The New Humanist

A Profile of Gary Tomlinson
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Photo by Natalie Wolff.

On a sunny weekday afternoon last October, Gary Tomlinson, the new director of Yale’s Whitney Humanities Center, was singing Verdi in Stoeckel Hall. This was not a performance, exactly; Tomlinson is an opera expert, not an opera singer, and he was sitting at an upright piano in a second-story classroom, squinting at sheet music over his glasses. The students in his “Opera” seminar took notes, and a young Violetta quavered, paused, on the projector screen.

As Tomlinson played and sang, in a capable tenor that occasionally flipped upward into a surprisingly strong falsetto, he paused every few moments to translate La Traviata’s Italian or to ask Socratic questions: “Anyone remember when, precisely, we hear that melody again? And why does it come back?” A student answered the first question, but not the second. “It comes back” — Tomlinson jumped up from the piano — “to motivate the repetition of the cabaletta, remember that?” He crossed the room to stand right in front of the students, moving his tall, wiry frame with the spry energy of an Irish jigger, or a Monty Python-era John Cleese. “Its repetition is motivated by the hearing of Alfredo! He interjects right in the middle of her double aria! Whether it’s heard in her imagination or otherwise. But it also comes back…” Smiling and gesticulating forcefully, he pressed on. The students’ pens flew across their notebooks, hurrying to catch up.

There were only five pens, though, and apart from me, only five students in the room that afternoon to witness Tomlinson’s pedagogical show. The enrollment number for “The History of Opera” was well below expectations, as many such numbers have been for traditional humanities courses, at Yale and elsewhere, over the past decade. Tomlinson knows this, but he is not in the least a traditional humanist, and as he steps into his new role at the Whitney, he is working to demonstrate that the humanities are not only more vital than ever — they are growing.

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Tomlinson’s ideas about the humanities have emerged over the course of an unusually varied academic career. Nominally, he’s a musicologist — “unimpeachable,” in the words of Dudley Andrew, chair of Yale’s Department of Comparative Literature, “in Renaissance, and post-Renaissance, music.” But in practice, he has become much more than a scholar of the Western musical canon.

As his career has progressed, Tomlinson’s home turf has sprawled ever outward: his research, exploring topics such as Renaissance ideas on music and magic and the role of music in encounters between European and indigenous American civilizations, has taken him well beyond the customary preoccupations and methods of musicology. This year, with his assumption of the directorship of the Whitney, he finds himself presiding over an institution whose mandate — facilitating interdisciplinary conversations and collaborations, and championing humanistic scholarship — corresponds closely to his penchant for broad intellectual investigation.

I first met Tomlinson as a student in the class he taught last spring — a class very different from the one I visited in October. Called “Music and Human Evolution,” it was last year’s iteration of the Whitney’s Shulman Seminar in Science and the Humanities, and it asked a seemingly basic question: Why and how have human beings developed the capacity to make music?

The simplest questions, of course, are often the most complicated, and the hardest to resolve. Whereas “Opera” covered about 500 years, “Music and Human Evolution” covered about 500,000. And though Tomlinson knows the answers to countless little questions about the history of opera, he didn’t have an answer to the one big one about the evolution of music. Instead, he had a radical way of thinking about it: a tour across disciplines from archaeology to cognitive science, with only occasional reference to harmonic music theory or standard accounts of music history.

In the online student evaluations of the class, “fascinating” appears several times, but so does “frustrating,” not to mention “speculative” and “(too) interdisciplinary.” Tomlinson himself, however, views the seminar’s trajectory as one of real achievement; for him, it was “tremendously fertile and exciting,” precisely the kind of compendious intellectual journey that humanities scholars can take when they put their notions of disciplinary boundaries — and their notions of what “interdisciplinary” even means — aside.

“We’re in a period when whole new disciplines — whole new ways of thinking about whole ranges of knowledge — are emerging,” he told me. “What would it be like if Yale University had a ‘Department of Emergence Studies’? This would cut across so many areas, right? What would it be like for there to be a ‘Department of Scalar Studies’? These would be neodisciplines rather than just interdisciplines.” He stopped himself, and expressed his doubts about neodisciplines being embraced at Yale, especially within humanities departments. But then again, he said, “the Whitney Humanities Center might be the sort of place that can help.”

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As an undergraduate in the early 1970s at Dartmouth College, Tomlinson was a biochemistry major. It was only in his third year, after finding himself “riveted” by a music history class, that he switched over to music. (Unsurprisingly, he first tried to double-major.) From Dartmouth he went on to a doctoral program in music history at the University of California, Berkeley, where he worked just as closely with William Bouwsma, a historian, and Louise Clubb, a scholar of comparative literature, as he did with anyone you could call a musicologist.

