The BYU Humanities Center at 10: A Few Last Thoughts, Personal and Institutional

It was BYU’s university conference week in late August 2011, and I was feeling a little nostalgic. And anxious. I was at the college meeting for faculty for what I anticipated was the last time. My family had returned a couple months earlier from Aberdeen, Scotland – the second of our half-yearly stints where I was teaching Scottish literature at the university. A few months earlier still, on the March night of our anniversary, my wife and I were walking across the city toward our university flat when she declared that our bifurcated existence wasn’t sustainable, that we might as well decide where we were going to live full-time and just make the leap. It was her concession, I knew, to the prospect she’d resisted of permanently moving abroad. Her words so thrilled me that the moment hangs suspended in memory: it was an unusually clear and hushed night, a degree or two warmer than crisp, the full moon at her back peeking above nineteenth-century rooflines. It wasn’t so much the future I felt in that moment as something more deeply primal, something like wish fulfillment – an impossible and illusory balm to old wounds by way of a romantic image of professional plenitude. So that was it, I thought; we could finally move on. Over the next month, I worked out an arrangement with my “head of school” to return to the US for a full year – my own concession to the university’s tough financial realities in the wake of the ’08 recession – then join the faculty full-time in fall of 2012.

So, back to the university conference meeting in fall, 2011. I was sitting with BYU colleagues at the institution that had been home to me, and a good one, through various fraught (alas, always fraught) stages of life: tormented undergraduate, disillusioned assistant professor, now defiant associate professor. And as John Rosenberg began his annual report and inspirational message, my mind drifted across poignant memories of faces, locales, and old dreams. The University of Aberdeen was more than five hundred years old, but my personal history was here, at BYU. And that history played on me, in me. This would be the last time, I was thinking, that I would sit through a meeting like this one, the last time I’d witness a university leader waft the peculiar perfume of the gospel across the deep, earthy tones of our human(ities), all too human(ities) disciplines. It was thus the last time I would experience the Latter-day Saint equivalent to Catholicism’s sacramental imagination, that oh-so-BYU synthesis of, and rending between, the sacred and the secular, the “unique” and the (merely) “excellent.”

I was in this conflicted – nostalgic, anxious – state of mind when John asked whether this was the time for us to think about instituting a humanities center. His question took my breath away. Like that moment back in March, this one hit me with almost primal force. It contradicted most everything I thought I knew about the character of our college, where it always felt like scholarship was a hardy calisthenic to supplement the real work of improving our teaching. I didn’t know much about humanities centers, but I knew they were drivers of high-end thinking and research, the kind of thing my colleagues and I might associate with our PhD institutions but not with our humbler plot in Zion. Almost despite myself, I began wondering what might happen if, by chance, Kerry and I decided not to return to Aberdeen. Might I play a minor role with this new humanities center? Might I have a voice in it, be on some kind of committee to help plan events? Might I dream with colleagues of creating something a little different at the BYU we all thought we already knew?

It would probably be wrong to say that the Humanities Center is the reason why I stayed at BYU. More directly, I stayed because I was beginning to ask myself soul-searching mid-career questions about how and where I might contribute something that mattered; because I was struck by how the uniqueness of BYU was if anything more distinctive than the history and/or prestige of most research universities; because my history at BYU was something from which I did not wish to awaken as much as an unfulfilled promise I wanted to see realized; and because, amid all my deliberative brooding over my future, I came to believe that BYU was a university about which God cared with special intensity. The past ten years have only reinforced these collective impressions. Still, much has changed. Sitting in that meeting in the fall of 2011, I never dreamed I’d be asked to serve as founding director of the Humanities Center. What’s more, I didn’t realize how little I actually knew about my college and university. And I could not envision the personal changes I would undergo, partly as a result of my decade-long immersion in these things.

