|Heather Merrill anticipates bringing in speakers next year on gender-related issues.
On July 1, Heather Merrill, associate professor of anthropology and geography, began a three-year term as executive director of The Clarke Center, succeeding David Commins, professor of history. In August Merrill talked with Sherri Kimmel, senior editor, about her plans.
You’re the fifth executive director in the 12 years that The Clarke Center has been around. Previously we had two political scientists and two historians. Can you talk a little bit about your academic field and how your interests will affect the direction of the center?
I’m a cultural anthropologist and also a human geographer. Anthropologists are highly attuned to cultural differences, while geographers are deeply aware of the spatial structures and historical contexts through which such cultural differences are shaped. I plan to bring my scholarly training to my leadership at The Clarke Center and to promote Dickinson’s role as a top-tier liberal-arts college where one is unafraid to question and to change. The Clarke Center represents the best of what liberal-arts colleges have to offer—critical questioning, open investigation and exploration of society’s problems from the broadest possible variety of perspectives. It is my goal to promote excitement and pleasure about learning and discussing.
What are some of the ways in which you intend to do this?
One of the things I want to do is have a lot more events right here in The Clarke Center—seminars, discussions, smaller groups where we can talk really intimately. I also want to have more seminars designed specifically for faculty that are interdisciplinary or geared to a particular disciplinary set of problems.
How critical are students to the operation here?
They’re very critical, and we want to have more feedback on the kinds of programs they want. We’re planning to put together a board of students that will meet on a monthly basis or so and help with some of the ideas for programming and also, perhaps, mediate some of the discussions. I’ve also spoken with April Vari [dean of students] about bringing some of the freshmen over here, on evenings and weekends, to have discussions right here at The Clarke Center. I’m working on the goal of students finding intellectual discussion to be an interesting and entertaining part of their social lives so there’s not a division between the intellectual and the social. They can go to a coffee shop and discuss what they heard at The Clarke Center, continue talking in their dorms, and when they go overseas. Students will keep asking questions and talking with each other about ideas. It’s this notion of connecting various threads of initiative that are going on at the college—with student life, with the admissions office, with alumni, with other people in the community.
It sounds like you’re not only pushing the interdisciplinary assets of the center but more interdepartmental interaction.
The Clarke Center contributes to the college’s goals of creating people who are aware of themselves as part of a wider world of people who participate in the generation of new, innovative ideas and that relate to a much larger global landscape. We also want to work with the Career Center to arrange some internships related to contemporary society and politics. [Clarke Center] board members and alums in different cities, perhaps, would help us to set up internships for our students.
The Clarke Center theme this academic year is energy. What’s the theme for next year?
A gendered world. We’re going to bring in a lot of dynamic people and a lot of interesting programs for students and faculty around the issue of gender problems—concerning women around the world and gender, and masculinity and male problems as well. I see myself as bringing my perspective as a woman. I think that I will have challenges in this role, because women are normally not associated with authority positions, and they tend to not be taken seriously. But I intend to set a path for women to follow as future executive directors.