab.


By pushing the boundaries of humanities research, the Townsend Center's Matthew Tiews and Candace Slater hope to remind scholars "why they came to Berkeley." (Peg Skorpinski photo)
The center, says Candace Slater, its director, “is really about reminding people why they came to Berkeley…. It’s providing resources, but it really is first and foremost — at least for me — reaffirming an ideal. And that ideal is that a university is a place where people talk to each other and learn from each other and give something to each other in the course of furthering their own work.”

Matthew Tiews, who joined the center in June as its associate director, notes that its innovative, cross-disciplinary conversations are designed to yield dividends not just for the fellows it supports through grants and teaching leaves, but for Berkeley undergrads and the world beyond the campus.

“Most of what tends to count as work in the humanities is based on this monastic model of someone sitting in their cell and reading, and digesting what they’ve read and analyzing it and producing a kind of monographic work,” says Tiews, who recently earned his Ph.D. in comparative literature from Stanford. While that’s “a very valuable model,” he adds, the center wants its experiments in cross-fertilization — and there are more of them than ever before — to pay off in the form of new courses, new majors, and even new social policies.

The oldest of the center’s programs, the Townsend Fellowship Group, comprises six graduate-student fellows, including Hillyer, a New Zealander for whom the $18,000 stipend buys freedom to work on her dissertation. This year’s group also includes three assistant professors, three tenured faculty, a museum fellow, and a librarian fellow, along with Slater and Tiews. But Slater, now in her fifth year at the helm, has made it her mission to expand the Center’s reach through a variety of new programs aimed at every level of the academy.

“What I tried to do is think about people at each stage of their career at Berkeley, be they students or faculty,” she says. Her first effort was the Initiative Fellows program, which provides associate professors with a semester of release time from teaching to share their work with a counterpart in another discipline. The program offers five grants each year; within three years of completing the grant, associate professors are expected to come up with an undergraduate course or propose a new kind of “learning opportunity.”

Widening the circle

One notable pairing this spring will feature Anne Nesbet, of the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures, teaming up with neurobiology professor Ehud Isacoff in what Tiews calls “a radically interdisciplinary conversation” on early avant-garde cinema and theories of perception. Widening the circle to include “people with a significant interest in the humanities, rather than people who happen to be located in humanities departments,” he says, “allows you to really broaden the vision of what this kind of research can be.”

Strategic working groups, another Slater invention, consist of seven professors from different fields who spend a semester tackling a problem as a team. One such group is investigating the question of reparations for historical wrongs.

“The people from the humanities side are used to saying that there’s no way to compensate for the kind of wrong that’s been done to certain people over the course of history,” Tiews explains. “And the people on the policy side are saying, basically, ‘Look, we want to make policy that does the best it can to address these issues.’ What kind of common ground they can find — how the pragmatism of the policy side can inform the humanistic reflection on these topics, and how the cultural sensitivity of the humanistic side can inform essential policy decisions — should make for an extremely interesting experiment.”

As is standard for the Townsend Center, the experiment will also have a tangible payoff, producing a report with specific policy recommendations as well as the seeds of new courses or programs on campus.

“The idea is to serve Berkeley faculty and students, and to generate conversations that might not otherwise take place, or facilitate projects that people have envisioned but maybe couldn’t otherwise pull off,” says Slater. “The goal is to help them financially, but also administratively and conceptually, and to encourage in every sense projects that cut across — but also fit within — traditional disciplinary boundaries.”

In addition to fellowship grants, the center sponsors lectures by visiting scholars and artists, departmental residencies, dozens of interdisciplinary working groups, and a number of programs geared to undergraduates.

“I’m not very good at just sitting,” deadpans Slater, a professor in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese who spends part of her summers in the Amazon, gathering stories and oral histories of “what in English we would call enchanted beings” for a series of books, the latest of which is Entangled Edens: Visions of the Amazon.

“My own research and teaching reflect a longstanding interest in popular literature, and in Latin American and other hybrid cultures,” she says. “I guess I thought that I could bring to the center a different series of interests, and that I could draw in different kinds of constituencies.”

Her tenure with the center has been “amazingly active,” she says, laughing. “It’s been one of those things that sometimes make you think, ‘Why did I do this? It’s impossible.’”

She soon answers her own question. “The framework is supposed to support the ideal,” she says, explaining her view of the center. “I wouldn’t be spending my time on it if I didn’t think it was important, and if I didn’t think that a university was a place where these kinds of conversations should take place…. If you don’t create opportunities for conversations, they often don’t happen, because everyone is running around doing a hundred different things at the same time. There’s just too much going on if you don’t have some way of making order out of it — an imaginative order, I hope, but an order all the same.”

The notion is seconded by Leslie Peirce, a professor of history and Eurasian studies who is planning a transition to non-academic writing with a general-readership book on the Middle East. Peirce, a member of the Tuesday luncheon group, says she was “drafted” into the program after she failed to resist actively, despite her concerns about taking on yet another non-teaching duty.

“I didn’t realize I was going to have to give a presentation,” she recalls. “The very first day, we all had to go around and say what our projects were, and of course everybody has a book, a real project, and it got to me and I’m like, ‘I don’t have a project, I’m trying to make this transition.’

“And Candace, at the end, says this is about writing. We’re all learning, and we’re all writing. And so I said, ‘this is actually going to be good…’. I don’t think I was sensitive enough to the really terrific stuff that goes on here.”

Visit the Townsend Center website (townsendcenter.berkeley.edu/) for more information, including event and exhibit schedules.