Director's Letter

2023–24 Director's Q&A

Reflections and Future-Thinking with HRI Director Antoinette Burton

Photo of Antoinette Burton

The Humanities Research Institute is now three years out from its official launch as an institute. What developments or shifts are happening in HRI, and how does it connect to the humanities writ large?

Like so much else at present, the humanities are in flux. I tend to resist the “crisis” narrative because there is plenty of evidence of flourishing both against all odds and in energetic response to crises that require urgent attention by those well-versed in the histories, literatures, and visual imaginaries of challenging times past and present.

At HRI, we’re well positioned to see the spaces in which students and faculty are taking up humanities mindsets and critical practices, whether in legacy disciplines like English a History or well beyond them. The Interseminars “Improvise and Intervene” graduate cohort that launched in summer 2023 is a case in point. There we find students from Social Work, Dance, and Geography/GIS invested in the humanities arts, and related fields because they know that these communities of inquiry are key to the work they want to do and the methods they want to use.  

Our Inquiry blog, which is bursting with accounts of how humanities scholars and practitioners are thinking about their lives and their careers, is a great place to get a sense of the wide range of people and projects HRI is supporting. And we always have our eye on the horizon, so that we can pivot when necessary to meet the needs of humanists where they are. Thanks to resources afforded us by our advancement to institute status, for example, we’ve shifted the ways that the Summer Fellowship funds can be used. Faculty can continue to travel for research, but they can also develop a new coursdo a language acquisition course, or take digital humanities training—whatever works best to support their needs and ambitions as they move from one stage to another in their professional development.

HRI has also continued to expand offerings for undergraduates. What were some of these new initiatives and how do they connect to the institute’s mission?

We’ve gained a lot of momentum around undergraduate outreach this year. The Odyssey Project continues to thrive and to remind us of the many pathways for students determined to make the most of the educational opportunities that the humanities at Illinois have to offer. In keeping with HRI’s commitment to thinking and doing beyond the university’s walls, we launched our Humanities in Action (HIA) program in collaboration with We CU in fall 2022. Thanks in part to the support of Dan Shin (LAS ’91), an HRI donor who is very committed to creating opportunities for all students, the frst cohort of HIA students was able to do amazing work in partnership with community organizations, modeling what truly reciprocal and redistributive public humanities practice can look like.

Our Humanities Research Lab initiative also really took off in spring 2023 with two courses, Professor Yuridia Ramírez’s Immigrant America (History 312) and Professor Ann Abbott’s Spanish in the Community (Spanish 232). Again, with help from We CU and in partnership with Dr. Karen Rodriguez’G in the Office of Undergraduate Research (OUR), HRI supported undergraduates in an impressive range of majors and minors as they sought to contribute in modest but also meaningful ways to the work of local organizations like The Immigration Project, Courage Connection, and the Unit 4 Families and Students program. HRI and OUR sponsored a showcase of HRL students’ community-based research during Undergraduate Research Week in April, and it was a blockbuster event.

We know how important informal spaces of learning are for undergraduates, and how impactful extracurricular opportunities are for the kind of holistic education a residential campus like Illinois provides. This spring, the HRI team organized our first Undergraduate Coffee Hour, which connected students curious about research with a PhD student, Kadin Henningsen (English), whose dissertation about the 19th-century book form dovetails nicely with his interest in the printing press. Students gathered around Kadin’s own press and learned firsthand how ideas about print culture and the mechanics of printing itself can converge.

Meanwhile, Odyssey students also got a fabulous hands-on experience through our Mellon-funded Artist-in-Residency program, which hosted Rafael Blanco of Elmhurst College in the fall of 2022. Together they created a vibrant mural on the first floor of Levis— come and check it out the next time you are passing through!

While HRI’s research year is themeless for 2023–24, nonetheless one might draw connections among events and initiatives organically. What can we expect in the coming year?

Our themeless years at HRI provide an opportunity not only to convene a wide-ranging and diverse group of student and faculty fellows, but to test our commitment to interdisciplinarity that is the hallmark of the biweekly seminar where everyone presents work in progress. That is, we get to explore what it means to talk across subjects and methods that don’t appear to share much ground; we track connections and divergences and hone our appreciation for the disciplines as well as for scholarship which transgresses them. Being themeless also frees us up to sponsor programs over the course of the year that are not bound by a set rubric or framework. You will defnitely want to check out the series of “cetacean” events we are curating in fall 2023. These include a book launch for Jamie Jones’ Rendered Obsolete: Energy Culture and the Afterlife of U.S. Whaling (UNC Press, 2023), a campus visit by the Black Feminist scholar and practitioner Alexis Pauline Gumbs, and the current installment of ProfessorDeke Weaver’s Unreliable Bestiary series, CETACEAN (The Whale), which HRI is proud to support. And for something completely different, be sure to mark your calendars for the “Sporting Cultures” conference organized by Professor Adrian Burgos (History) in spring 2024. March madness indeed!

The conveners and students of the frst Interseminars project, “Imagining Otherwise: Speculation in the Americas,” are concluding their 18-month experiment in interdisciplinary graduate education in what is sure to be a sensational set of events in Levis in September. Meanwhile, the second Interseminars project, “Improvise and Intervene,” is well underway, bringing Damon Locks, who leads the Black Monument Ensemble, and Tara Willis, a curator in the Performance & Public Practice department at the Museum of Contemporary Art, to campus for events in fall 2023. This is just a teaser of what convenors R. Elizabeth Velásquez Estrada (Latina/Latino Studies), Maryam Kashani (Gender and Women’s Studies and Asian American Studies), and Junaid Rana (Asian American Studies) have in store for the coming year.

And a heads up (way in advance, but you’ll be thrilled to know): We look forward to the return to campus of our former colleague Joy Harjo (Muscogee [Creek]), the 23rd Poet Laureate of the United States, as our April 2024 poet. We’ve been handing out copies of her books this past year at HRI events, and we will continue that practice, now specifically to whet your appetite for a poetry reading by Joy and a public CultureTalk conversation with American Indian Studies Director Jenny Davis (Chickasaw).

What’s one memorable moment from the past year that will continue to inspire you into this year?

There were so many events that levitated us at HRI this year, it’s impossible to choose one. Lia García was transcendent. Eve L. Ewing, extraordinary. And Nikky Finney: a hotbed of revolutionary witness and living, breathing, loving poetic magic. Thanks to each of them, and all our guests, for offering their work as the tonic we know we need but struggle to find and keep at the center of our everyday.