New VCU humanities research center seeks to encourage cross-disciplinary study

Chris Suarez
Staff Writer

History professor Gregory Smithers presented about his book “Slave Breeding: Sex, Violence and Memory In African American History” at the humanities research center last Wednesday. Photo by Audry Dubon

The new Humanities Research Center is poised to become a defining achievement for the School of Humanities and Sciences.

Richard Godbeer was named director of the new Humanities Research Center earlier this summer after helping expand Miami University’s role in researching humanities topics such as gender and sexuality studies.

He said his three goals for the new research center are to raise awareness of the humanities, support faculty research and elevate the importance and reputation of humanities researchers at VCU and in academia by crossing disciplinary boundaries in research.

“When I had the opportunity to come here and build a center from scratch, at a time when VCU is becoming more and more visible on the national and international level, and going through an exciting period of transition and transformation, it seemed like an opportunity to make a difference,” Godbeer said.

Since the announcement of the Humanities Research Center, 10 different research grants have been awarded through the center for VCU faculty studying and working on new and on-going projects.

Current projects which will receive funding through the grants include a biography of Oscar Wilde by English professor Nicholas Frankel, a digital critical edition of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” by English professor Les Harrison and an exploration of the work of French filmmaker René Vautiern by School of World Studies professor Peter Kirkpatrick.

In an attempt to bridge the gap between disciplines, Godbeer hopes that adding interdisciplinary fields of study will improve the education and research opportunities for students studying the humanities.

Among those chosen for the fellowship is Sachi Shimomura, an assistant professor of English. With expertise in medieval literature, Shimomura’s previous studies of gender and body image in medieval time periods lend themselves to the first year’s topic, adding a unique sociohistoric and even medical perspective.

“Different cultures across the globe, at any time period, examine health issues and gender issues often times together,” Shimomura said. “(Cultures) try to regulate those issues together, it’s still relevant to many, maybe all societies today.”

Godbeer, who is originally from England, said the opportunity to reside in Virginia, “The First British Colony,” and partake in VCU’s community excited him because of his experience as a longtime colonial America history professor.

Godbeer attended Oxford University then crossed the Atlantic to earn his doctorate at Brandeis University in Massachusetts. After earning his degree, Godbeer spent 15 years teaching history at University of California, Riverside.

From 2004 to 2014, Godbeer taught and became a humanities research center director at Miami University and helped establish the first Women’s and Genders’ Studies program, the distinction of which he said was “enormously fulfilling,” and “the highlight of his career.”

Hoping to facilitate that shared growth, Godbeer said he plans to have current professors and visiting academics speak about research being published and celebrated in the academic world.

On Wednesday last week, the second presentation of this semester’s “Meet VCU’s Authors” series was held at The Humanities Research Center in the Valentine Building at 920 W. Franklin St.

The evening’s subject, slavery in 18th and 19th century colonial America and in the Caribbean, was discussed among faculty and students in attendance. Facilitating the conversation, VCU history professor Gregory Smithers shared research he conducted while authoring his book published in 2012, “Slave Breeding: Sex, Violence and Memory In African American History.”

Smithers said he was familiar with the work of Godbeer prior to his arrival at VCU and said he believes Godbeer has a vision shared and embraced by other faculty members.

“What we’re starting to see is a sense of community among humanities scholars and students,” Smithers said. “It seemed we had been lacking at VCU. This is an initiative that’s providing a sense of community and collaboration. So far, the signs have been extraordinarily positive and will be a boon for the university.”

Some humanities professors think there is opportunity to cultivate interest in the field by highlighting the humanistic nature that’s intrinsic to art and literature.

At Wednesday’s event, the intersectionality of the conversation’s topic — violent racial and gender oppression — attracted a number of students interested in those social topics. During his presentation, Smithers described the backlash and controversy he has exposed himself to while researching racialized, gendered and socially complex topics historians have traditionally been reluctant to acknowledge as legitimate.

African-American studies major John Blake attended the event after the speaker’s topic sparked his interest in attending. New to the university, Blake said he learned about the Humanities Research Center after attending the first speaker event held this semester with history professor Ryan K. Smith and has since become interested in the center’s objectives.

“I’m proud of VCU, it’s a courageous thing to do in a state like Virginia where we need so much more progression,” Blake said. “I feel like the humanities department, especially with technology growing so much, we’re building our muscles and our heart is dying. We’re getting so much bigger and moving so much faster, but our humanity suffers.”

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