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Focus on the Humanities Distinguished Faculty Lectures

The Focus on the Humanities Distinguished Faculty Lecture series highlights UW-Madison senior faculty whose research is internationally recognized as pushing the boundaries of intellectual inquiry. In keeping with the Wisconsin Idea, the series engages campus and community audiences in conversation on issues of critical importance, from Rob Nixon's focus on the slow violence wrought by climate change and human-caused environmental catastrophes to Tejumola Olaniyan's call for the humanities to provide concrete solutions to the crises of the state in Africa.

The Focus on the Humanities Distinguished Faculty Lecture series is presented in collaboration with the Center for the Humanities with generous support from the Anonymous Fund of the College of Letters & Science.

Upcoming Focus on the Humanities Distinguished Faculty Lectures

February 21, 2018 5:30 PM
Conrad A. Elvehjem Building, L140
Focus on the Humanities Distinguished Faculty Lecture
Lynn K. Nyhart
History of Science, UW-Madison
History

In the German-speaking states of the 1840s and 50s, revolution was in the air. While the political revolutions of 1848-49 are best known, the life sciences were undergoing their own revolutions, marked by radical new ideas about the organization and transformations of living beings. This talk focuses on a cluster of leading life scientists of the period to examine their participation in the events of this era, both political and intellectual. Through these disruptions, Nyhart argues, scientists came to articulate and enact new models for the relationship of the scientist to political action—models that continue to have force today.

Lynn K. Nyhart studies the history of biology in the modern (post-1789) era, as well as the relations between popular and professional science, and the politics of science, especially in nineteenth-century Germany. The author of Biology Takes Form and Modern Nature: The Rise of the Biological Perspective in Germany, she is most recently co-editor, with Scott Lidgard of Biological Individuality: Integrating Scientific, Philosophical, and Historical Perspectives (2017). They are currently working on a history of concepts of biological part-whole relations in the nineteenth century.

Recent Focus on the Humanities Distinguished Faculty Lectures

February 22, 2017 5:30 PM
Conrad A. Elvehjem Building, L140
Focus on the Humanities Distinguished Faculty Lecture
Louise Young
Professor of Japanese History, UW-Madison

Japan built a wartime empire in Asia in the 1930s, and after losing that empire in 1945 created trading imperium under the American cold war umbrella. What are the lessons that imperial Japan can teach us about the global moment of the twenties and thirties, when the rise of anti-colonial nationalism brought new pressures on longstanding imperial structures? After the cataclysm of World War Two shattered the foundations of colonial empires and divided the globe up into the first, second, and third worlds, what did this moment of rupture and the end of empire mean for Japan and Asia?

Louise Young is Vilas Distinguished Professor in the Department of History. Her work focuses on modern Japan, especially social and cultural history. She is the author of Japan's Total Empire: Manchuria and the Culture of Wartime Imperialism (winner of John K. Fairbank and Hiromi Arisawa prizes) and Beyond the Metropolis: Second Cities and Modern Life in Interwar Japan. She is currently working on a history of the idea of class in nineteenth and twentieth century Japan.

October 19, 2016 7:00 PM
Conrad A. Elvehjem Building room L140, 800 University Avenue
Focus on the Humanities Distinguished Faculty Lecture
Leslie Bow
Vilas Distinguished Achievement Professor and Mark and Elisabeth Eccles Professor of English and Asian American Studies, UW-Madison

How does the mundane object serve as a catalyst for exploring the relationship between aesthetics and political injury? Is race always bound to the circulation of negative feeling? We understand the harm embodied by the mammy cookie jar. Yet in the 21st-century, the anthropomorphic object has found new life: geisha cars, Harajuku Lovers perfume bottles, Chanel’s “China Doll” handbags, Alessi’s “Mandarin” juicer. Do these forms of racial kitsch—the Asian figure as salt shaker, decor, or toy—evade contextualization as racist kitsch? This lecture engages the Japanese style known as kawaii or cute style since the 1970s as it finds expression in a specific racial form. In looking at the feeling that the “cute” enables or forecloses, this talk explores the vacillation between pleasure and pain underlying Asian American spectatorship of racialized things. Exploring the convergence among theories of aesthetic form, affect, and stereotyping, this talk seeks to uncover the utility of fantasy and force of nonhuman actants. 

Presented in partnership with the Burdick-Vary Lecture Series: Asian Americans and the Pleasures of Fantasy.

Leslie Bow is Vilas Distinguished Achievement Professor and Mark and Elisabeth Eccles Professor of English and Asian American Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She is the author of the award-winning, ‘Partly Colored’: Asian Americans and Racial Anomaly in the Segregated SouthBetrayal and Other Acts of Subversion: Feminism, Sexual Politics, Asian American Women's Literature; and editor of Asian American Feminisms. 

