Law students and humanities scholars may not usually have much in common when it comes to the classroom, but one Yale professor, now with $1.5 million backing, is trying to change that.
Sterling Professor of Comparative Literature Peter Brooks is the third Yale professor in three years to be awarded grant money as part of the Distinguished Achievement Award, given annually to several humanities scholars by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. The professor and founding director of the Whitney Humanities Center said he will use the grant money to explore the role of the humanities in professional-school settings such as law and medicine.
Brooks, who is also an adjunct professor in the Yale Law School, said he was drawn to the idea of applying humanities methods of reading and interpretation to professional scholarship after the 2004 release of Justice Department memorandums approving the use of torture.
“I was just appalled because they seemed to be unscrupulous and unethical,” Brooks said. “Can we make the claim that we understand the ethics of interpretation better in the humanities? I’m not sure that we can, but that’s something we’ll explore.”
Brooks said he first plans to direct his attention to the relationship between the law and the humanities through a student-faculty seminar or workshop. The money, he said, will help to fund visiting scholars, research assistants and a paid semester of leave for himself. The grant will also be used to subsidize part of Brooks’ salary.
Brooks said he then plans to explore similar applications of the humanities in medicine.
Brooks’ win establishes a clear trend for the award, which in each of the last three years has included one Yale professor among its recipients. Music professor Ellen Rosand won the award in 2006, and English professor Joseph Roach was awarded the prize in 2005.
Brooks’ colleagues said his leadership in literary criticism — specifically in the study of narrative and melodrama — makes him a particularly qualified candidate.
Fellow comparative literature professor Pericles Lewis praised the quality of Brooks’ scholarship and his generosity to junior faculty.
“It’s kind of like a Nobel prize in literary criticism,” Lewis said. “They’ve certainly chosen well.”
Rosand used her Mellon funds to start an undergraduate Baroque opera group and hold a series of lectures in the Whitney Humanities Center. Roach, who has used his grant money over the last two years to establish the World Performance Project, noted that the prize differs from most grants awarded to humanities scholars.
“It puts a very large sum in the hands of one person,” Roach explained. “It’s on the scale of an award that one would expect to see in the sciences.”
In the last two years, the Project’s programs have included a lecture series, dance performances, a play run and collaborations with the Divinity School and the Yale Center for British Art. But Roach said the huge grant amount and its quick expiration date — recipients have a total of three years to spend the money — lead to some difficulties.
“I would say it’s hard to spend this much money, this fast, judiciously,” Roach said.
But Brooks is not concerned.
“I’m sure there’ll be no problem spending the money,” he said.
The award, given annually, was established in 2001. Recipients do not apply for the prize, but are nominated and selected by a committee consisting of humanities scholars.