Eighteen years ago this fall, the Baker-Nord Center for the Humanities at Case Western Reserve announced its inaugural season—a wide-ranging series of talks, readings and other presentations, all free and open to the public. From the outset, the diversity of its programs was one of the center’s defining characteristics. The speakers that fall included a leading historian of modern China, a writer of children’s books and a biographer of Harriet Beecher Stowe.
Like any new entity, the center quickly set about articulating its mission: to support “inquiry into the interpretation of human experience through the disciplines of the arts and humanities,” and to promote understanding of “how these disciplines illuminate the world of human activity, past and present.”
The original vision for the center came from Jane Nord (GRS ’76) and her late husband, Eric (CIT ’39, HON ’98), who made a founding commitment of $3 million in 1996. These funds provided the center with its initial endowment and supported the renovation of Clark Hall, its future home. Constructed in 1892, Clark Hall was the only surviving building in Cleveland designed by the celebrated architect Richard Morris Hunt, and the Nords felt that it should be preserved.
Eric and Jane Nord went on to become two of the university’s most generous benefactors. As donors to the Case School of Engineering, they made possible the renovation of the former Enterprise Building, which reopened as Nord Hall in 2003, and the creation of the Nord Professorship in Engineering. They funded teaching innovation and faculty development. They established scholarships in art education, the field in which Jane Nord had earned a master’s degree at Case Western Reserve.
More recently, Jane Nord and her family have provided resources to enhance the Baker-Nord Center’s future. Their support was crucial to the success of a five-year campaign the center launched in 2009 after receiving a challenge grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. And this February, they were recognized at a ceremony where classics scholar Peter E. Knox, the center’s new director, was appointed to the Eric and Jane Nord Family Professorship, a chair endowed through $2.2 million in gifts and commitments from Jane Nord and the Eric and Jane Nord Family Fund.
“The Nord family’s engagement with Case Western Reserve has brought profound positive effects to the university,” President Barbara R. Snyder said in her remarks for the occasion. “We are honored by their ongoing support, and delighted that this professorship has allowed us to recruit a scholar of Peter’s caliber.”
Knox is best known for his studies of the Roman poet Ovid, whose major work, The Metamorphoses, has had a continuing afterlife in Western culture from the first century to the present. In a talk he delivered at his chairing ceremony, Knox observed that myths from Ovid recur in Shakespeare’s plays, in Renaissance paintings and sculptures, and in an ever-growing body of translations and adaptations.
“Part of our task as educators in the humanist tradition is to help our students contextualize these events in the history of the human imagination,” Knox said. “To interpret, to explain, and to curate these works so that they will always be available, in the broadest sense of the term, is foundational to our enterprise. So, too, is the attempt to instill in our students the values these works incorporate, which may be the most precarious legacy of all.”
Knox earned his bachelor’s and doctoral degrees in classics at Harvard University and later served on the faculties of Columbia University and the University of Colorado at Boulder. As an author and editor, he has published six books and more than 50 articles. His current projects include a new translation of The Metamorphoses for the Loeb Classical Library; his edition will be among the first in that series to appear simultaneously in print and digital formats.
“Peter has had a remarkable and prolific career,” says Paul Iversen, chair of CWRU’s Department of Classics. “He’s highly esteemed in his field, both nationally and internationally. Everywhere I go, when I’m among classicists, many of them congratulate our department and our university for bringing him here.”
Knox’s most significant contribution to his discipline, Iversen says, was to help spark a new understanding of Ovid’s poetry. Previous scholars had recognized Ovid’s influence and popular appeal, but not his complex engagement with the traditions of Greek and Latin verse.
“Before Peter published his first book in the 1980s, it was fashionable for classicists to focus on the works of the Augustan-era poets Horace and Virgil as the crowning achievements of learned poetry in Rome,” Iversen says. “The works of Ovid were largely relegated to a sort of honorable mention. I think Peter challenged this view, and now Ovid has rightly taken his place among the mainstream authors of Augustan poetry. A lot of that is due to Peter. I particularly admire his literary-historical perspective and his careful attention to detail. He is a solid scholar, and he has very important things to say.”