The change would not be mine alone; John’s expansive question, followed by Scott Miller’s extraordinary support, have changed our college. The Humanities Center has made many things happen and helped many more seem possible. And as I reflect back on where we’ve come, I would say there have been three main phases of the Humanities Center’s development:

Phase 1: What is a humanities center? Nobody in our college had experience directing a humanities center. Few of our faculty had ever even worked at a university where there was a humanities center. The university in Scotland where I’d been splitting my time had lots of research centers and institutes (my two favorites: the Research Institute for Irish and Scottish Studies and the Centre for Modern Thought), but no humanities center. And when I was a graduate student at UCLA, where there was a humanities center, I certainly had no administrative grasp of what it was or how to organize it. When John offered me the position of founding director, he basically gave me carte blanche to create something, anything viable. He had a good recommendation, a good place to begin, which was to convert some of the college professorships into Humanities Center fellowships. So we did. But to whom to offer these fellowships? And how many? What about the responsibilities of those who held them? And for how long? But anterior, for me, to all that were these fundamental questions: Who were we as a college? Who were my colleagues?

It was early June, and I began reading. A lot. I read scholarship from everyone in the college who had published anything in English (and a couple who had published in French). And I learned a ton: Matt Christensen and Paul Warnick on how one learns a language better if one “performs” it; Debbie Dean on eleven strategies to use in teaching better writing; Corry Cropper on the relationship between sporting events and politics; Tom Spencer on the theological divide between Hölderlin and Hegel; Anca Sprenger on how Apollinaire was no straightforward futurist; Eric Eliason on black velvet art; Rob McFarland on E. T. A. Hoffman’s futurist hermeneutics; Pat Madden on coming to terms with death by way of Rush lyrics, childhood experience, and the death of a high school classmate; Francesca Lawson on the orality-literacy paradigm in musicology; Tony Brown and Raissa Solovieva on teaching language through debate; Valerie Hegstrom on staging Golden Era Spanish plays; Chip Oscarson on how a Kerstin Ekman novel orients spatial sensibilities around ecological familiarity with place; Greg Stallings on jazz and surrealism in Spanish poetry; Janis Nuckolls on ideophony in Ecuador; Don Chapman on the part played by eighteenth-century grammarians in prefiguring the descriptivist-prescriptivist debate; Grant Lundberg on Slovene tone loss in Austrian Carinthia; Stan Benfell on Biblical Dante; Wendy Smemoe, Rob Martinsen, and Jennifer Bown on the language-learning affordances of foreign language housing; Daryl Hague on “covert translation” (or intratextual translation by a narrator from a language they don’t know into one they do); Dale Pratt on literature and science – and science as a sign of modernization – in twentieth-century Spain; and so much more!

Eclectic, accomplished, authoritative – and, even more movingly: seeking, yearning, becoming – these were a few of the impressions that accrued on me as I pored over the work of my colleagues. Additionally, I browsed website after website from humanities centers and institutes both large and small. And through these exercises, I began to get a feel for what humanities centers did, and what might work – and not work – for us at BYU. My vita is littered with evidence of experiments gone wrong: our first (2013) attempt at a symposium (great guests, wrong structure); the “Humanities across the University” initiative (how much did we really need to know from the business school about how to “nail it then scale it”?); and so on. But we also lighted on some good ideas. And that leads to …

Phase 2: What is a quality humanities center? A couple years in, we began to hit our stride, leading to most of the events and initiatives we’ve come to experience as normal. Ideas here came from people all across the college and as distillations of what I was learning from other humanities centers: colloquia for faculty to present work in progress; book manuscript workshops; how to sustain diverse research groups (short- and long-term), leading to a couple dozen such groups in the center’s first ten years; the two-day symposium model feeding the publication of edited volumes; one-year fellowships for faculty seeking to complete major research projects; undergraduate fellowships; a variety of events (lectures, seminars, workshops) accommodating the needs of our faculty and featuring distinguished scholars we bring to campus; partnerships with individuals and departments (and other entities on campus, from other colleges to the library) in sponsoring and promoting guests; a research group dedicated to applied learning (first iteration: Dana Bourgerie’s extraordinary Cambodian Oral History Project); ways to highlight the significant investment of our faculty in public humanities; the annual newsletter as outreach to our donors and peers; timely invitations (e.g., to Rita Felski just as “postcritique” was becoming a new buzzword; Caroline Levine a few months in advance of her book winning the MLA book of the year award; etc.); an undergraduate symposium bringing attention to Humanities Grant awardees; a presence at Education Week, which builds the good reputation of our college with the Latter-day Saint faithful; and again, so much more. Just as importantly, we knew where not to spend our money, like on expensive postdoctoral fellowships and one-off lecturers demanding inflated honoraria – choices I’ve seen cripple budgets at other humanities centers.

