Director's Letter

2021–22 Director's Letter

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Antoinette Burton

I think we can all agree that the academic year 2020–21 was a remarkable one.

Undaunted (more or less) by the prospect of two full semesters of remote programming, and thanks to the determination and elbow grease of the amazing HRI staff, we continued to support research in the humanities and related fields in a host of expected and unexpected ways. We powered through the pandemic by staging a succession of Zoom events that kept the questions of the day in front of us and reminded audiences of critical issues beyond COVID per se as well.

In the process, those who tuned in to our Zoom-fests came to appreciate more fully, I think, how entangled health and well-being are with practically everything humanists care about. Histories of race, theories of environmental change, forms of creative expression, matters of political moment, conditions of economic in/equality, articulations of the local and global, and of course, structures of meaning and value—the lectures, performances and discussions we engaged with often mapped directly onto the variety of crises that COVID threw into bold relief. For it was admittedly hard not to see and hear everything through a pandemic lens, even as we strove to bring and keep COVID "out of isolation" from the pre-conditions and co-morbidities of life across the contemporary planet.

And yet, there were also spaces where our intellectual and scholarly work continued apace—if not beyond COVID, exactly, then in parallel with (and despite) it. Our Campus Fellows Seminar met uninterruptedly on Zoom, and it was a genuine pleasure to convene every other week and engage the amazing work-in-progress of faculty and graduate student colleagues engaged in our annual theme, The Global and its Worlds. A partnership between HRI and the Illinois Global Institute, this past year’s seminar showcased a wealth of research that tacked between the global and the local in the context of truly interdisciplinary discussions.

While there is no real substitute for the embodied seminar, and all the casual, unanticipated hallway and coffee break conversations it enables, we managed to have frankly amazing conversations both on screen and through the Zoom chat. In fact, I think much more of a shared bibliography was generated in this virtual setting than in the course of past seminars, so easy was it for everyone to drop full references and citations to relevant work into the sidebar for all to see. People also had back-channel exchanges which allowed for intellectual traffic that I hope will be followed up on with in-person coffees and other kinds of give-and- take as conditions permit this coming fall. The "silver lining" theme is always in danger of becoming hackneyed, but there were some welcome consequences from all the remoteness we collectively experienced.

Chief among those was the extended reach across campus, local community, state, nation and globe we enjoyed as a result of being able to host events in the proverbial Zoom room. Through HRI events as well as programming organized by Professor Naomi Paik, the faculty lead of our Mellon Foundation-supported Legal Humanities project, we were able to beam in speakers from Europe to Australia, and to stage transnational conversations between guests as well as between presenters and audiences in Champaign-Urbana and across the country. Nor did the virtual space diminish the often-magical power of our many captivating guests—like human rights advocate Behrouz Boochani and Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Tyehimba Jess, to name just two who levitated huge Zoom audiences with their charismatic presence. There was so much enveloping darkness last year: illness, death, grief, loneliness, terror and more. To have been able to share even a few such moments of otherworldliness and inspiration with you was a remarkable gift .

And what will opening up mean? Surely things can never be the same; nor should they be. At HRI our theme for 2021–22 is, appropriately, "Symptoms of Crisis." Though this may seem like a direct response to COVID, in fact it was decided on well before the pandemic, born as it was out of humanist sensibilities about underlying conditions and the urgency of examining them whenever and wherever they appear. Many aspects of our programming will track the work that humanists are doing to grapple with critical questions of short and long duration— and to challenge conventional notions of crisis itself in the process .

We have planned talks on life in the Anthropocene; on race and medicine; on the counterlives of slavery; and on religion and politics in US history. We anticipate with tremendous excitement the final events of our COVID-delayed Year of Creative Writers series, which will bring Tracy K . Smith, Jericho Brown and Roxane Gay in our Festival of Writers in November. mAnd as if that abundance of talent were not enough, we will welcome Dave Eggers as writer-in-residence in February and the most recent recipient of the Pulitzer Prize in poetry, Natalie Diaz, to campus in April 2022 in collaboration with American Indian Studies and the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion.

You should be on the lookout too for more events under the auspices of the Mellon-funded Legal Humanities research group, led this year by Professor Colleen Murphy, around the themes of human rights and transitional justice, among other topics. Not to mention the activities sponsored by our Research Clusters, including the first-ever Medical Humanities Residency with Professor Kirsten Ostherr of Rice University, thanks to the support of alumnus Dr. Dan Shin. For more on all our events in the upcoming year, see our calendar.

We continue our tradition of an annual Work-In, this year featuring the Odyssey Project, an adult education program that offers tuition-free University of Illinois credit for humanities courses to income-eligible Champaign-Urbana residents. It's Odyssey’s 15th year on campus and it’s a major public humanities initiative whose accomplishments we look forward to sharing. Meanwhile, we continue to make all kinds of faculty research and graduate fellowship opportunities available via our Mellon-funded Interseminars and Humanities Without Walls grants. In short, we are rebooting HRI in truly blockbuster style this coming year.

We look forward to inhabiting Levis again and to sponsoring in-person events in keeping with university and state guidelines as they evolve. While the building slept last year, we took the opportunity to have the first floor remodeled, so we now have more office space and a new state-of-the-art conference room that has inbuilt recording/streaming and video-conferencing capabilities. Brave new world indeed. Let the new year begin!

All the best,

Antoinette Burton
Professor of History
Swanlund Endowed Chair
Director, Humanities Research Institute