Q&A with Karen Redrobe, new director of the Wolf Humanities Center

Speaking about her new role, she discusses the Center’s yearlong theme, “stuff,” the things that define us and remind us.

Penn professor Karen Redrobe
Karen Redrobe is the new director of Penn’s Wolf Humanities Center. (Photo by Lua Beckman) 

With a plan to expand programs and increase diversity and inclusivity, Karen Redrobe has stepped into her new role as director of the Wolf Humanities Center at the University of Pennsylvania.

She replaces James English, an English professor, who was director for eight years. Redrobe will continue in her positions in the School of Arts and Sciences as the Elliott and Roslyn Jaffe Professor in Film Studies, and for one more year as chair of Penn’s History of Art Department.

In her new role, she will oversee the Wolf Humanities Center public programs. She also is in charge of research work with the Center’s 29 faculty, graduate, and post-doctoral fellows. Redrobe will also work in collaboration with the Center’s topic director this year, Julie Nelson Davis, a history of art professor, and Ayako Kano, the undergraduate faculty director. 

Redrobe has many ideas for new efforts, including strengthening the connection between Penn humanities and Penn Global, starting with an October roundtable at the Perry World House. Also, in Redrobe’s commitment to make the humanities more accessible, all of the Center’s programs for the first time will feature interpretation in American Sign Language, live and online, along with captioning for the hearing impaired in the online version. 

A main mission of the center is public programming around a broad theme, this year focused on “stuff,” described as “the things that define us and remind us.” Next year’s theme is kinship. Redrobe was interim director during James English’s sabbatical five years ago, when programming centered around the topic of violence.

Penn Wolf Humanities Center 2018-2019

More than two dozen public discussions and events are planned related to the theme of stuff, kicking off on Sept. 26 with author and poet Kevin Young in a conversation, “Acts, Facts, and Artifacts: The Stuff of Black Culture,” with Penn’s Herman Beavers, professor of English and Africana studies.

Founded in 1999 as the Penn Humanities Forum, the Center moved into a newly refurbished wing of Williams Hall this year, with several collaborative spaces, including with the Price Lab for Digital Humanities. The expansion was made possible in part by a 2017 endowment by Dick Wolf, a Penn alum, and his wife, Noelle. 

“I think the question for us as the endowment comes in over time is how do we want the center to evolve? What can this be that it hasn’t already been?” Redrobe says. “How are the humanities changing, and how does the center change with that? How do we make the best use of this gift so that it continues to be a vibrant center and at the center of University and public conversations? How do we need to grow?” 

Penn Today spoke with Redrobe about her role and her vision for the center. 

Why did you choose to be director of the Wolf Humanities Center, and how do you see your role? 

One of the things I love most about being a film scholar is that cinema has a very public dimension, and is a good bridge between the University and the general public. This new role builds on this bridge-building, which is at the core of my academic life. The Center presents academic talks for a general audience, to give people in the Philadelphia community a chance to participate at the highest level of conversation the University has to offer to broaden education. I care about it, and I hope I have something to offer in that way.

The exchange we have is a two-way street. I hope to create opportunities for Penn faculty and students and also the general public to give feedback and input for what they hope the Wolf Humanities Center will do to serve the community, and then we will need to think about ways to respond to that.

The way I would like to inhabit this role is to allow the Center to be bigger than my own imagination. The more outreach we can do, the more suggestions we take on board, the more diverse and interesting and expansive the program can be.  

One of the goals I’m really excited about in this role is pushing research forward in an intergenerational context. It’s a very research-focused center. I love research. And I think it is and should be at the center of who we are as professors, the foundation on which everything else we do rests.  

Another thing I really love about my job is mentoring and helping younger scholars. I asked the faculty fellows who would be willing to be a one-on-one mentor, and because of their generous responses every post-doc at the Center now has a faculty mentor who will help introduce them to the wider community at Penn and all that it has to offer.

How would you define the humanities?  

Human culture has been at the center of the humanities world, with its core focus on language, culture, the arts—some of the things that distinguish us as human—along with the belief that bringing historical consciousness to any moment that we live in will enrich what we do. But one of the things that is interesting right now is that humanists are starting to question the validity of this view, especially in the context of the environmental humanities and the digital humanities, where discussions about things like non-human life and agency, or artificial intelligence and big data, are rocking or refining some of our older paradigms. 

Also, very important to the humanities is thinking about what our values are. Scholars in religious studies and philosophy help us think systematically about how we live together, what kind of guidelines we bring to the act of living—moral, ethical, religious, community values. This gives us an opportunity to reflect on and question how these codes shape not only who we are and how we live in the world but also how we relate to each other.

You have organized a first-ever roundtable with the humanities faculty and leaders of Penn Global in October. Why?

The idea came out of a conversation I had with Penn Global before I went to China this summer to Penn’s center in Beijing. I think perhaps there is an opportunity for us to think about what humanists have to offer the changing world that Penn Global represents. I hope we can foster greater exchange between the expertise in language, culture, and history that humanists value and discussions of contemporary international relations, policy, and global formations. 

I think it’s a question of us trying to better understand how humanists can really contribute to the Penn Global project without feeling they are somehow sacrificing what is at the core of what they feel is most meaningful to them. That’s part of a wider conversation: What is the rather elusive nature of the humanities?  What are the core priorities for humanists, whose projects are diverse, wide ranging, and often exploratory or experimental rather than outcome-oriented?  How do humanists relate to projects that are not specifically humanities and have a voice in a way that is still meaningful?

At Penn, because so we are so interdisciplinary across schools, we have an opportunity to meet together and challenge each other to expand our thinking. I hope the Humanities Center can play a role in fostering these kinds of open conversations. 

You are a vocal proponent of diversity. How will you incorporate those ideals at the Center? 

I want to think more about how the Wolf Humanities Center can be a supportive resource and a space for our first-generation, low-income students, as well as for our under-represented minority students. I am gradually reaching out to various departments, programs, and groups, meeting with people who have ideas about what we could do. I’m aware that our campus life can still feel quite segregated, and I hope that everyone will experience the Wolf Center as a vibrant and welcoming scholarly environment.  

There are fields whose populations have historically been more homogenous, including my own field of art history, and those of us working in such fields know that we have to reflect on why certain fields of study have felt exclusive to some students, talk with those students, and change. I’m interested in the Humanities Center being a space where we can talk about these kinds of challenging questions. 

Why the topic of “stuff”? 

The question of stuff is a core question for our world: We are made of it; we have too much of it; we have all this trash; we are in a throwaway society. But there are also now repair and recycling movements, and all kinds of work with found objects. We are trying to think about a wide variety of questions around the problems of the material world.

We look for topics that have broad appeal and topics that have meaningful social resonance, that will matter to people in everyday Philadelphia, so people can connect the humanities to their own lives. But the topic also needs not to be so specific or ideological in nature that it forces a particular viewpoint. This is an open Center, and we try to bring in lots of different perspectives and opinions from all kinds of points of view on big issues that matter to us across fields. Our topics bring people together in surprising ways, beyond disciplinary organizations, and there is both great pleasure and both learning to be found in that expanded community.