Polymathic Academy Year-in-Review

The USC Sidney Harman Academy for Polymathic Study recently concluded an extraordinary second year with a fivefold increase in student and faculty participation in over fifty events held throughout the Fall 2011 and Spring 2012 semesters.

The high moment for the academy came with the generous endowment of $10 million from the Harman Family Foundation. The Harman family’s generous gift secures the newly named Sidney Harman Academy for Polymathic Study as a permanent institute for interdisciplinary inquiry on the USC campus and realizes the vision of the Academy’s late founder, Sidney Harman, who sought to encourage students and faculty to expand their disciplinary boundaries through polymathic exploration.

USC President C.L. Max Nikias announced the gift at a special ceremony in Doheny Memorial Library, which houses the Academy. Family members in attendance included Harman’s wife, USC trustee Jane Harman; daughter, Harman Family Foundation Chief Executive Officer Barbara Harman; and son-in-law, Amherst professor of English William Cain. The event was also honored to have in attendance USC First Lady Niki C. Nikias, several members of the USC board of trustees, University Professors, and distinguished USC faculty directly involved with the formation of the Academy. Invited guests also included several undergraduate and graduate students whose commitment to the Academy proved critical to its success. The ceremony featured speeches from President Nikias, Dean of USC Libraries Catherine Quinlan, and Academy Fellow and USC student Maureen Lee Lenker. The ceremony concluded with touching and inspiring remarks from Jane and Barbara Harman.

2011-2012 in Review:

The academy’s opening event of the 2011-2012 academic year, The Art of Business and the Business of Art, featured a conversation among visiting professor Lord John Eatwell, president of Queen’s College, Cambridge; Dana Gioia, Judge Widney Professor of Poetry and Public Culture; Alexander Marr, professor of art history; and Nandini Rajagopalan, Captain Henry W. Simonsen Chair in Strategic Entrepreneurship. With over 125 students and faculty in attendance, the event was an inspiring beginning to the academy’s second year.

The Quadrant Series with Edwin McCann, professor of philosophy and English, introduced academy attendees to the core precepts of Sidney Harman’s vision of polymathic thought: 1) critical and integrative thinking, 2) study of the polymaths, 3) the tapestry of knowledge, and 4) communication. McCann encouraged students to view each quadrant as essential to polymathic thinking and appreciate their value in relation to each other. Lively discussions arose as students sought to assess what defines polymathic pursuits and why interdisciplinary learning holds intrinsic value for their lives.

This year witnessed record undergraduate attendance in the popular Polymathic Pizza Series. In the Fall series, titled The Renaissance Revisted, students enjoyed vigorous polymathic conversation on topics such as “Medicine: Ancient Texts Lead to an Experimental Future” with Andrew W. Mellon Professor of the Humanities Peter Mancall and “Religion: Reformation and Counter-Reformation Yield to the Nation State” with Alton M. Brooks Professor of Religion James Heft. Students came away with a better understanding of the Renaissance as a remarkably polymathic period of history. These discussions enabled students to understand the more interdisciplinary worldview of early modern thinkers, as well as how to integrate interdisciplinary approaches into their own way of thinking.

The Polymathic Pizza Spring series, titled Weird Science, continued with engaging discussions on issues such as “Bugs: Can They Be Outwitted?” with professor of biology Jed Fuhrman; “Earthquakes: Can They Be Predicted?” with University Professor and W.M. Keck Professor of Earth Sciences Thomas Jordan; and two conversations on string theory and the cosmos with professor of physics and astronomy Clifford Johnson. Students discovered how scientists must approach problems from a polymathic standpoint and how the greatest questions facing our world today are best answered by interdisciplinary collaboration and understanding. One of the most remarkable results of this series was how students not majoring in scientific fields were able to grasp and investigate the complex subjects, then engage the faculty and their fellow students, thus demonstrating the value of polymathic exploration for all fields.