April 6, 2016 5:30 PM
Conrad A. Elvehjem Building room L140, 800 University Avenue
Focus on the Humanities Distinguished Faculty Lecture
Henry Drewal
Art History and Afro-American Studies, UW-Madison

In this talk, Drewal explores the vital role of the senses with an approach he calls sensiotics. While Drewal focuses on the Yoruba peoples of West Africa and their cultural sensorium, he argues that sensing is constitutive of thinking and that sensiotics can help us understand the shaping of persons, cultures, histories and the arts universally, as suggested in trans-disciplinary research that documents the crucial role of embodied knowledge.

While a teacher in Nigeria, Henry Drewal apprenticed himself to a Yoruba sculptor. That transformative experience led him to interdisciplinary studies at Columbia University in African art history and culture where he earned two Masters' degrees and a PhD in 1973. He has taught at Cleveland State University, UC-Santa Barbara, and SUNY-Purchase, and served as Curator of African Art at The Cleveland Museum of Art and the Neuberger Museum. Since 1991 he has been the Evjue-Bascom Professor of Art History and Afro-American Studies and Adjunct Curator of African Art at the Chazen Museum of Art, UW-Madison. He has published several books, edited volumes, exhibition catalogues, and many articles on African/African Diaspora arts and curated or co-curated several major exhibitions, among them: Introspectives: Contemporary Art by Americans and Brazilians of African Descent; Yoruba: Nine Centuries of African Art and Thought; Beads, Body, and Soul: Art and Light in the Yoruba Universe; Mami Wata: Arts for Water Spirits in Africa and Its Diasporas; Dynasty and Divinity: Ife Art in Ancient Nigeria; Soulful Stitching: Patchwork Quilts by Africans (Siddis) in India, and most recently, Double Fortune, Double Trouble: Art for Sacred Yoruba Twins. Among his numerous awards are several NEH grants, two Fulbright Research Awards (Brazil and Benin), two AIIS Senior Fellowships for research in India, a Metropolitan Museum of Art Fellowship, and a Guggenheim Fellowship.

March 9, 2016 5:30 PM
Conrad A. Elvehjem Building room L140, 800 University Avenue
Focus on the Humanities Distinguished Faculty Lecture
Richard Goodkin
French, UW-Madison

The recent trend toward favoring the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) disciplines over the humanities is a manifestation of a centuries-long struggle between quantitative fields of inquiry like physics and mathematics and qualitative fields like art and literature. In his monumental cycle of novels, The Human Comedy, Honoré de Balzac (1799-1850), one of the greatest of all French writers, brilliantly dramatizes this struggle, as his portrayal of humanity owes much both to qualitative notions of character, morality, and psychology and to quantitative notions like that of the “average man” (l’homme moyen) developed by his contemporary, Belgian statistician and sociologist Adolphe Quetelet (1796-1874). This talk will delve into one of Balzac’s most thought-provoking novels, The Search for the Absolute, the story of a chemist who sacrifices his marriage, his children, his place in society and ultimately his humanity to the failed quest for what he believes to be the single chemical component common to all materials. In this love story between a once-devoted husband and father and his adoring but ultimately disabused wife and daughter, the conflict between two fundamentally opposed notions of human values brings out compelling and surprising truths that help us to understand what is at stake today as we attempt to balance these opposing schools of thought.

Richard Goodkin has been a member of the Department of French and Italian since 1988. He previously taught at Yale University. He has published monographs on seventeenth-, nineteenth-, and twentieth-century French literature, including The Tragic Middle: Racine, Aristotle, Euripides (1991), Around Proust (1991), Birth Marks: The Tragedy of Primogeniture in Pierre Corneille, Thomas Corneille, and Jean Racine (2000), and How Do I Know Thee? Theatrical and Narrative Cognition in Seventeenth-Century France (2015), this most recent book having been supported by a Guggenheim Fellowship. He has also edited two collections, Autour de Racine: Studies in Intertextuality (Yale French Studies, 1988) and In Memory of Elaine Marks: Life Writing, Writing Death (2007), and recently published his first novel, Les Magnifiques Mensonges de Madeleine Béjart (2013), a historical novel about Molière’s mistress and collaborator. The present talk is taken from a book project entitled Connecting the Dots: The Calculus of Personality in French Fiction and Film, for which he received a Senior Fellowship at the Institute for Research in the Humanities (2009-2014).

February 18, 2015 5:30 PM
L140 Elvehjem Building, 800 University Avenue
Focus on the Humanities Distinguished Faculty Lecture
Tejumola Olaniyan
English and African Languages & Literature, UW-Madison

Tejumola Olaniyan will look at literature, popular culture, and social and political practices to tell a cultural history of African politics, and a political history of African culture that re-frames our understanding of the modern state, and takes seriously the charge from African scholars that even humanities scholarship should propose "concrete solutions" to problems of the state.

