Interview with Zrinka Stahuljak

In 2019 you began your service as Director of the UCLA Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies (CMRS), one of the most venerable centers of its kind. Now you are overseeing its transformation into the UCLA CMRS Center for Early Global Studies (CMRS-CEGS). What prompted the change? How did you conceive the new identity? What does the new name express that the established one doesn’t?

The UCLA Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies (CMRS) was established in 1963. Its founding director was Lynn White Jr., medieval historian best known for his book-length study on Medieval Technology and Social Change (1962) and his frequently cited article “The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis” (1967). His vision for the Center’s founding was broad, and in many ways CMRS-CEGS’s name change is the accomplishment of the original vision that he put forward in the inaugural proposal written in 1962. White argued for the establishment of CMRS because “during the past two decades medieval and Renaissance studies have both greatly broadened and at times tended to converge. These movements of scholarship have opened up new questions which require a degree of collaboration among experts with very diverse competencies such as could scarcely have been envisaged a generation ago.” He also stated that “the Middle Ages are no longer an intelligible unit if defined simply as the phase of Occidental culture extending from the victory of Christianity to the overseas expansion of western Europe,” a conception that he believed impacted equally the understanding of the Renaissance and of Antiquity in the world: “Functionally the old division between medieval and Renaissance scholarship has lost much of its significance. They are now a unified field of investigation. The new view of the Middle Ages and Renaissance has likewise expanded understanding of the implications of classical studies.”

After the successful establishment of CMRS, for almost 60 years, we hadn’t thought again about how the articulation of disciplinarity and the description of the world were being transformed by ongoing institutional and social changes. New paradigms, new technologies and instruments of research, new collaborative models had completely reshaped the scholarly endeavor in the 21st century and yet we still relied, to name just two of the features, on the old model of large conference gatherings and a definition of “medieval and Renaissance” scholarship that was not as capacious as what Lynn White Jr. originally described. Moreover, we had never previously taken into account the fact that one of the biggest research centers dedicated to almost 1500 years of human past is physically located in California, on the Pacific Rim, at the extreme of the western world that opens onto the Asia-Pacific and is connected to the long history of the indigenous North and South America. That is, when originally founded, CMRS-CEGS’s geographical purview was defined primarily as European in keeping with the traditional understanding of late antique, medieval and Renaissance fields (3rd to mid-17th century CE) and the Center’s name – with its emphasis on medieval and the Renaissance – reflected its Eurocentric definition of about 1500 years of human history.

The reasons for the proposed name change almost 60 years since CMRS’s founding were therefore both local and global: they were institutional, disciplinary, and social justice reasons.

Institutionally, our updated name now reflects and represents UCLA’s diverse faculty across a great variety of disciplines covering the breadth of the globe in the time periods under the purview of CMRS-CEGS. Our mission has changed with the diversification of fields of research that UCLA’s faculty represent, especially as UCLA moved to hire more faculty whose research is in non-European fields of study. There was a strong sense that the Center’s name and mission needed to reflect this development in our faculty, and our graduate and undergraduate programs.

Our social justice goal corresponds to our status as an Organized Research Unit of the University of California, intended to provide research connections across the UCLA campus, between UC campuses, and to build bridges between scholarly and public discourse. We wanted to align with UCLA’s Rising to the Challenge initiative, its commitment to become a Hispanic-Serving Institution by 2025, and to acknowledge our presence on the traditional, ancestral and unceded territory of the Gabrielino/Tongva peoples. As a land grant institution, we pay our respects to the Honuukvetam (Ancestors), ‘Ahiihirom (Elders) and ‘Eyoohiinkem (our relatives/relations) past, present and emerging. Moving away from traditionally European-identified fields of late antique, medieval and Renaissance toward the coverage of the globe in a manner that is inclusive and methodologically sound is in line with overall UCLA’s goals of social justice.

