Haverford Spring 2010 : Page 15

Being Human(ist) Professor of English Kim Benston finds in the humanities a means to draw connections across the Haverford curriculum. By Brenna McBride Kim Benston has been called one of “the finest teachers I’ve ever had” by Ross Lerner ‘06. “Kim taught me how to read and think critically in ways I’m still trying to live up to,” he says. I n the long list of Kim Benston’s varied research interests—which includes Shakespeare, African-American liter- ature, modern drama, and photographic history and theory—you won’t find his original major at Yale University: math- ematics. “I was planning to study economics,” says the professor of English and former director of Haverford’s John B. Hurford ’60 Humanities Center. “It was in my family tree; my father (George) was an economist. I also went to a large urban high school in Chicago, and math was the only thing either taught well or taught under the right learning conditions.” But on the other end of the academic spectrum was his mother Alice, a profes- sor of comparative literature (she cur- rently teaches at Emory University in Atlanta). Therefore, Benston’s childhood home in Chicago’s South Side played host to plenty of stimulating discussions about literature, art, the social sciences and pol- itics. He sampled both parents’ passions during the year between high school and Spring 2010 15 PHOTOS: PETER TOBIA faculty profile

Faculty Profile

Brenna McBride

In the long list of Kim Benston’s varied research interests—which includes Shakespeare, African-American literature, modern drama, and photographic history and theory—you won’t find his original major at Yale University: mathematics.<br /> <br /> “I was planning to study economics,” says the professor of English and former director of Haverford’s John B. Hurford ’60 Humanities Center. “It was in my family tree; my father (George) was an economist. I also went to a large urban high school in Chicago, and math was the only thing either taught well or taught under the right learning conditions.” But on the other end of the academic spectrum was his mother Alice, a professor of comparative literature (she currently teaches at Emory University in Atlanta). Therefore, Benston’s childhood home in Chicago’s South Side played host to plenty of stimulating discussions about literature, art, the social sciences and politics.<br /> <br /> He sampled both parents’ passions during the year between high school andCollege, when he traveled to London.<br /> <br /> There, he attended the London School of Economics for a semester, worked as a gofer in an art gallery, and wrote theater reviews for a small newspaper that later became Time Out London.<br /> <br /> Although he still intended to study math at Yale, Benston was accepted as a freshman into a program focusing on dramatic literature and history of drama.<br /> <br /> “When I came to college I was undereducated,” he says. “I felt I needed to read and learn about everything out there.” It didn’t take long for him to switch majors, choosing to focus on English and the History of Arts and Letters, which he describes as “an old-fashioned view of the world as divided up into great moments in cultural history.” He went on to earn his bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees from Yale, and wrote his dissertation on Shakespeare contemporary Christopher Marlowe.<br /> <br /> Before coming to Haverford in 1984, Benston was a junior faculty member at Yale, with a Mellon Fellowship that allowed him to spend a year at Wesleyan University’s humanities center. “It was transformative for me,” he says of the experience, “because it opened my eyes to another kind of institutional environment, a place where teacher-scholars fully balanced their two sides. I came to understand what places like Haverford were up to.” Nearly two decades after joining Haverford’s faculty, Benston would become instrumental in efforts to build the College’s own interdisciplinary humanities center, as a member of the center’s first steering committee. The committee wanted to distinguish Haverford’s humanities center from similar places at other schools, where, says Benston, the centers were “primarily set up as research retreats, places where hardworking humanists found quieter space to focus on individual work. The model here was to be more dynamic, more centrally part of the College.” Benston and his colleagues hoped for—and got— inter-departmental dialogue; conversations among students, faculty and visiting artists; seminars, reading groups, exhibitions and lecture series drawing connections across the curriculum.<br /> <br /> Benston served as director of the Humanities Center for two separate terms, 2002-04 and 2007-09. The first term he describes as a phase of excitement and anticipation: “Richard Freedman (Professor of Music who directed the Center from 2004-07) said that we were building the plane as we flew it.” During the second term, Benston focused on making the arts an integral componentOf the Center’s programming. At this time the Center took responsibility for the Cantor Fitzgerald Gallery and strengthened its relationship with the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, allowing for more grants, artist residencies and post-doctoral fellows at Haverford.