As soon as he joined the faculty this spring, Knox began teaching; his first course was an undergraduate seminar on Roman satire. At the same time, he started developing proposals to enhance humanistic studies at CWRU.
For example, he hopes to establish fellowships that would allow faculty members time to pursue their research and design new courses. He would like to increase the frequency of the center’s Work in Progress sessions, where faculty members present material from their current projects, and to launch a similar series for graduate students. And he is eager to help faculty members and students employ new technologies to carry out and disseminate their work.
In this domain and others, Knox will build on the achievements of his predecessor, John Orlock, the Samuel B. and Virginia C. Knight Professor of Humanities, who served as the center’s interim director for the past four years. For Orlock, fostering digital scholarship was a priority. In 2012, he enlisted William Deal, the Severance Professor in the History of Religion, as the center’s associate director for digital humanities. With support from the college and the university, he also created positions for a full-time digital humanities manager, Lee Zickel, and a postdoctoral scholar, Allison Schifani. Now completing a two-year residency, Schifani has designed a certificate program in digital scholarship for Case Western Reserve graduate students. Knox says that the program, which he will implement this fall, exemplifies the kind of service the Baker-Nord Center can provide to the university’s humanities departments.
“There is no reason why graduate students in English or history should each have a separate introduction to digital methodologies,” Knox explains. “These tools are not discipline-specific. And now, our doctoral students will acquire a solid credential that distinguishes them from their peers on the job market.”
Knox also plans to expand the center’s outreach to undergraduates. In collaboration with Gillian Weiss, associate professor in the Department of History, he has already launched a series of panel discussions to inform students about careers they can pursue with a liberal arts degree. Titled Humanities@Work, the series features professionals in the fields of medicine, law, finance and public service who majored in humanities disciplines in college.
Finally, Knox is considering innovations in the center’s public programs. Although he will continue to bring visiting speakers to campus, he also hopes to increase the visibility of the CWRU faculty. He hopes, for example, to institute a Baker-Nord Distinguished Lecture, to be delivered each year by a humanities scholar from the College of Arts and Sciences.
In perhaps his most ambitious venture, Knox has invited local cultural organizations to join the center in organizing an annual Cleveland Humanities Festival. The institutions that have expressed interest so far include the Cleveland Museum of Art, the Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland, the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, the Dittrick Medical History Center, the Western Reserve Historical Society, Cuyahoga County Public Library and University Circle, Inc. Each spring, the festival will explore a topical theme through activities such as reading groups, an academic symposium, art exhibitions and musical performances.
The inaugural festival, to be held in 2016, will address the theme “Remembering War,” with an emphasis on the Vietnam War’s history and impact. “It is now 50 years since this country found itself caught up in that conflict,” Knox says. “So it seems like a timely opportunity to reflect on the importance of that war, both in its own context and in the context of other wars that have taken place before and since.”
Knox recognizes the challenges of directing a center with so many roles and constituencies. And yet, he seems undaunted. In his February talk, he indicated one source of his enthusiasm and commitment: the example provided by one of the great humanists of the Italian Renaissance.
Angelo Ambrogini, better known as Poliziano, rose from obscurity in 15th-century Florence, where his mastery of ancient learning won him the patronage of Lorenzo de’ Medici and a prestigious university position. His areas of expertise included poetry, philosophy, science and linguistics. Yet Poliziano was a teacher as well as a scholar. In a fresco by the artist Domenico Ghirlandaio, he appears at a papal ceremony with three of his students—Lorenzo’s young sons. Knox, displaying this image at his talk, noted that “teaching is, and always has been, an inseparable component of the humanistic enterprise.”
In one further respect, Knox views his Renaissance predecessor as a role model. “The humanism of Poliziano had a public dimension as well,” he said. “The opening of the academic year was signaled by a public lecture, which he delivered to an enthusiastic audience that included not only students, but also people of the city.”
Looking out at his own audience, Knox added, “Since I arrived on campus, I have often been asked about my vision for the Baker-Nord Center. I can put it no more succinctly than that it should reflect the values that informed the aspirations of Poliziano’s generation: the support of humanistic scholarship in service to our students and the community.”