In choosing our name through a broad consultative model, horizontal and vertical, we kept the old acronym of “CMRS” in honor of the Center’s 58-year long history of medieval and Renaissance studies. In order to counteract the varying periodizations across the globe which do not fit neatly along the European lines of division of ancient and medieval and where parts of the world outside of Europe often do not know a Renaissance, “early” is the best term that accommodates the periods under the Center’s current temporal purview, from the 3rd through the 17th century CE. The term “early” also circumvents the problem of always centering the earlier time periods in relation to “modernity” (as in the term “premodern”) and thus avoids the pitfalls of teleology, of working on the presumption of progress from the past to the present. In order to recognize the plurality and diversity of regional world systems and the comparative study that underlies the research agenda of the Center, we chose the term “global studies.” It is important to note that the striking formula of “early global studies” points to the study of unconnected and weakly or lightly connected (regional) worlds before the modern global era and globalization. In that sense, CMRS-CEGS – by its size, by the excellence of its faculty and their research – champions a new understanding of “global studies,” that is, it promotes the “studies” of the “early global.”

Legacy centers like CMRS-CEGS—in the U.S., sometimes more than fifty years old, and of course overseas often older—entail challenges in our current landscape. In your view, what are the conditions that permit such an institution to remain successful in the 21st century? If you were to share your experience with similar centers elsewhere, what would you tell them? How might they assess themselves?

We all face at the very least two challenges when it comes to the institutional organization of knowledge-creation and learning: temporal and spatial challenges. On the one hand, area studies still organize our disciplines and fields, partly because total globality risks undercutting the foundations of disciplinarity and of situated knowledge-production. On the other hand, in our highly connected contemporary world, acute crises focus our attention on the present that, driven by the necessity of problem-solving often embodied in the form of deliverables and outputs, renders less imperative the study of the “root causes” (to borrow Lynn White Jr.’s phrase) or of the conceptual frameworks and epistemic patterns on the long duration. Additionally, increasing financial pressures – diminishing state funds for the public university and, at UCLA, diversion of funds generated by the Humanities departments away from humanities to professional schools – continue to raise the question of relevance of the global past to the present and, above all, to the global future. Disinterest in and disinvestment from the humanities mission drive the need for fundraising and the quest for currency on issues of relevance. But just like it has become increasingly hard to fund the study of the Renaissance, under a simple banner of “a great civilizational achievement” or “symbol of human progress,” it is equally as hard to raise money for global, wide-ranging, temporally and geographically open-ended research centers that pursue conceptual and epistemic inquiry, versus a more focused model of research in area studies (UCLA is a remarkable example with its International Institute that houses over 30 area studies centers).

I do not believe that “going global” for the early worlds is inaccurate of the time periods under our purview just because the worlds we study were not connected or, more accurately, were only regionally connected. If the objective of a research unit is to reflect the past world as it was, our old formula of “medieval and Renaissance” did not reflect this past any more accurately. But studying the “early global” does help us connect the contemporary reality with the past, it makes the past intelligible in a way that is no longer exclusive of others and no longer peripheral, limited to one area of the globe such as Europe or the Mediterranean. It also allows us to work in the most profoundly humanistic way, based on a model of relationality, rather than isolationism and silos.

The first step toward a new “center for early global studies” was the creation of an epistemologically and methodologically motivated research platform: we implemented a global 5-year research plan that created methodological frameworks for the study of the early worlds. Five research axes structure the multi-faceted inquiry of the Center’s diverse faculty: Sustainability-Repurposing; Fluidity-Permanence; Bodies-Performance; Conversion-Mobility; Communication-Archive. The research axes organize every aspect of human interaction, production, and social organization into shared global categories of research and exchange. With a broad faculty advisory committee, representative of all the disciplines and geographic areas, we came up with a model that works for scholars studying different areas of the globe. This research platform also allows us to work simultaneously on different parts of the world, as discreet units (within our disciplinarity) and this creates the potential for exchange (as transdisciplinarity).

Whether it is medieval digital humanities or more traditional programs in medieval studies or other smaller medieval and Renaissance-type centers, CMRS-CEGS is a model, not only because it relies on the unparalleled strengths of its faculty, essentially covering all the areas of the globe and represented in most disciplines at UCLA, but because it provides a platform that allows faculty to come together. This platform is not one of shared temporality or geography, not of connectivity through continuity or contiguity, but of shared conceptual thinking, which exceeds Euro-centered categories (for example, literary ones, e.g. the famous debate in world literature between novel (romance) vs. epic as the dominant genre). I can say that this conceptual approach has energized many faculty to become engaged in the work of the Center and has inspired yet others to join officially the CMRS-CEGS faculty for the first time. We have likewise made a sustained effort to support and motivate the graduate student organization, Medieval and Early Modern Studies Association (MEMSA). This year, MEMSA led a race-reading group, mixing students and faculty, and is preparing its second graduate conference (here).