<br /> <br /> Today, Benston is finding new ways to build bridges between the humanities and other areas of study as co-chair of the Environmental Studies Committee, which is working to develop an environmental studies curriculum at Haverford.<br /> <br /> Benston shares leadership duties with Professor of Chemistry Rob Scarrow. “The very fact that we’re co-chairs, an English professor and a chemist, represents the committee’s vision,” he says. “We always had the idea that we would undertake this project as a fully cross-divisional, cross-disciplinary effort.” To understand a humanist’s perspective on the environment, Benston suggests starting with the word itself. “What do we mean when we use the word environment?” he says. “It has a relatively recent history—how did the word arise?<br /> <br /> What do we mean by nature? Part of what a humanist does is read closely the way in which constructs, ideas, philosophies, histories all affect the way we finally act within and upon a particular environment.” Environmental justice, which the committee hopes will be a cornerstone of the future program, is an area to which the humanities can also add pertinent focus, says Benston. “How does one establish who gets to speak to the environment?<br /> <br /> Under what circumstances are the values constructed on which policies are then enacted?” Benston worries about the future of the humanities in general: “Humanists are an endangered species.” Yet, at Haverford, it’s a vital time for the discipline.<br /> <br /> “The humanities are the collection of individual imaginations and creative energies of its participants,” Benston says.<br /> <br /> “We should sustain the will, as humanists, to remain in vigorous conversation.” The courses Benston teaches span a range of humanistic topics: In the spring of 2010 alone, he taught “Shakespeare: The Tragic and Beyond;” “Problems in Poetics: The Interpretation of Lyric;” and “Humanimality: (Dis)Figurations of the Animal in the Shaping of Human Institutions.” Former student and research assistant Ross Lerner ’06, now a graduate student in Engl ish at Princeton, calls Benston one of the “finest teachers” he’s ever had. “Kim taught me how to read and think critically in ways I’m still trying to live up to,” he says. “He was the first one who made me feel like graduate school was something I actually could, and was smart enough, to do. I am lucky to consider him still both a mentor and a friend.” “It would be hard to overstate the impact Kim had on my education at Haverford,” says Shamie Sahandy ’05, who also assisted Benston with his research. “He changed the way I look at the function and importance of literature— and really of the humanities as a whole—for society.” In addition to his teaching duties and his service on the Environmental Studies Committee, Benston is putting the finishing touches on a book, Darkroom Rememory, due to be released by Africa World Press in 2011. “It’s about contemporary African American photography and its relationship to the archive of African American memory,” he says. Also in progress: a Norton anthology of African American poetry, which Benston is editing, and a book about African American responses to 9/11 and the war on terror as expressed through hip-hop, poetry, and legislative action.<br /> <br /> Although there’s no shortage of projects to occupy him, there are still moments when Benston misses his time with the Pulitzer Prize Jury for Drama, on which he last served in 2007. “We would read about 150 plays between October and December,” he says. “Any play off the shelf, at any given time, could be the gem.” He describes the experience as Quakerly: “We achieved what I recognized as a form of consensus. We tried to genuinely engage the plays for their quality and originality.” Outside of work, Benston devotes time to his family. His wife Sue also teaches at Haverford as a visiting assistant professor of writing, while daughter Shawna holds a master’s degree in classics and works for a legal aid society and a public health nonprofit in Boston (where her husband, Jeremiah, is completing a Ph.D. in English and a degree in library science). Son Cliff is employed by a media company in New York City and writes short stories.<br /> <br /> Benston is also as politically active as his hectic schedule allows him to be. “I wish I could be better balanced as a public citizen,” he says. “It’s hard in a profession that looks as if it’s filled with free time but has no end of things that you can and should do.” Still, he finds time for activism whenever he can, and is especially passionate about civil liberties and human and animal rights.<br /> <br /> “Maybe someday I’ll show up on TV being carted away,” he says, “and someone watching will say, ‘Hey, didn’t I have that guy for freshman English?’

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