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With new director, Emory's Fox Center for Humanistic Inquiry expands scholarship, programs

The Fox Center for Humanistic Inquiry, Emory's nationally regarded haven for humanities scholarship, welcomed renowned art historian Walter Melion as its new director this past fall.

The Fox Center for Humanistic Inquiry, Emory's nationally regarded haven for humanities scholarship, welcomed renowned art historian Walter Melion as its new director this past fall. His vision for the FCHI seeks to build on its strengths in humanities scholarship while making the center's work more visible and accessible to the campus and public at large. 

“Humanistic study interrogates complex issues and poses question about how we inhabit the world,” Melion says. “The center should serve the fellows in residence, but also faculty and students on campus, as well as the Atlanta community. We want it to be very welcoming as we look to the future.”

He succeeds founding director Martine “Tina” Brownley, who built FCHI into a powerhouse of intellectual community since its opening in 2001. Under her guidance, the Fox Center has been dedicated to nurturing disciplinary and interdisciplinary scholarship, fostering the publication of book projects, and increasing opportunities for research by undergraduates, graduate students, Emory faculty and post-docs recruited from around the country.

It’s a legacy Melion, Emory College's Asa Griggs Candler Professor of Art History, is intent on sustaining and expanding. With the launch of several initiatives, the FCHI seeks to increase its profile as a haven for advanced research and public scholarship in the humanities.

Among them: a weekly works-in-progress seminar for fellows, soon to be supplemented by seminars for new faculty, new books seminars, and other initiatives to encourage intellectual community and scholarship across disciplines, as well as expanded opportunities for undergraduate fellows to engage in international research.

Establishing the hub

FCHI grew out of an initiative within Emory College of Arts & Sciences, whose department chairs and program directors wanted a focal point for research into various dimensions of the human experience. It was named after former professor, dean and senior vice president for institutional advancement Bill Fox and his wife, Carol, in 2006.

Brownley, the Goodrich C. White Professor of English, developed the FCHI from its concept into an incubator for new ideas in the humanities that taps into Emory’s excellence in interdisciplinary research and teaching.

“Anyone who cares about the humanities at Emory owes a tremendous debt to Tina Brownley for developing and maintaining the Fox Center as we know it,” says Emory College Dean Michael A. Elliott. “Walter Melion has been a visionary leader for the department of art history, and he’s the right person to lead us through the next chapter of the Fox Center's evolution.”

Building engagement

Hundreds of undergraduates, graduate students and professors have advanced understanding of humanity in the small complex of three early 20th century buildings perched on North Decatur Road, adjacent to Emory’s Atlanta campus.

The center hosts at least two dozen fellows every year, including visiting professors, Emory faculty focused on completing book-length projects, and graduate students finishing dissertations.

It also has long served as home for two seminars for the broader community. The Great Works series focuses on defining works in various disciplines, while the Georgia Seminars series views the state through the lenses of history, literature, commerce and art.

Public events are also hosted at the FCHI that feature faculty authors, including the fellows who penned 78 books between 2008 and 2017.

While the FCHI is located a short walk from campus, Melion is working to make the center more visible both at Emory and in the community. The goal is to take FCHI’s strong tradition of exploratory scholarship in the humanities and bring it to bear on topics of the public interest.

For instance, Melion partnered with Jeffrey Lesser, director of the Halle Institute for Global Research and Learning, to create a Global Research Fellowship. Administrators are in the process of selecting six undergraduates who will travel abroad for research this summer, then return in the fall to write an honors thesis or capstone project at the center.

The program will complement the existing six undergraduates selected as fellows each spring, to also work on their honors thesis or capstone work. Together, the programs will lead next year to a daylong colloquium that shares the final projects with the wider Emory community.

“Our undergraduates often produce innovative, publishable work that should be shared,” Melion says.

Likewise, Melion has begun seminars designed to open discussions among students, faculty and the broader Atlanta community.

With Laney Graduate School Dean Lisa Tedesco, Melion is serving as faculty director of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation-funded “Emory Humanities PhD Intervention Project," which aims to expand the range of professional competencies that graduate students are trained for and to encourage them in public scholarship. Project events are held regularly at the FCHI.

As the project’s first invited speaker, Daniel Weiss, CEO of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and previous president of two colleges, recently showed graduate students the practical value of combining a business degree with a PhD.

Melion similarly worked with Emory College faculty on the work-in-progress seminar, renamed "Europe and Beyond," that will meet twice each term.

He and the FCHI’s small staff also are exploring the possibility of establishing a parallel seminar for professors connected to Middle Eastern, East Asian and South Asian Studies (MESAS).

As that develops, Melion already has confirmed that MESAS professor Ruby Lal will kick off a yearlong seminar focused on books by faculty. Lal’s book, “Empress: The Astonishing Reign of Nur Jahan,” a biography of the consort of the Muslim emperor Jahangir and a contemporary to Queen Elizabeth I, is due this fall.

Adding those programs and others on top of existing efforts, Melion says, "will allow the Fox Center more actively to support humanities research at Emory, even while maintaining the center’s identity as a scholarly refuge."

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