From the Director

Notes on the Whitney (2020–2023)

My term as director of the Whitney Humanities Center, which began in 2020, comes to a close this July 1, when Cajetan Iheka takes on what former director Maria Menocal liked to call “the best job at Yale.”

I think of my role, with pride, as “director of the transition”—running an intellectual, and physical, moving company. Something like resisting the COVID invasion and moving the troops toward V-Day . . . I’m remembering the funny moments and the glitches along with our accomplishments. The surreal experience of preparing 53 Wall Street for the move, sitting on the floor with our valiant staff—all wearing masks and keeping our distance—and figuring out which among the forty years’ worth of boxes should be sent to Manuscripts and Archives at Sterling and which of the dozens of posters on the walls had duplicates that could also be archived. Realizing, when we got to our new home in the Humanities Quadrangle, that we weren’t tall enough to reach even the lowest cupboard in the catering kitchen. The day in mid-pandemic when we organized a lunch under the tent in the HQ courtyard and the screen for the PowerPoint was blown over by the wind. Great minds meeting: novelist Percival Everett and Anne Calabresi (with her husband, Guido, our Finzi-Contini benefactors) in intense exchange over American ideology; Sheila Heti and Fei-Fei Li, the novelist and the scientist, talking about AI fiction over breakfast; students lining up with their books for Abdulrazak Gurnah to sign; my last conversation via webinar with my friend Tyler Stovall (1954–2021) on William Gardner Smith’s The Stone Face. When we went back to in-person programming, the day I put aside my sneakers and tried on the pair of black leather shoes I had bought in 2020 and never worn.

People have asked me what I liked best in my time as director. Without a doubt, it’s been the community we’ve created around the fellows’ lunch talks. This may be a 2022–2023 phenomenon, a sense of the preciousness of public intellectual space and the thrill of reunion after so much isolation. I know that the quality of listening and responding to colleagues in other fields from week to week was unlike any intellectual exchange I’ve known. Fellows were emboldened to try out work-in-progress, to experiment with the form of their talks, to embrace or eschew PowerPoint. Monica Bell, Professor of Law, showed us her interviews with mothers caught in the welfare system. Instead of reducing those interviews to statistics, she took the transcripts of her conversations and rendered them as free verse poetry. There were experts on poetry in the room, amazed by her experiment, who commented on the ethical force of her poems through the words she chose and the layout of those words on the page. What does it mean to approach nonfiction through formal experimentation? Our conversations went deep, and we were excited, each week, by what we were learning in a field not our own. In more practical terms, we are now appointing fellows from across the University for a term of a single year. This means that we can bring together more scholars to benefit from these exchanges.

Soon after graduation, I got on a plane to Algiers, where I’m finishing a book about the painter Baya Mahieddine. Also, through a program called “Le Champ des Possibles”—the field of possibilities—I’ve started a book group on women’s fiction. Our first meeting last December was devoted to a novel by the beloved Algerian writer Assia Djebar, but I realized I’d have more to offer by introducing the group to novels by contemporary American women writers. Last week we met around Louise Erdrich’s The Round House. The book is narrated by a thirteen-year-old boy in the aftermath of his mother’s rape on tribal land in North Dakota. The book introduced the group to a place they had never visited nor imagined, yet there was so much that felt familiar to them: echoes of legal discrimination under French colonialism, for one, and similarities with Kabylia, the mountainous region to the east of Algiers, which has its own Berber language and its own indigenous cultural practices that they compared to Ojibwe practices and beliefs. We wondered if the novel could have been set in Kabylia, and what the story would have been like if the narrator, Joe Coutts, had been a girl.

As I walked out of the Sapori restaurant along the arcades facing the port of Algiers, I thought, that was a great Whitney lunch! It was way too hot to eat, but we drank mineral water, posed for photos for Instagram, and promised to meet again in a few months. Exhilaration of intellectual community—that was the Whitney’s gift.

With my best wishes for the summer,

Alice Kaplan
Sterling Professor of French
Director, Whitney Humanities Center