The decision to free ourselves from the requirement of connectivity, whether spatial or temporal, while maintaining our commitment to disciplinarity enables comparison of deep structures and, in other cases, a simple but stimulating exchange of insights and methodologies (see here for an example of both). There is pleasure in a joint endeavor without high stakes that can produce surprises.

And if connectivity of the world need not be the premise of our research, it is also not the premise of our programming (see here and here).

One of my main goals has been to create better conditions for integration of teaching and research. We have developed a new graduate certificate in Global Medieval Studies. For nine years, faculty have provided a core methodology seminar for incoming graduate students in our fields, but we also now provide financial support for CMRS-CEGS research seminars. Moreover, CMRS-CEGS actively supports and mentors junior faculty and is preparing to provide support for mid-career faculty.

How much is the new identity intended to cultivate a broader public profile? How does a center such as Early Global Studies develop a public reach?

Thanks to my leadership in the Humanities Division, all our events in our stately Royce Hall now have the capacity to be hybrid, simultaneously presented both on campus in person and remotely, and fully interactive with the remote audience. We were able to install a mobile technology that did not require a major investment and so live-stream, even without full interactivity, enables our broad outreach. In Los Angeles, where traffic is a major deterrent to attend even local events, this is salvatory. I created a podcast series and we release podcasts of our events regularly on our YouTube channel. As a legacy Center, we already have a heritage that we now proactively cultivate: the renowned journal Viator, a book series Cursor Mundi, an early-career researcher journal Comitatus, and now a translation series (print-on-demand), CMRS-CEGS Texts in Translation. We are fortunate to have a long-standing partnership with the J. Paul Getty Museum and the Huntington Library (California Medieval History Seminar).

But above all, we have mobilized our internal strengths, connecting our faculty and graduate students through the axis-based research platform. The synergy of many faculty who are networked into their communities and who do wide-ranging events that reach the suburbs of LA as much as the most distant parts of the globe is what makes CMRS-CEGS’s reach truly global. And none of this would be possible without CMRS-CEGS’s incredible, die-hard staff.

How do you define the public humanities?

For me, humanities are public by definition. Humanities enable broad conceptual thought and frameworks and, in their capacity for empathy and self-reflection, motivate pathways of knowledge-production (how do different narratives enable different histories?) and enable integrative learning. They also entertain and give pleasure – we should not forget that learning happens because one takes pleasure, just like imagination and speculation were modes of cognition in the medieval period. Humanities provide cognitive, epistemic, ethical, and aesthetical infrastructures that they “outsource” to other fields and disciplines. In short, they are both the core cognitive and the institutional infrastructure, the roads on which everyone walks and drives but no one seems to notice they are carved out and paved by Humanities scholarship.

The problem for a Center like CMRS-CEGS is an old one: how to make the past relevant? At the last meeting of the Medieval Academy of America (MAA) in March 2022, in Charlottesville at the University of Virginia, there was a palpable need to assert the relevance of medieval studies and our commitment to racial and social justice and change. By the very fact of transformation of medieval studies, we will be changing the world. But public humanities, as colleagues observed publicly, are not equivalent to predicting and chasing the headlines of the future. In fact, in my experience, humanities are at least one academic generation ahead of events. Humanities are “inactual” – not in sync with their time – not because, in the case of our early fields, they talk about inactual, irrelevant things, but because the work actually precedes its own actuality, it is ahead of events. We simply do not know where the next flashpoint will be that will bring attention to our work. Sara Lipton said poignantly at the MAA that she did not know that her work on anti-Jewish polemic was going to go to the heart of current events and she certainly did not choose to work on that topic to see the long history of anti-Semitism in the headlines. The same can be said of the work of Monica H. Green, just honored at the MAA, who spent most of her scholarly life working on medieval medicine, but her work on the Great Plague of the 14th century is only now of utmost – global - currency. I couldn’t have planned for all the media interest that my book on medieval and Afghan fixers was going to generate when published in early September 2021 because of the catastrophic US and NATO withdrawal from Aghanistan and all those who helped the westerners but were left behind. I think we should keep an archive of every instance in which the scholarly work preceded its own actuality and bring it as proof to any administrator who is asking for deliverables and outputs. Speculative futures are the domain of the Humanities even if we study them as a past. Perhaps one of our main contributions can be to deepen this understanding of the relationship between the past and the future.

