The Society of Fellows in the Liberal Arts is a unique space within contemporary academia, one that fosters a vibrant interdisciplinary arena while grounding each member of our group of thirteen extraordinary postdoctoral fellows in an academic department and frequently also a program at Princeton. For the past twenty years, the alchemy has worked, enabling the fellows to engage in exemplary research and teaching within their fields while at the same time drawing from and contributing to a heady mix of ideas across the liberal arts (and, not infrequently, from the cosmos brought to us by our astrophysics fellows).
The space is not just metaphorical; it’s quite literal. Once a week, all Cotsen fellows, our faculty fellows, the Old Dominion research professors in the Humanities Council, and invited guests gather for a spirited discussion of works in progress. This past year topics ranged from Uyghur writers during the cultural revolution to cosmic voids, from the Pre-Raphaelite discovery of race to an anthropology of religion and ethical life, from historical approaches to artisanship and social change in colonial South Asia to queer political thought since the New Left. The energy of those focused discussions powers a whole range of collaborations between faculty and fellows that persist far beyond the term of the fellowship.
Since 1999, the Society of Fellows has brought over 100 fellows to campus, and they have enriched Princeton’s intellectual life before heading off to a diversity of institutions and careers all over the world. In the academic year 2018-19, we initiated a new lecture series to bring some former fellows back to campus to share with us how their work has evolved. Just as soaring interdisciplinarity requires rooted disciplinarity, the bounded space of the seminar room in Joseph Henry House needs the wider university community.
Like the humanities altogether, the Society is about connections, and those connections require the balance of tradition and the riskiness of change. That’s at the core of the vision the late Lloyd Cotsen gave us when he endowed the Society, and it is what we continue to aspire to.
Michael D. Gordin
Rosengarten Professor of Modern and Contemporary History