The 2011-2012 Graduate Student Series benefited from a rewarding partnership with USC’s Visual Studies Program. The eight-part series, titled Objects of Knowledge, was organized around three themes: visuality and knowledge; the politics of visuality; and seeing across time and space. Faculty and graduate students from multiple disciplines engaged in focused conversation on the diverse ways images and material objects interact. The 2012-2013 Objects of Knowledge II series will feature scholarship from USC’s graduate students, followed by faculty-student interaction and discussion.

For the lunchtime Homage to Hypatia and Hildegard series, all USC students, faculty and staff were invited to come together to investigate issues of polymathic discovery with some of the most notable and prolific female scholars at USC. Fields of inquiry included “Interactive Media: A Polymathic Challenge” with University Professor Marsha Kinder, “The Polymathic Lawyer” with political science professor Alison Dundes Renteln, and “Understanding the Universe” with the USC Libraries Discovery Fellow Margaret Wertheim. Covering a wide range of topics, these women demonstrated how their practical application of polymathic inquiry could be explored in virtually any field with striking results.

2011-2012 was also the inaugural year of the academy-hosted USC Society of Postdoctoral Fellows. The academy aims to provide an opportunity for enrichment in scholarly and professional advancement of USC’s postdoctoral scholars through community and interdisciplinary engagement with their colleagues and USC’s senior faculty. The Society of Postdoctoral Fellows held their first dinner in November at the University Club, with University Professor Marshall Cohen serving as distinguished speaker. Professor Edwin McCann directed the second conversation at the February dinner and Andrew W. Mellon Professor of the Humanities Peter Mancall served as keynote speaker at the year-end event in April. The final event concluded with an exquisite string quartet performance by students from the Thornton School of Music.

TROY: The Myth, the Metaphor, the University capped the 2011-2012 Academy programming with a dynamic panel discussion on the meaning of Troy. Discussants included USC trustee Ronald Sugar, chairman emeritus of Northrup Grumman Corp.; Lt. Col. Robert Kirkland, commanding officer of the USC Army ROTC; Greg Thalmann, professor of classics and comparative literature; Martin Gomez, vice dean of the USC Libraries; and Kevin Starr, University Professor and Associate Dean of USC Libraries. Later, the audience joined the conversation with lively debate on the meaning of this elusive metaphor that defines USC’s identity.

A group of undergraduates from the academy also founded the Goethe Society, a student organization committed to exploring polymathic ideas through cultural outings in the Los Angeles area. This year the Goethe Society attended three events: stage productions of Trojan Women at the Getty Villa and Waiting for Godot at the Mark Taper Theatre, as well as an evening with the LA Philharmonic. Each excursion was preceded with a polymathic conversation over dinner facilitated by a faculty member whose expertise in the specific event enhanced the students’ experience.

The USC Sidney Harman Academy for Polymathic Study concluded the year with an induction ceremony for seven new graduating fellows: James Aluri, Claudia Avendano, Olivia Bonin, Karina Casillas, Emily Chang, Sonam Kapadia, and Maureen Lee Lenker. Dean Catherine Quinlan of the USC Libraries and Director of the Academy and University Professor Kevin Starr presented the student fellows with official academic stoles and certificates. The ceremony featured remarks from Starr and Aluri and was followed by a lovely breakfast reception. The students’ new status as Academy Fellows recognizes and honors their commitment to polymathic ideals as exemplified through their extensive participation in Academy events during their tenure at USC. Several faculty and administrators, including Professor Edwin McCann and Associate Provost Robin Romans, were also inducted in recognition of their dedication to the success of the academy.

From signature events like Polymathic Pizza to our newly formed organizations, the Postdoctoral Fellows Society and Goethe Society, to the endowment and induction ceremonies, the USC Sidney Harman Academy for Polymathic Study had an incredibly rich and successful second year. The official programming schedule for the 2012-2013 academic year will be released shortly. To stay abreast of all Academy events, visit our website, our Facebook page, and our twitter account(@USCPolymathy). Whether you are a returning member or a new inquiring mind, we hope you’ll join us for what is sure to be another intellectually stimulating and enriching year.