Humanities center at Penn gets new name, home

A fresh school year brings about big changes for what was formerly known as the Penn Humanities Forum. Thanks to a generous gift from “Law & Order” and “Chicago” creator Dick Wolf, a Penn alumnus, and his wife Noelle, the forum is now known as the Wolf Humanities Center, and will soon have a new, permanent space, and additional programming. 

Since its inception in 1999, the Center has been known as a hub for public conversation with yearly, themed events. It’s also grown into a research arena, offering fellowships for Penn undergraduate and graduate students, standing faculty at the University and regional universities, and postdoctoral scholars from around the world.

“We are already a major humanities center, and thanks to the Wolfs’ endowment, we’re only going to get better,” says James English, the Center’s director since 2010 and the John Welsh Centennial Professor of English in the School of Arts & Sciences.

The new space, slated to be completed in October, will be in a renovated wing of Williams Hall near 36th and Spruce streets, home to many Penn humanities departments. The Center will also house the Price Lab for Digital Humanities, of which English is founding director. The two entities will share some administrative services, assuring smooth, collaborative work.

“The line between what is digital humanities and what is not is becoming thinner and thinner,” English explains. “That’s why we want to have the digital humanities lab right smack in the midst of our interdisciplinary humanities operation.”

It’ll be a nice change, too, English says. He and his colleagues are currently a bit scattered in office spaces across the Penn Museum. Relocating to a building in the middle of campus is a welcome shift, as well.

“We’ll all be together, and everyone will know where we are,” he says.

Throughout the next few years, the Center’s programming is expected to expand to include more events that fall outside of the year’s theme. One way of doing this, English explains, is by growing the Humanities at Large aspect of the Center.

“The Humanities at Large is different from our thematic events because it is aimed at other campus groups that might come to us and say, ‘We want to do a roundtable on such and such,’ hoping that we can help facilitate it,” he says. “We will now have the wherewithal to help groups, individuals, and departments with more of these events, finding venues, arranging catering, doing promotion and publicity, and so on.”

Also expected to arise from the Wolf gift is the ability to expand and improve the fellowship opportunities for Penn faculty and students to conduct their research, says English.

While discussing this year’s Wolf Humanities Center theme, “Afterlives,” English jokes that it’s a celebration of the “afterlife” of the Penn Humanities Forum.

Laughs aside, he says, “It’s an abstract, timeless topic. We will be touching on some religious aspects of afterlives, and some ways in which ancient art and literature enjoy strange, unexpected afterlives in the contemporary moment.”

It’s also very timely, he continues, as some topics will address post-Trump and post-Brexit. The opening event on Wednesday, Sept. 27, discusses race in the U.S. post-slavery, and will feature Colson Whitehead, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “The Underground Railroad,” in conversation with Salamishah Tillet, an associate professor of English and Africana studies at Penn.

“That history has not gone away,” English says. “It’s still a haunting reality for African Americans and for all of us. That’s something that’s been of course underscored most recently in Charlottesville and in many other places.”

See more information on the Center and its 2017-18 programming, led by topic director Emily Wilson, at the Wolf Humanities Center website.

Wolf Humanities Center