So rather than chase the headlines, at CMRS-CEGS, we have decided to be nimble, through our platform of five research axes. As a scholar, I also have a commitment to interrelating the past and the contemporary, not because the past will teach the present a lesson, or because the present repeats the past, but because in their comparison and confrontation, we get to ask of each questions that we could not have thought of before.

In your view, what are the challenges for the public humanities in the near future? What are the opportunities?

Understanding that I speak from and am mostly informed by my local UCLA ecology, I find that the most difficult challenge for the humanities is not to abandon its commitment to its own collective endeavor and to devolve to a singularly synchronic cultural studies model of humanities or problem-solving, use-oriented educational economy, where humanities are exclusively a handmaiden to sciences (data, medicine, engineering, etc), rather than thinkers of the world and makers of the future. Those are the threats to the humanities via public humanities, if public humanities are measured only by relevance. But public humanities can also revive what is the most essential in our profession: literature and discourse. It is striking to me that discussions about the future of humanities at UCLA often focus on the future of languages taught, and speak of shielding the lesser-taught languages, but no one mentions literature. To reduce language to a skill and a tool, to speak about languages and language-learning, but to never talk about language and signs, as if the linguistic turn had made language transparent, been there, done that, is not to see that literature holds the speculative future (and past) of the planet, as I explained above. This seems like a missed opportunity. Humanities are the future anterior of the university and we shouldn’t be afraid to promote ourselves as disciplines that have successfully predicted and enacted the future over and over again...

The second threat, not usually remarked upon, is that taking the staff away from Humanities faculty, who are already the most understaffed at most institutions, is the best administrative way to turn public humanities into the equivalent of general education, and to define its public-facing role as a service, gen-ed, division.

How will you measure success in the reinvention of the Center for Early Global Studies? What should we expect over the next several years?

One of the best measures will be the reception of the Center as a model and the future of early global studies generally. There has been much positive feedback that I have been receiving both at UCLA, where the study of the ancient worlds may take up a similar model in “global antiquity,” but also from colleagues with whom I’ve just been interacting at the Medieval Academy of America. Without forgetting your interest at Stanford University for this interview! If I am to judge from the recent conversations held, the model is of interest to many colleagues. And its implementation, with adaptation to and accommodation for local ecologies, will be for me the biggest measure of our breakthrough role and success at innovation. In CMRS-CEGS’s definition of connected methodologies and epistemologies, “early global” is a paradigm and a method of research deployed in order to gain the experience of the time periods under our purview as total social phenomena but also providing scholarly disciplines with an inclusive model. We see the potential of “early global” becoming a new research paradigm and pioneering a novel institutional model.

There is much to look forward to. First we will pursue exciting and original programming, that we will continue to bring across time zones and geographies, as we continue to use our interactive technology, with the aim to implant firmly the model of the “early global studies” as a viable model of humanities research. We are also planning to expand our internal partnerships with other UCLA area and ethnic studies centers. We are currently discussing the viability of launching longer-term research groups and raising funds for a graduate and post-doctoral fellowship dedicated to an underserved and/or underrepresented area of study. We also wish to raise funds for the preservation and cataloguing of our precious collections held at the Special Collections, Ethiopic, Armenian, Islamic manuscripts, but also early printed humanist books. This is an opportunity for me to extend the invitation to all scholars, especially if they are based in California and on the West Coast (but not exclusively!), and who are looking for a home for their project, to contact me with their ideas.

But alongside serious scholarship, we also want to bring to the world light-hearted fun and playfulness of the past. It is for this reason that one of the two mottos that the Center has adopted is “Better early than late!”.

