Hurrah for Humanism

A new program brings humanists together to bridge disciplinary gaps and spark a liberal exchange of ideas.

ON AN ORDINARY Friday afternoon, 80 professors and graduate students with interests as far flung as Russian lit, TV production and linguistics packed a room at USC for a stimulating intellectual exchange over Ishi, the last known member of the Northern California Yahi Indian tribe.
The audience came to hear UC San Diego scholar Jim Clifford discuss the Stone Age man who had stumbled into 20th-century California. They sat rapt as Clifford described Ishi’s life, his death in 1916, and the controversy surrounding his remains. For the past 83 years, Ishi’s brain has sat in the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., preserved for anthropological study. In a joint-custody arrangement, it will likely return to the two surviving Native American tribes most closely related to him.
Such interdisciplinary gatherings happen weekly and are just one piece of the new Humanities Initiative in the USC College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.
Funded by a $2 million grant from the Ahmanson Foundation, the Humanities Initiative is meant to put the spotlight on the liberal arts, says college dean Joseph Aoun – specifically on the arts, history, literature, language, culture and philosophy: disciplines considered the heart of intellectual thought and exploration.
In addition to Friday night seminars, the Humanities Initiative sponsors faculty recruitment, funds research projects and interdisciplinary scholarships and subsidizes travel expenses for graduate students and professors. For example, the initiative recently helped a grad student in Slavic languages attend a conference in Finland, where she presented a paper. The initiative also helped woo philosophy and linguistics professor James Higginbotham from Oxford to USC last year.

BUT THE CENTERPIECE OF the Humanities Initiative is the series of interdisciplinary seminars and conferences. More than a dozen have already taken place, featuring guest speakers from around the world.
Phil Brocato, a second-year education doctoral student who attended five seminars in the fall, says he appreciates the chance for cross-disciplinary discourse. “Some of the discussion groups are pretty small, so graduate students can bring questions to the table and hear what everyone has to say. It creates a very communal feeling,” he says.
The seminars also are drawing scholars from neighboring academic institutions, such as UCLA, the Huntington Library and the Getty Center. Last November Getty Research Institute director Thomas Crow came to discuss his book, The Intelligence of Art. On another evening USC professor of anthropology Janet Hoskins led a forum on post-colonial narratives in history.
“We’ve brought together leading scholars who had worked in the same field for years but never were in the same room at one time. There has been an incredible exchange of ideas,” says events coordinator Athena Perrakis.
The seminars also provide an informal, spontaneous setting in which students can discuss their own research.
“The momentum has really picked up,” says college dean of academic programs Sarah Pratt. “The intellectual life at USC is much richer since the Humanities Initiative was formed. It has played a key role in strengthening the college.”

– Gilien Silsby

Celestial Music and Musings

In February, USC welcomed one of the 20th century’s foremost violinists, the legendary Isaac Stern, to its classrooms and concert stage. During a four-day residency at the USC Thornton School of Music, the 80-year-old virtuoso – whom the New York Times has dubbed “the complete violinist” – gave a music clinic, critiquing the Thornton Symphony’s reading of Mozart’s “Jupiter” Symphony. (Stern initially called the students’ rendition “prissy,” but soon responded with an appreciative “Thaaaaaaaat’s it!”) Stern’s residency at the USC Thornton School of Music culminated in a Feb. 9 President’s Distinguished Artist Series concert, his only Los Angeles performance for 2001. Conducted by Sergiu Comissiona, the program featured Brahms’ Academic Festival Overture and Ravel’s Boléro. Stern joined the Thornton Symphony in Dvo&Mac255;rák’s Romance for Violin and Orchestra, Beethoven’s Romance for Violin and Orchestra in F, and Kreisler’s Liebeslied and Schön Rosmarin. Thornton Symphony concertmaster Wilson Chu partnered with Stern in Rosmarin’s Viennese duet. “I feel really grateful that I got to play three phrases with Stern,” says Chu, who recently won an audition with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra. “It was a really important experience in my life.”

Introduced by fellow physicist and USC provost Lloyd Armstrong Jr. as “one of the world’s greatest scientists,”
Stephen Hawking took a sellout Bovard Auditorium crowd on a journey from a nutshell to the ends of the universe in a March 21 lecture sponsored by the Caltech-USC Center for Theoretical Physics. Almost motionless, scrunched in a wheel chair, speaking via a voice synthesizer that produced long pauses, Hawking – who suffers from ALS (or Lou Gehrig’s disease) – retraced the origin, shape, size and history of the universe and scientific efforts to understand it. As he plunged ever deeper into cosmology – abstract realms that most physicists express in mathematics – Hawking proved himself a master communicator, though many in the audience eventually reached a point where they could no longer wrap their minds around the soaring ideas. Hawking acknowledged as much: “How can our finite minds comprehend an infinite universe,” he questioned. “Isn’t it pretentious to make the attempt?” Yet Hawking clearly thinks people should make the attempt. The 59-year-old Hawking is the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge University, a post previously held by Isaac Newton. His 1988 book, A Brief History of Time, has been translated into 40 languages and sold 25 million copies.

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Austen Pops

Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony has remained just that, but Jane Austen’s compositions aren’t so blessed. Some 80 spinoffs have been published, including a new “extension” by novelist Julia Barrett that USC English professor James Kincaid recently panned in the New York Times. Within two paragraphs of where Austen’s Sanditon ends and Barrett’s Charlotte begins, the heroine sounds “oafish, tone-deaf, toadying and pedantic,” Kincaid complains. Still he admits that it’s tough ghostwriting for a literary great. “I know I would have trouble were I given the first eighth of, say, the Iliad and told to carry on,” Kincaid muses. “Maybe I’d want to introduce a few new characters, some un-Homeric twists in the plot.”
Lightbulb illustration by Michael Klein / Bubblegum illustration by A.J. Garces / Stern photo by Alex Berliner / Hawking photo by Irene Fertik

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