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A Note from the Director

by Rosetta Marantz Cohen

Rosetta Marantz Cohen, Director, Kahn Liberal Arts Institute
Photo by Jon Crispin

This year marks the fifteenth anniversary of the Kahn Institute.

Over the course of its life, the Institute has grown and changed, adapting to changing faculty needs. But it has always held fast to its original mission: to nurture faculty research, to encourage collaboration, and to provide a forum for open-ended discourse that allows Smith scholars to push the boundaries of their thinking.

The success of the Institute has been built entirely on faculty support. This happened slowly, through faculty word of mouth. When I looked through the archived minutes of advisory committee meetings in the Kahn’s first years, I found the often-repeated concern that some Smith faculty did not take seriously the nature of work done at the Institute. For many of us, in those days, interdisciplinary research was still seen as “soft” research, and the open-ended conversations that took place weekly in our colloquium room were dismissed as ancillary to real scholarly work. While the Kahn alone can’t take credit for changing peoples’ views on this issue, the Institute was clearly ahead of our time in what it nurtured and valued about the academy. Now, fifteen years later, interdisciplinarity is the rule and not the exception, and faculty collaboration in many fields is seen as a critical asset and not a liability. The growing appreciation for what happens at the Kahn Institute is demonstrated each fall when our colleagues apply for long-term projects. These projects are almost always over-subscribed.

In our time as Directors at the Kahn, Marjorie Senechal, Rick Fantasia and I have engaged with the leaders of Humanities Centers and Liberal Arts Institutes throughout the U.S. and Canada. I know I speak for both of them when I assert that the Kahn is unique in its mission and in what it provides for faculty. I have yet to find another institute that so wholly embraces all areas of the curriculum, that builds its entire agenda out of faculty-driven interests, that welcomes students, staff and community into its projects, and that asks for no final product for the work it supports. No other institute I know of feeds and remunerates its participants so generously.

In short, taking stock after fifteen years, things are looking pretty good. We are still trying out new things: Collaborations with the Museum have produced some wonderful short-term projects; student research workshops in the summer have improved the quality of student participation; co-sponsorships with the Global Studies Center, the Northampton Center for the Arts, and the AALAC have given us broader reach. Still the core of what we do is the weekly, faculty-driven, long-term project, where the best of the liberal arts plays itself out each week in ongoing, deep, and invigorating conversation about ideas.

Rosetta

P.S. I will be taking a long-awaited sabbatical next year. Nalini Bhushan, Department of Philosophy, has kindly agreed to fill in as Director in my absence. Nalini has been a project organizer (Renaissances, 2011-12), a long-time member of the Kahn Advisory Committee, and a great friend to the Kahn.

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