Join the colloquy

The Future of the Public Humanities

Is the future of the humanities a public one? In an era of challenges to history, philosophy, literature, and the other humanistic disciplines, utopian thinking about new outlets and broad audiences has become commonplace. Institutions of all sorts promote projects in the public humanities as an unequivocal gain for all, while reflection on the compromises of such projects—not to mention their hazards and omissions—is rarer, and sometimes difficult or unwelcome.


This Colloquy is conceived to demonstrate that a truly public humanities will encourage critical attention to its own premises. The arguments and questionings gathered here generally proceed from an awareness of the long history of intellectual work addressed to the public. They tend to recognize both that now scholarship may go public in more channels than ever—from publication to video to new media—and that, for good reasons, some of the most important work of our time will never find a wide audience. In light of these realities, one might begin by inquiring how the two terms, public and humanities, change as they come into contact, and how what they mean together might be different from what they mean apart. 

Judith Butler's essay, which appeared in a number of the journal Daedalus dedicated to "The Humanities in American Life" in 2022, sets a frame around the Colloquy by insisting that the public humanities must exist not to promote the relevant fields of study for instrumental or market-driven purposes, nor to serve or advertise, but to bring a truly public dimension to the work humanists do. Butler envisions that public dimension as introducing topics of the broadest concern into the work of the humanities, at best reorienting both "the mission of the university" and "the relation between universities and the public." She concludes with a call for a public humanities that issues "a life call, to foster a critical imagination that helps us rethink the settled version of reality." 

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, represented here by an informal reflection that appeared in Arcade's journal Occasion about ten years ago, complements Butler's argument by challenging one form of instrumental thinking about the humanities, namely rational choice, and countering that with a robust defense of the literary imagination. Spivak's argument was developed in her book An Aesthetic Education in the Age of Globalization (2013), which was in press at the time of the essay for Occasion. As Spivak's essay shows, comment on the humanities in the public world has appeared in Arcade for many years now.

Several other recent items propose their own interpretations of a public humanities. Doris Sommer narrates three engrossing examples of how the provocations of public art (especially conceptual, avant-garde, or marginal) can prompt social change. Natalie Loveless describes "research-creation" as a practice of art informed by scholarly work (say, in history or cultural theory) that forces a reconsideration of the boundaries between not only disciplines but intellectual media and of the "rendering public (publishing) of research within a university context." Hannah Kim discusses the potential as well as the costs of applying virtual reality to the public representation of history. In a searching interview on the evolving idea of liberty, Quentin Skinner reflects on how his view of the relation of the applicability of the past to the present has changed and why he accepts the role of a public intellectual today.

In a talk for the Stanford Humanities Center in 2022, Kyla Schuller responded to my first question—about how her public-oriented book The Trouble with White Women (2021) evolved from a more conventionally academic project—by noting the diversity and sophistication of public readerships. "People are hungry for what scholarship can teach us," Schuller said, as she observed that audiences for books like hers do not exist in waiting but are convened by work that dares to educate and confront them. In an interview, Rey Chow expands on her book A Face Drawn in Sand: Humanistic Inquiry and Foucault in the Present (2021), in part a critique of recent adaptations (not only public-oriented but environmental, digital, and computational scholarship) as more or less at odds with a non-utilitarian kind of humanities. Two influential figures who are active in institutions, Susan Smulyan and Zrinka Stahuljak, describe how their centers at Brown and UCLA are adapting to the needs of public scholarship today. 

As in all Colloquies, especially on topics as open as this one, the work continues. We encourage contributions about the responsibilities of public-oriented writing in a post-factual society; the challenges of accommodating multilingual, recondite, or profoundly historical scholarship into the public humanities; and the nature and value of research that will never go public. We would be glad to receive first-person accounts of careers and projects in terms of the public humanities. Comments, suggestions, and submissions are welcome.

Join the Colloquy

My Colloquies are shareables: Curate personal collections of blog posts, book chapters, videos, and journal articles and share them with colleagues, students, and friends.

My Colloquies are open-ended: Develop a Colloquy into a course reader, use a Colloquy as a research guide, or invite participants to join you in a conversation around a Colloquy topic.

My Colloquies are evolving: Once you have created a Colloquy, you can continue adding to it as you browse Arcade.