Extending the Influence of the Humanities

Published in the March 20, 2019 edition of the Princeton Alumni Weekly.

For millennia, the arts and humanities have helped people to understand their lives and their world. Their guidance is ever more important today, when technology and other forces transform society with dizzying speed. Fortunately, some of Princeton’s leading scholars are not only educating students at the University, but also finding creative ways to extend their lessons far beyond the boundaries of our campus.

For example, Professor of Classics Barbara Graziosi, a leading scholar of Homer, has worked to infuse the classics into schools on both sides of the Atlantic. Graziosi’s latest book, Homer, lends both intellectual rigor and accessibility to literary, philosophical, and cultural questions in Homer’s work. Her department chair, Michael Flower, the David Magie ’97 Class of 1897 Professor of Classics, calls it the best short introduction to Homer in any language.

New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy joined Flower in his praise. After receiving a copy of Homer at a recent board meeting, Governor Murphy took the trouble to ring Graziosi at home to express his admiration for her work. He conveyed his hope that students in New Jersey public schools would all be effectively and enjoyably introduced to Homeric epic and the classics more generally.

Throughout her career, Graziosi has demonstrated a deep commitment to this sort of public engagement. In the United Kingdom, she used funding from a National Teaching Fellowship, the highest recognition of excellence in higher education in the UK, to support projects that linked academic research, undergraduate teaching, and work with underresourced primary and secondary schools. Graziosi’s work breathes fresh life into long-studied questions, engaging new generations in the study of the humanities.

Tracy K. Smith, the Roger S. Berlind ’52 Professor in the Humanities and director of the Program in Creative Writing, is introducing poetry to communities throughout the United States during her second term as U.S. poet laureate. In this capacity, Smith has hosted readings in small towns across the country as part of a series called “American Conversations: Celebrating Poems in Rural Communities.”

This year, Smith is expanding the reach of her community engagement by broadcasting “The Slowdown” on public radio stations in seven cities, including San Francisco, Honolulu, and Charleston, West Virginia. During this five-minute podcast, she introduces and reads a poem of her choosing, highlighting accessible works by both contemporary and canonical authors.

Smith’s own writing has enthralled readers around the world. She has written four books of poetry, including Life on Mars, which won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, and a memoir, Ordinary Light, a finalist for the 2015 National Book Award in Nonfiction. We are delighted that she has agreed to serve as the next chair of the Lewis Center for the Arts beginning in July.

Jane Cox teaching Theatrical Design Studio in the Lewis Arts complex

Jane Cox (far right), director and senior lecturer in theater, teaches THR 400/VIS 400
Theatrical Design Studio in the Lewis Arts complex. Danielle Alio

Jane Cox, director and senior lecturer in the Program in Theater, is making theatrical performances vibrant for audiences around the world. An award-winning lighting designer, Cox uses light as a form of visual storytelling. She has been nominated for two Tony Awards for her work on the plays Jitney and Machinal. In recent years, Cox has also designed lighting for the Broadway revival of The Color Purple, the National Theatre’s production of Hamlet in London, and productions of Mozart Da Ponte operas for the San Francisco Opera.

Princeton is fortunate that Cox has brought this extraordinary experience and pioneering spirit to her work at the University. For example, during the development of the Lewis Arts complex, she advocated for the use of LED lighting in the new performing spaces. She now leads one of the first all-LED theaters in an educational setting, enabling her to teach our students to engage with the most versatile and cutting-edge technology.

Finally, Princeton University Concerts scored a remarkable coup by attracting Maestro Gustavo Dudamel, the Music & Artistic Director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, as its first artist-in-residence. Maestro Dudamel is a lifelong champion of access to arts education. He led the development of the Youth Orchestra Los Angeles (YOLA), which has provided music education to thousands of children from underserved communities around Los Angeles, and established the Gustavo Dudamel Foundation to promote access to music as a catalyst for social change.

During his residency at Princeton, Maestro Dudamel is continuing these community engagement efforts. He has interacted with students from the Trenton Central High School Orchestra and the Trenton Music Makers, hosted a Q&A for public school music teachers in Trenton, and discussed “Poverty, the Arts, and Civic Engagement” at the Princeton University Center for Human Values. In April, he will conduct the Princeton University Orchestra and Glee Club in performances at Richardson Auditorium and the War Memorial in Trenton. We are fortunate to be able to welcome him as a member of Princeton’s extended family.

With creativity and zeal, these artists and scholars are spearheading exciting efforts to capture the imagination of new audiences and thereby extend the influence of the humanities. These initiatives give people throughout the world the tools to lead thoughtful lives and examine the fundamental questions that define our shared humanity.

- C.L.E.

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