Over his many years at the University of Pennsylvania, where he was hired straight out of Berkeley and where he was eventually appointed Annenberg Professor in the Humanities and chair of the Department of Music, he continued to push back against the narrow traditionalism of what he calls “internalist chronology” — “this composer did this, and this composer was influenced by the first one” — and against what he refers to as “the silo mentality” of academic departments: high walls hiding “hermetically sealed mysteries that you have to be initiates in order to understand.” His work led to a 1988 MacArthur Fellowship, three more books, and a prominent role in the planning of the interdisciplinary Penn Humanities Forum in the late 1990s.

In early 2010 — just as he was about to assume the directorship of the Penn Forum, in fact — Yale’s Humanities Program came calling. His credentials in musicology were plenty strong, but the fact that “he asks some of the biggest questions,” as Andrew, the Comparative Literature chair, put it, is what attracted Yale’s attention. He, in turn, was attracted to Yale by the Whitney: a big tent for silo-haters and an older, more established cousin to the Penn Forum. And at Penn, by 2010, he had reached a point where his professional life, as he put it, “needed a new cast of characters.”

That fall, he arrived at Yale as a visiting professor. Before his first year was up, he was granted tenure, and one afternoon last spring, late in his second year, he found himself face to face with Richard Levin.

“Rick saw me at a lecture and said, ‘Can I meet with you sometime soon?’ And I said, ‘Sure, I’d love to meet with you.’ And I went in curious as to what this is about, and he said, ‘Would you like to run the Whitney Humanities Center?’”

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The Whitney Humanities Center was founded in February 1981, after the reallocation of a donation from John Hay Whitney ’26 that was originally intended for two new residential colleges; the money was used in part to finance Yale’s acquisition of the Trinity Parish Church House on Wall Street, which has remained the Whitney’s home to this day. Peter Brooks, the Whitney’s founding director and now a Sterling Professor Emeritus of comparative literature, said at a Whitney event last year that A. Bartlett Giamatti, University president from 1978 to 1986, felt a humanities center would address “concerns like departmentalization, the lack of an intellectual community and the University becoming increasingly atomized and privatized.” “My own thinking,” Brooks added, “was most influenced by a remark that Yale was an exceptional place for students, but did little for faculty.”

Brooks served as director from 1981 to 1991, and again from 1996 to 2001, and under his leadership, the Whitney became a hub of interdepartmental interactions among the faculty members appointed to its two-year fellowships. Very few Whitney programs, however, made any attempt to engage undergraduates. It was only with the arrival in 2001 of María Rosa Menocal, a scholar of medieval literature and culture, that the Whitney committed to a true expansion of its offerings, targeting students as well as a much wider range of faculty members.

Menocal transformed the Whitney. She turned the fellows lounge into an art gallery, outfitted the auditorium for state-of-the-art 35-mm film projection, and, perhaps most importantly, made the Whitney the new home of Directed Studies and the Humanities major.

Over the later years of her tenure, Menocal also oversaw the creation of what has become the Franke Program in Science and the Humanities. The annual Shulman Seminar, which features an associated series of public guest lectures, was established first, in 2007. The new Franke Program, directed by biology and ornithology professor Richard Prum, has taken in the Shulman Seminar, and added “University Seminars” for the faculty and events for the public, such as a lecture last November by Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker.

After Menocal, early last year, told the University administration that she would be stepping down, the powers that be made a rare decision to give an important administrative position to a newcomer to Yale. Tomlinson is still, as he put it to me, “in the midst of a steep learning curve.” Given his relatively limited knowledge of Yale’s academic and social culture at the faculty and the student level, and given all of Menocal’s radical expansions, his contribution as director will likely have less to do with attracting whole new populations to the Whitney, and more to do with changing the nature of the conversations the Whitney allows and encourages people at Yale to have. Prum praised Tomlinson’s ability to make his colleagues consider “the philosophy and the history and the nature” of their disciplines, and Andrew said he thinks Tomlinson, as the Whitney’s director, “will bring in deeper debates about what the humanities are.”

“What I see as my role,” Tomlinson told me, “is to marshal conversations that can begin to uncover some of the unspoken premises about the humanities: the ways in which they’re wrong, the ways in which they’re shallow, and the truths that they bring to the table, too. We need to get down to those foundations, and we need to think about them — hard.”

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It will be a challenge for Tomlinson, in his new role, to engage as much of the Yale community as possible in the kinds of reflective conversations that he finds so important, but it will be even harder to share and spread his own intellectual values and beliefs. He has risen to a position more influential than any he has previously held, but if he wants to “marshal” open dialogue, he will have to take care not to dominate every conversation.

