Mellon Foundation to fund a Revolutionary seminar

Grant will bring together scholars of American, French and Haitian revolutions

Jane Kamensky (left) and Susan S. Lanser

The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation has awarded a $175,000 grant to Brandeis University to organize a year-long seminar that will bring together faculty and graduate students from Brandeis and other schools in the Boston area to consider the entangled histories and enduring effects of the American (1776-1783), French (1789-1799) and Haitian (1791-1804) revolutions.  The seminar was conceived and will be led by two members of the Brandeis faculty,  Jane Kamensky, the Harry S. Truman Professor of American Civilization, and Susan S. Lanser, Professor of Comparative Literature, English, and Women's and Gender Studies.

This marks the first time that Brandeis has received funding from the Mellon Foundation to organize a John E. Sawyer Seminar on the Comparative Study of Culture. The competition for this prestigious award, which was established in 1994, is open only by invitation to select universities and colleges.  The proposal from Brandeis was one of nine chosen by a review panel of distinguished scholars and then formally approved by the trustees of the Foundation. The funding also provides two dissertation fellowships for Brandeis graduate students and will bring to campus a postdoctoral fellow who specializes in the Revolutionary Caribbean. 

“Rethinking the Age of Revolution: Rights, Representation, and the Global Imaginary,” will draw on the rich historical, educational and cultural resources of metropolitan Boston and on the interdisciplinary community fostered by the new Mandel Center for the Humanities at Brandeis, the faculty members said. The seminar, which will meet a dozen times during the 2013-14 academic year, is expected to encourage intellectual collaborations among New England scholars from disciplines as diverse as history, literature, art, music, philosophy, economics, and political science. Session topics include “The Axes of Revolution: Space, Time, Idea,” “The Revolutionary Public Sphere,” “Counterrevolutions and Counterrevolutionaries” and “Revolutionizing Scholarship.”  The seminar will also feature a session at the Museum of Fine Arts and a walking tour of revolutionary-era Boston.

An inaugural symposium and several lectures by eminent scholars will be open to the public, and a website will trace the work of the seminar.  Eventually, Lanser and Kamensky expect the seminar to become the basis for a new team-taught graduate-level course at Brandeis. 

“Examining these revolutions, which were framed by the revolutions that came before them and those that followed, is especially important in the 21st century, when the nation-state is even less stable than it was during the revolutionary age that called it forth,” Kamensky and Lanser note.

Although they are scholars in different academic disciplines, Lanser and Kamensky have collaborated on a number of projects over the years. Next spring, they are team teaching “London from Restoration to Regency: People, Culture, City,” a Mandel Humanities Center course that they first offered in 2010. Last year, “London” won an Innovative Course Design Award from the American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies.

“It’s been a great gift in my most recent decade at Brandeis to work with Sue,” Kamensky says. “She’s a natural collaborator and a gifted scholar. We really trust each other.”

Says Lanser of her colleague, “From the time I came to Brandeis, Jane struck me as one of the most exciting and formidable intellects on campus. Jane demands the highest intellectual integrity.”

The Sawyer Seminar represents just the type of rigorous interdisciplinary scholarly work that the Mandel Foundation envisioned when it made a gift of $22.5 million to establish the Mandel Center for the Humanities at Brandeis. The pioneering center opened in 2010.

Brandeis is the smallest of the nine institutions awarded grants this year, which include Emory, Harvard, and the University of Pennsylvania.  “We’re interested in seeing how the seminar unfolds at a small research university,” Kamensky says. “We’re bringing a different scale and energy to it and have the opportunity to show what we can do that is highly distinctive.”

Categories: Humanities and Social Sciences, International Affairs

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