2020 Newsletter

2019-20 has been an extraordinary year. It began as the year of Energy. With remarkable fellows assembled from across the humanities, discussions immediately flowed and ranged from histories of energy (animals in the ancient world, hay for horse power in the nineteenth century); deadly energy fall outs (in the Pacific atolls, on indigenous lands); energy ruins (in the former Soviet Union); energy futures (what is possible, what must change?); psychic energy and influence (in psychoanalysis, in the Caribbean); the energy of music and culture as it moves across the globe; the energy shared between species. We had energy … and were off and running.

The year was also historic for the Society as it celebrated the funding ($6 million anonymous alumni donation) of its new Humanities Scholars Program as well as the roll-out of the Rural Humanities initiative ($1 million Andrew W. Mellon grant). 

The Humanities Scholars Program will welcome cohorts of 30 juniors and 30 seniors to the Society for a program designed to give focus and intensity to the already amazing humanities research being done by undergraduates at Cornell. Led by Professor Durba Ghosh (History/ Feminist Gender and Sexuality Studies), the Humanities Scholars Program fosters independent, interdisciplinary undergraduate research while providing a supportive intellectual community, through a series of curated courses, structured mentorship, special programming, and research opportunities and funding. 

The Rural Humanities initiative leverages Cornell’s unique intellectual, historic, and geographic mission as a land-grant university in order to cultivate the next generation of public and engaged humanities scholars. Rural Humanities was launched in early September with a faculty showcase featuring already existing Cornell faculty projects that exemplify possibilities, tools, and methods for this initiative. Spring featured the first (over-enrolled) Rural Humanities seminar to train students in the public humanities as both a disciplinary inquiry and a set of practices grounded in community engagement; to think collectively with and beyond disciplinary interests; and to bring these discipline-defined research agendas to much wider communities. This is followed each year by the Summer Practicum designed to develop deep relations between the humanities and the rural environment of upstate New York through specific student-led projects. 

But then spring arrived … and with it two pandemics: COVID-19 was the first global pandemic in over a century, while the pandemic of systemic racism has wreaked its havoc for centuries. COVID-19 forced the Society and its residential program – probably for the first time in our almost 60 year history – to move into a remote format. Despite working socially and even geographically distant for the final two months of term, the Energy Fellows continued to discuss, collaborate, think together, and support one another in advancing their research on energy and energetics, now with an equal eye to the rapidly shifting health, academic, and political landscape.  

The second pandemic of systemic racism and white supremacy has been with us much longer and exploded with deadly violence against Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, and – as I write this – Jacob Blake by police and vigilante violence. There will be a vaccine for the corona virus; eradicating racism and white supremacy will take a lot more. Change needs to happen in so many places and on so many levels, also here at Cornell. In Spring, Cornell undergraduate students circulated a petition titled #DoBetterCornell – a call to sustained action that puts structural, intellectual, and pedagogical changes in place here on campus. One of the demands of #DoBetterCornell is to found an Anti-Racism Institute in which the deep, defining Black history in Central New York – e.g., Frederick Douglass’ home in Rochester, Harriet Tubman’s in Auburn, the Underground Railroad at Ithaca’s St. James AME Zion Church, the Willard Straight Hall takeover, Black farmers to this day – becomes a core component of a Cornell education. We couldn’t agree more. Therefore, in the academic year 2020-21, the Society’s Rural Humanities initiative, in collaboration with the #DoBetterCornell student group, Cornell faculty, and local community partners, will focus on Rural Black Lives – in its seminar, summer practicum, webinars, podcasts, and microgrants. Furthermore, for the duration of the Rural Humanities initiative, we will promote intersectional research in public and engaged humanities that equally addresses the Rural Latinx and Rural Indigenous Lives which are also all-too-often effaced, exploited, and expropriated in what is a rich, diverse, and colorful rural landscape.

2019-20 began as the year of Energy – it became much more. In many ways, the year of Energy landed directly on a fault-line – of race, of class, of health care, of economic justice, of deep structural inequalities – that has been waiting to burst and whose effects and fallout we will be confronting for years to come. And this is good; these systemic elements of our world need to be confronted. We must find the energy for it.


As we begin the new Fall semester, we welcome the 2020-21 Fabrication Fellows to what will certainly be an unpredictable year. Most courses will be online; social distancing and mask wearing will be the order of the day; public events will not take place; even the weekly Fellows seminar, the heart-piece of our residential program, will take place in virtual spaces. Yet, led by our interim director for the year, Annette Richards (Given Foundation Professor in the Humanities and Professor of Music) the Society will adapt and augment what we do best: Bring Cornell humanities faculty and students together with our exceptional Fellows for intense research. To quote Annette,

“With the Fabrication Fellows of 2020-21, we are more than up to the challenge of fostering Cornell’s extraordinary intellectual community, even in the face of significant disruption, with commitment, generosity, and creativity.”  

This year we will double down on the sense that the Society is the place where ideas move between fields and disciplines, even if this means working together remotely via podcasts, webinars, poetry readings, and new publication projects. The goal is to have the enormous local talent at Cornell seize upon multiple medial possibilities to reach the world. Stay tuned!

As we look ahead to next year, one appropriately focusing on the 2021-22 theme “Afterlives,” we ask ourselves: in these times of revolt, shutdown, crisis, hope and transformation, what will live on and what will come after? What will survive, what fade away, and what emerge changed?

Paul Fleming