On Jan. 28, the College announced that Professor of English Gage McWeeny has been named the new director of the Oakley Center for Humanities and Social Sciences. McWeeny succeeds Morris Professor of Rhetoric Jana Sawicki and will begin his three-year term in July.
The Oakley Center opened in 1985 with a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to foster interdisciplinary scholarship among faculty. It is named after former President of the College and current Senior Fellow Francis Oakley.
The center organizes conferences, manuscript reviews, lectures and colloquia and hosts around nine fellows in residence each semester. These professors pursue research, compose manuscripts and attend weekly seminars with the two Ruchman Fellows from the senior class and the Clark-Oakley Fellow. Additionally, the Center sponsors all-campus events through the Lecture Committee and is involved in Claiming Williams Day and the Davis Lectures. Sawicki also created a faculty colloquia program in which professors share and discuss recently-published work.
“We’re just doing a lot to support faculty scholarship, intellectual development and intellectual stimulation,” Sawicki said.
She described her daily routine as director. “It’s an exciting job. I’m communicating with faculty, hosting speakers, participating in the faculty fellows’ seminar, looking at applications, thinking about next year’s programming, contacting scholars, working with faculty to plan events and getting requests to have colloquia or support events on campus,” Sawicki said.
Previously, the president of the College and dean of faculty selected the director. This year, however, they issued a call for applicants. They then consulted Sawicki and former directors before choosing McWeeny from the pool of applicants.
Sawicki commended the decision. “[McWeeny] has been involved in several of the colloquia that I’ve organized,” she said. “He was very actively and intellectually engaged in those events. I think he has a broad set of interests that cross disciplines, and he’s a really congenial, energetic person who will be a great ambassador for the Oakley Center.”
McWeeny was thrilled by his appointment. “It has been my secret dream ever since I had a fellowship [at the Center] because it is a place where we have to stretch ourselves,” he said, “Getting outside of our own disciplines is an incredibly powerful feeling. The chance to bring improbable and totally fascinating people to campus is a wonderful opportunity.”
McWeeny has incorporated many disciplines into his research and teaching since arriving at the College in 2005. According to his appointment press release, his interests include “19th-century British literature, the history and theory of the novel, sociology and literature as well as contemporary experimental writing and conceptual art.”
He completed an Oakley fellowship during his assistant professor leave. He wrote the majority of his book The Comfort of Strangers: Social Life and Literary Form at the Center and appreciated the chance to discuss his work with scholars in other fields. “Academics are specialists,” he said. “We are trained not just in a discipline, but in a highly-specific field within that discipline. The great, wonderful challenge of the Oakley Center is to figure out how to talk about your work as an English or philosophy professor to someone in economics or political science. And really wonderful things happen out of those exchanges because it’s pedagogical. It’s a classroom of your peers.”
McWeeny hopes that the Center can elevate the humanities and promote discussion about the role of art in higher education under his guidance. “It is a great place to mark and represent the importance of the humanities in higher education and keep that mission at the forefront of life at Williams,” he said. “Nationally, the narrative of humanities is in decline, so places like the Oakley Center are really important for showing people all of the energy and the work.”
“One of the things I’ve really been interested in at Williams lately [is] the place of the arts on campus,” he added. “What are our ambitions with the arts? I’ve been thinking about multidisciplinary perspectives and ways in which the arts might inform work that’s being done in the humanities and social sciences. The Oakley [Center] feels like one of those places where you can do that kind of thinking about our long-term intellectual goals.”
Overall, McWeeny is grateful for the opportunity. “I’m very excited to be joining this long tradition of great leadership at the Oakley Center,” he said. “I feel incredibly fortunate to [be named director] and hope to make good on the trust that has been placed in me.”