The Center for Humanistic Inquiry has a new two-year theme, Home. It also has a new director, associate professor of music Darryl Harper ’90, whose return to Amherst College in 2017 was a homecoming of sorts. On Oct. 9, Harper will lead a CHI salon, “The Souls of Amherst Folk,” that explores the themes of home, belonging and memory. The evening will feature musical performances in honor of alumni and former faculty members who, like Harper, have helped shape Amherst through music.
From the earliest days of his Philadelphia childhood, music and clarinet study were central to Harper’s identity. So much so that it didn’t occur to him to major in music when he first arrived at Amherst in the 1980s. “I knew that music was going to be part of my life no matter what,” he says. “So, I thought, let me see what else is going on at the College that I might like.” He dabbled in math, anthropology and astronomy until Russ Weigel, then chair of the psychology department, piqued his interest in psychology. The discipline was entirely new to Harper, who recalls thinking, “Let me dig in and see what it’s about.”
That impulse to “dig in” to a topic, and to examine it from all angles, has stayed with Harper to the present day. When he returned to Amherst as a professor, he became a regular at the Wednesday afternoon salons established by the CHI’s founding director, Martha Umphrey, a professor of law, jurisprudence and social thought. Harper immediately liked how the CHI assembles professors from across departments. “You can’t understand a big, complicated question from just one disciplinary perspective,” he says. “The collaboration of disciplines makes a decisive difference in the way that we understand."
At the CHI’s opening gala this September, Harper cited a recent CHI-hosted meeting on migration that had attracted professors from a wide range of disciplines, including political science, philosophy, theater and dance, and American studies. At such meetings, participants bring “their disciplinary expertise forward in a way that other people are able to digest,” he explains. Each scholar takes a turn as leader with the goal of enriching the creativity and output of the entire group. “It’s an amazing thing to witness,” he says, adding, “Musical exchanges work the same way.”
Besides teaching music at Amherst, Harper is a professional jazz clarinetist and composer. His interest in collaborations goes back to his senior year at Amherst when he set out to undertake an interdisciplinary thesis project. This led him to the music department and a performance-based thesis exploring the rules of three musical traditions: South Indian Carnatic music, European classical and American jazz. Harper went on to earn a master’s in jazz studies from Rutgers and a doctorate in jazz studies from the New England Conservatory of Music.
The experience of going to a concert is not unlike the experience of a CHI salon, research seminar or workshop, Harper suggests. “There’s a physiological exchange of sound traveling back and forth,” he notes, but there is also something more: “You know that, when you leave, you’ll be changed.”
Harper kicked off his tenure as CHI director with a “listening tour” to determine how the CHI can meet the needs of its constituents. He is eager to do more with Amherst’s membership in the New England Humanities Consortium, which his predecessor, Umphrey, co-founded. “The NEHC gives Amherst College all these opportunities for collaboration with other member schools,” says Harper, who explains how local and global humanities networks have become a way to establish humanities research as “a public good.”
Umphrey describes the Amherst CHI as “well-planted” after four years’ growth and predicts it will flourish under Harper’s leadership. “Darryl brings a warm and welcoming sensibility to the work,” she says. “He has the brilliance and imaginative reach to tend its many projects well and to point the CHI in new and exciting directions.”
MORE FROM THE INTERVIEW WITH DARRYL HARPER
On returning to Amherst after nearly three decades away
“I was stunned by how the College had changed, particularly in its social justice commitments and its explicit commitments to diversity and inclusion. It was apparent not just in the way the student body looks, but in the kinds of ideas that they are concerned with. I’ve taught jazz history for 20 years or more, and I’m hearing ideas come up in classes that I haven’t heard before. It’s a real pleasure as a teacher to be in that position—where students are providing momentum. I’m very excited to be at the College again at this moment in its history.”
On claims that “the humanities are dying”
“The same thing happened in jazz. There was all this talk about how ‘jazz is dead, jazz is dying.’ I think it’s incumbent upon an institution like Amherst to disrupt that narrative and present a model of how the humanities are functioning well. I want us to show how our humanities work is significant, not only for the scholars who are doing it but for others, too.”
On seeing STEM professors at CHI events
“We’re called the Center for Humanistic Inquiry, not the center for the humanities disciplines. You can have humanistic inquiry in almost any context. That’s always been a very important part of the identity of this center. That is, it’s open and it’s welcoming. And if you have ideas about humanistic inquiry, it doesn't matter if you’re faculty or staff. It doesn't matter if you’re a scientist, a social scientist, an artist—all of those things are included in our vision of what humanistic inquiry can be.”