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New British Studies Center Positions Rutgers as Venue for Interdisciplinary Scholarship

By Fredda Sacharow

Shakespeare

What's in a name?" Juliet famously asks in Shakespeare's iconic tale of young love.

For the Rutgers British Studies Center – nee the Rutgers British Studies Project – a name not only confers new, formal status, but also suggests that the state university is positioning itself to become a pre-eminent venue for interdisciplinary scholarship on topics from Beowulf to Tony Blair.

What's in a name?" Juliet famously asks in Shakespeare's iconic tale of young love.

For the Rutgers British Studies Center – nee the Rutgers British Studies Project – a name not only confers new, formal status, but also suggests that the state university is positioning itself to become a pre-eminent venue for interdisciplinary scholarship on topics from Beowulf to Tony Blair.

Bolstered by a $407,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Rutgers British Studies Center symbolically opened its doors earlier this semester with programs designed to attract academics across multiple fields, including history, English, anthropology, art history, and political science.

"We want to be a destination for the region – scholars based in New York and Pennsylvania, for example, will say, 'Okay, here's a place where you can come and interact with others in your field and outside of it,' " says Alastair Bellany, director of the fledgling center and a professor of history in Rutgers' School of Arts and Sciences.

"We hope to start a high-quality conversation: There will be arguments, there will be debates, but the interaction will be productive. Colleagues from other fields will help you fill in the gaps in your own knowledge."

They began modestly in the fall of 2006, a small band of English and history professors divided by disciplines but united in their passion for all things British. Hoping to turn intermittent conversations over coffee into something more formal, they began scheduling faculty workshops, importing visiting scholars, and co-sponsoring daylong conferences under the auspices of what became known as the British Studies Project.
 

Bolstered by a $407,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, a former project gets center status.

Then, a milestone: The inaugural public lecture, by John Brewer, drew a substantial audience in October 2007, including a healthy contingent of graduate students. The professor of history at Cal Tech and an influential modern historian of 18th-century British politics, society, and culture spoke on "Taste and Modernity: Sensibility and Spectacle in Late Georgian Britain."

John Kucich, professor of English at Rutgers and, like Bellany, one of the project's original conveners, remembers being encouraged by both the number of participants at these early gatherings and the institutions they represented.

"We were surprised and gratified at how many people came from Columbia, Princeton, Penn – scholars from the New York-Philadelphia corridor," Kucich said.

Heartened by this proof of critical mass, Bellany and Kucich continued to work with colleagues Ann Coiro and Michael McKeon in the English Department and Seth Koven in the History Department to move the British Studies Center toward reality.

They found a champion in Douglas Greenberg, executive dean of the School of Arts and Sciences, who has promoted interdisciplinary teaching and scholarship since arriving here in 2008, and who helped draft the proposal leading to the Mellon grant.

"With the foundation's generous support, we are creating a center where the creation of new knowledge is flourishing," Greenberg says. "The center will lead the way to deepened understanding of how the liberal arts and sciences will be studied and taught in the 21st century."

"It's been a very exciting last couple of years," adds Coiro, a specialist in the literature of the 17th century. "It's meant crossing not only disciplinary lines, but also period borders: medievalists talking to people working on the 19th century, early modernists talking to people who specialize in modernism."

What intrigues Rutgers historian Seth Koven is the center's potential as a testing ground for new ideas and approaches.

"We want people within the mid-Atlantic region to view Rutgers as a place that will nourish them intellectually, even as their knowledge and approaches make the center stronger," says Koven, who marvels at the depth and breadth of scholarship at Rutgers, from medieval English literature and 18th-century history to Anglophone Africa and Britain's former colonies in South Asia..

Although the center's nerve center is temporarily Bellany's office in Van Dyck Hall, plans call for relocation to 88 College Avenue, formerly the home of "The Journal of the History of Ideas."

Events this semester have enhanced the center's visibility on campus, among them a graduate student symposium, "Histories of the Future," co-sponsored by Rutgers, Yale. and Princeton in February; and a lecture by Yale English professor David Kastan, honorary research professor at University College, London, who spoke in early April on "Naughty Printed Books," tracing the roots of censorship from England's Reformation period.

Kucich, director of graduate studies for the English department, lauds the center's ability to draw potential candidates.

"I'm delighted to be able to use this as a marketing tool, being able to say that there will be a parade of scholars working in British studies who will be coming through Rutgers, enriching the work that we all do," Kucich says, adding that the center also makes the state university more competitive in attracting faculty.

Ultimately, the scholars agree, the new facility will cement Rutgers' reputation as a resource not only for the state, but also for surrounding areas.

"We're aiming not just at the integration of people who do similar kinds of work at Rutgers–New Brunswick, but also at other campuses and other local colleges, community colleges, and universities, as well as all the many educational institutions that exist in the area," says English professor Michael McKeon.

Website:  britishstudies.rutgers.edu

Archived from April 2010