The Intangible Benefits of a Humanities Community

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by James Zainaldin 14C

I have had the great good fortune to be able to “take up residence” (in several senses of that phrase, at times) in the Fox Center this semester as an honors thesis fellow. While at the Fox Center, I have continued work on my senior thesis exploring the relationship between education and politics in the writings of Plato and Cicero. I think it is a tendency I (and many others) have to dismiss at times the value of “setting” in work in the humane disciplines. When imagining theses in the chemistry or biology departments, test tubes, white coats, and weighty scientific equipment might come to mind: it is readily understood that there is some “place” where the work gets done, that is, the laboratory. But why couldn’t we read Cicero or Plato in an armchair at Starbucks or Woodruff Library’s stacks as easily as in an office? Answering this question is deceptively difficult, but my time at the Fox Center so far has taught me that place is just as important in the humanities, too. The Center does a tremendous job of creating an environment of really vibrant intellectual activity—dare I even call it bohemian, at least among the undergraduates? Rubbing shoulders with people who are busy at work on all sorts of fascinating and compelling projects has a way of stimulating one’s thoughts on one’s own research. There is a certain energy one must feel to understand generated in a community of people who are all excited about their work and excited about its implications for other areas of thought. Not to mention the Center’s coffee hours and organized lunches, gatherings explicitly designed to foster interdisciplinary intellectual exchange.

There are plenty of practical benefits I’ve enjoyed at the Fox Center too, like storing all of the books that are beginning to form my “library away from the library.” But these pale in comparison to the intangibles that conduce study at the center. For example, there is nothing quite like coming in to start work and finding a photocopied advertisement on a filing cabinet convincing men to buy a company’s suits because they will “look sharp” and, therefore, receive all of the women’s votes that are about to flood the polls because of the recent progress in suffrage movements. (Courtesy of a fellow writing a thesis in the history department on anti-suffragist movements.) Some might contend that my tacking up Greek quotations from Heraclitus or Plato is not so amusing a diversion, but hey, maybe it gets us into the spirit of buckling down to work? This is not to say that the Fox Center can also be a place of quiet, almost ascetic retreat when one needs it. Everybody understands that everybody else is busy, and we’re all perfectly happy to shut the doors and put our collective noses to the grindstone when it matters. It has been a special place to work, and, as I have mentioned, one that must be experienced to be fully appreciated.

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