Along the way, we’ve all learned so much more about the profession, the mind-bending world of humanities scholarship, and the dynamic thinking of faculty across our college. Several dozen colleagues have received financial and intellectual support, leading to major publications (and, in some cases, promotions). We’ve made inroads with influential scholars and institutions and have enjoyed the extraordinary company of guests from all over the world. And we’ve profoundly affected the lives of many of our visitors. I could share stories here, several of them: people who have talked about ways they’ve been touched by our faculty, our students, the campus, a prayer. Instead, and gesturing toward such experiences, let me try to articulate a principle that also coincides with the most recent phase of the Center’s development:

Phase 3: What is a BYU Humanities Center? The meaning of this question – specifically, the significance of the adjective, BYU – has only dawned on me piecemeal over the twenty-plus years of my career. Not coincidentally, it has taken (correction: still takes) me a long time and lots of gray matter (and gray hair!) to understand the implications of my faith for who and what I’m trying to be and how I can best spend my time and energy. When I didn’t get the jobs I most coveted out of grad school, I was eager to prove that we could also do important scholarship at BYU. That adverb, also, captures so much of the anxiety I felt for many years at BYU; in addition to informing the kind of scholarship I pursued, it doubtlessly also accounts for much of how I taught, how I related to colleagues, and how I initially envisioned the promise of our humanities center. But over time, a few convictions began to settle on me:

  • There is a difference between work that is cool and work that is good.
  • Work that is good is ultimately more important than work that is cool.
  • Over their long modern history, the humanities tend to fall into crisis for many reasons, among them an obsession with what is cool at the expense of what is good.

A few qualifiers: First, I’m not denying – far from it! – truly good work done across all fields in the humanities by all kinds of people at a multitude of institutions. Second, I’m not denying the importance, the goodness, even, of studying cool things. And third, I’m not denying the capacity of my colleagues to produce cool work. What I’m getting at, rather, is something like this: Lots of objects in the world, things we can grasp materially or conceptually, are cool; they compel our interest and attention. But in the words attributed to Christ in the Gospel of Matthew, “there is none good but one, that is, God” (19:17). If goodness > cool, it’s because it evokes what is best and ultimately most divine in the world, in others, and in history, cultures, languages, forms of expression – in short, in all the things we study in the humanities. Goodness underscores the sacred in the mundane; it reveals, in the words of Gerard Manley Hopkins, the “ten thousand places” in which “Christ plays … Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his.” [1]

A BYU Humanities Center, I believe, should be about what is good first and foremost. It’s in pursuing goodness that it’s unique; in pursuing what’s cool, it’s simply a lesser version of other universities. In an effort to underscore the pursuit of goodness, we’ve added a couple accents to our Humanities Center slate of activities over the years. Primarily, these are the Faith and Imagination lecture series (one guest per semester) and a podcast of the same name (fifty episodes’ worth through two seasons). But these accents hardly exhaust what is good. In fact, they barely gesture toward it. Fortunately, I see goodness again and again, in “ten thousand places,” in the scholarship of colleagues and in the outstanding work of Humanities Center staff (our assistant directors, Brooke and Bobbe, as well as a string of fabulous interns: Phoebe, Brittany, Holly, Isaac, Morgan, Sam, and Abby). I also see it in the ways people across our college treat our guests and each other, care for students, and conduct themselves in the world. Still, goodness is elusive; we often catch it only by way of a certain slant of light. Learning to see it, bringing attention to it, magnifying it, and finding better ways to share it is, I believe, the great task of our Humanities Center in the next phase of its existence. The next several phases, in fact. That goodness is the perpetually, even axiomatically, never-fully-imagined, always-already-undertheorized promise of BYU.

The allure of that perennial promise buoys me as I end my time as director. I do so in a very different place than where I began. The past ten years have been a rush unlike anything I’ve ever experienced; they’ve also humbled me personally as well as professionally. The Humanities Center is ready for new leadership, and I’m ready for new horizons. I turn to face them with a wealth of gratitude for our world, our humanities disciplines, and deeply good (and good-seeking) colleagues.

This blog essay was written by Matthew Wickman, Founding Director of the BYU Humanities Center.

[1] Gerard Manley Hopkins, “As Kingfishers Catch Fire,” Poetry Foundation,


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