Tomlinson’s interviews with me gave him a rare chance to wax philosophical, and he spent a great deal of time explaining the “set of methods and experiences and approaches that are,” he believes, “distinctive of the humanities.” Among other ideas, he described “Verstehen,” or “understanding,” a concept associated with the German sociologist Max Weber: “a broad and deep and fuzzy kind of knowledge opposed to some more empirical kind.” Ideas like Verstehen tend to get Tomlinson excited, and when he got to “fuzzy knowledge,” his mouth seemed barely able to keep up with the rapid machinations of his mind.

“Now there are many people who see the fuzziness as, of course, the disaster of the humanities. Humanists don’t see it as a disaster; they see it as an opportunity, an opportunity to dig more deeply into interpretive understanding. … An interpretive, uh uh, fuzzy, um, uh … ‘thick descriptive’ approach to interpreting the past is something different than most social sciences approaches would be. ‘Thick description’ is a famous, a famous phrase…”

And on he went. In the same conversation, though, he recognized that waxing philosophical isn’t in the Whitney director’s job description. “It’s not my role to talk and talk,” he said. “It’s my role to bring people together to talk in productive ways.”

With the Whitney fellows, this is hardly a challenge; the main difficulty he faces at their meetings is treading an acceptable line between passive facilitator and active participant. At a lunch I attended, scholars as diverse as Tamar Gendler, chair of the Department of Philosophy; Fred Strebeigh, a senior lecturer in the Department of English; and Claudine Ang, an assistant professor in humanities at Yale-NUS College, listened to Joel Baden, assistant professor of Old Testament Studies at the Divinity School, give a talk on the representation of human disability in the Bible. When Baden finished, they peppered him with questions: Gendler asked about infant mortality rates in the era of the Bible’s composition; Strebeigh asked about the utility of literary-critical techniques in biblical study. Tomlinson sat to one side; he looked pleased, but also a bit reticent. He looked, in short, like a newly promoted boss, content but unsure how to act around his former peers.

In time, that dilemma will likely fade. The larger problem Tomlinson faces is the matter of getting students, especially undergraduates, to consider the kinds of questions the fellows discuss every week, and the even larger problem is the matter of getting students to show up at the Whitney in the first place. Somewhat distressingly for him, it is not a matter of programming so much as one of simple geography: many undergraduates don’t care to make the walk to 53 Wall St., and many more don’t even know where the Whitney is. Menocal brought in Directed Studies, art exhibits, events with big-name guests, and movies on celluloid most nights of the week. She built it; it’s now up to Tomlinson to get students to come.

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This semester is one of great opportunity and great uncertainty for Tomlinson, coming as it does on the heels of great upheaval. In mid-October, soon after the commencement of his directorial duties and soon before the announcement that Peter Salovey would be the next University President, María Rosa Menocal died of melanoma at the age of 59. Menocal had directed the Whitney for over a decade and taught at Yale for 16 years, and her passing, as Tomlinson put it, “cast a pall” over the Whitney staff and fellows; it leaves him without a valued colleague and adviser, and it leaves the Yale humanities community at large without one of its most experienced and engaged leaders.

Tomlinson is teaching another seminar this semester. He is calling it “Science and Human Sciences”; if it seems like he is deliberately avoiding a title like “Science and Humanities,” or, alternatively, “Everything,” he can be forgiven — he wants very badly to attract a substantial and talented crop of students. “Music and Human Evolution” had an enrollment of only 11, and this course won’t have the benefit of the Shulman bells and whistles. It will be a test of sorts as to whether Tomlinson’s new, broad, science-friendly brand of humanities class — humanistic in approach more strictly than in subject — raises more excitement in the consciousness of our pragmatic generation than did the oldfangled likes of “Opera.”

“The humanities,” he said to me, “can be reduced to, oh, ‘understanding what it means to be human.’ But one has to remember that that is a grossly reductive statement about what the humanities are up to, and one also has to remember that if one takes seriously what it is to be human, it’s a lifelong project.” A humanities education, he believes, prepares students not only to be scholars, but to be “citizens in the world, who gauge the differences that they come up against in subtle and nuanced ways [and] act morally in the midst of the choices that they make.”

He paused after saying this, and looked up. “What could be more important, finally?” he said. “What could be more pragmatic?”

Putting your humanities center in the middle of your university’s campus might be more pragmatic, but, after all, though Tomlinson has moved many people with his mind and his tongue, he isn’t capable of moving buildings (or silos, for that matter). His secular church is where it is, and he’s there to stay, waiting for a congregation that’s not afraid to get fuzzy.

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