December 3, 2014 5:30 PM
L140 Elvehjem Building, 800 University Avenue
Focus on the Humanities Distinguished Faculty Lecture
Craig Werner
Afro-American Studies, UW-Madison

A scholar of literature, music, and cultural history, Craig Werner lays out a set of guiding principles for a new history of the nineteen sixties, a mythologized decade that is too often reduced to a set of contradictory ideological tropes.

September 25, 2013 5:30 PM
L140 Conrad A. Elvehjem Building
Focus on the Humanities Distinguished Faculty Lecture
Mary Louise Roberts
Professor of History and Senior Fellow, Institute for Research in the Humanities, UW-Madison

We prefer to think of war as producing heroes, not corpses. Perhaps for this reason, military historians have rarely focused on the dead. In the Normandy invasion of 1944, the bodies of American G.I.s were often not visible. This is because, in an effort to maintain the morale of the troops, the U.S. military quickly removed corpses from the battlefield and kept them out of sight. At the same time, however, much can be learned about the war's meaning for its combatants by exploring how corpses were perceived by U.S. and German soldiers, as well as military officials, French civilians, and the American public.

Mary Louise Roberts is a Professor of History and a Senior Fellow at the Institute for Research in the Humanities at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her most recent book, What Soldiers Do: Sex and the American GI in World War II France, appeared with the University of Chicago Press in 2013. Her work has recently appeared in the American Historical Review, French Historical Studies, French Politics, Culture & Society, and l'Histoire. She is working on a narrated collection of memoirs, D-Day through French Eyes: Memoirs of Normandy 1944, which will appear with the University of Chicago Press for the seventieth anniversary of the landings in June 2014.

February 13, 2013 5:30 PM
Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery, 330 North Orchard Street
Focus on the Humanities Distinguished Faculty Lecture
Gregg Mitman
Vilas Research and William Coleman Professor of History of Science, UW-Madison

Forty years ago, in The Columbian Exchange, and a few years later, in Plagues and Peoples, Alfred Crosby and William McNeill advanced grand historical narratives on a global scale driven by the movement of plants, people, and parasites across space and time. The appearance of disease as an agent of empire in the writing of global environmental histories is deeply entangled with ecological and evolutionary understandings of disease that emerged in the service of capital in the early twentieth century. In his talk, Mitman examines how American military and industrial expansion overseas—witnessed firsthand by doctors in the American occupation of the Philippines, on the coffee plantations of the United Fruit Company, in the trenches of the Great War, and on the rubber plantations of Firestone in Liberia—helped bring into being new views of nature and nation that would, in turn, become the scientific foundation upon which later historical narratives of ecological imperialism relied.

Gregg Mitman's teaching and writing interests span the history of ecology, nature, and health in American culture, and are informed by a commitment and hope to build a more equitable and just environment. Reaching across the fields of environmental history, the history of science and medicine, and the visual culture of science, his research seeks to understand the ways in which political economy, cultural values and beliefs, and scientific knowledge intersect in shaping the interactions between people and environments over time. He served as the founding director of the Nelson Institute’s Center for Culture, History and Environment, and is also curator of Madison’s popular environmental film festival, Tales from Planet Earth. His current research explores the role of science and medicine in America’s changing relationship to the tropical world through the lens of the Firestone Plantations Company in Liberia.

November 5, 2008 5:00 PM
Pyle Center
Focus on the Humanities Distinguished Faculty Lecture
Lee Palmer Wandel
History, UW-Madison

Lee Palmer Wandel is Professor of History, Religious Studies, and Visual Culture at the University of Wisconsin - Madison. She is the author of Always Among Us: Images of the Poor in Zwingli's Zurich (Cambridge University Press, 1990); Voracious Idols and Violent Hands: Iconoclasm in Reformation Zurich, Strasbourg, and Basel (Cambridge University Press, 1995); and The Eucharist in the Reformation: Incarnation and Liturgy (Cambridge University Press, 2006). She is the co-editor of Facing Death (Yale University Press, 1996), which won the Will Solimene Award for Excellence in Medical Communication; and the volume from the Burdick-Vary conference at the Institute, Early Modern Eyes, which is forthcoming. Wandel received her Ph.D. from the University of Michigan. Her work has been supported by the Deutscher Akademischer Austauschdienst, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, the Institute for Advanced Study, Yale University, and, at the University of Wisconsin, fellowships at the IRH, a Vilas Associate Fellowship and the Kellett Mid-Career Award.