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UGA Director of the Willson Center for Humanities & Arts visits the Gators

GAINESVILLE, Fla. – In his first-year of his masters program at Iowa State University, Luke Rodewald thought he was going to pursue a future in film studiess. That was true until he took an environmental literature course. In this course, Rodewald experienced the importance of class discussions that would change his trajectory for life.

“I felt like we were talking about things that I could leave class and right away see the implications of how the ideas, the conflicts that we had worked through mattered and were mattering beyond just a fun class discussion,” Rodewald said.

Now, as a fourth-year doctoral student majoring in English at the University of Florida, Rodewald found himself sitting at Smathers Library in room 100 listening to Nicholas Allen on Thursday evening.

Allen, the Director of the Willson Center for Humanities & Arts at the University of Georgia (UGA) discussed the connection between humanities and environmental humanities on Jan. 26, 2023.

This event had been planned for quite some time. There were discussions and conversations with faculty and staff while also paying attention to local and national trending topics to come to pick a speaker to discuss this topic.

Allen was chosen for this role.

Dr. Anirban Gupta-Nigam, UF's associate director of the Center for the humanities and the public sphere, was hired at the university late last year and recognized the magnitude of having Allen on Florida’a campus.

“We are also conscious of what is going inside the humanities as a broad field and the fact that Nicholas Allen is the director of the Humanity Center at UGA was I would imagine factoring in,” he said.

Allen was the third and final speaker of the part four public humanities section of a multi-year series, according to the website. There were three other sections named, “Transforming Institutions” (2021-2022), “Data & Democracy” (2020-2021) and “Race and the Promise of Participation (2019-2020).

The meeting was open to the public where people of all ages and walks of life gathered. The Rothman Chair and Director of the Center for the Humanities and the Public Sphere, Dr. Barbara Mennel, explained the 2022-2023 academic school year was the first time that the series met in person due to the pandemic. Mennel said there was a general range of about 50 to 150 people who attended the previous sessions.

The term "humanities" essentially means how we do things, Allen said. There is the ability to advocate.

“The talk is also a possibility or opportunity for us to showcase that the humanities have something to contribute,” Mennel said.

As he opened the conversation, Allen, the author of Ireland, Literature, and the Coast: Seatangled, stood at the front of the long classroom and started out the conversation with a black and white picture of himself with his family in Belfast, Ireland, in July 1973 at age one.

Now in 2023, he was sharing his story with people of different backgrounds and experiences.

He communicated his experiences, his influences and the combination of public humanities and environmental humanities. The reoccurring theme throughout the evening was the learning simply never ends. Allen shared on his journey, he had to unlearn earlier versions of himself.

Humanities is essentially how we do things, Allen said. There is the ability to advocate.

Ben Ehlers, a history professor at the University of Georgia is affiliated with the Willson Center for Humanities & Arts made the trip from Athens to Gainesville. He shared about an ongoing project between several universities' humanity centers that Allen is involved in.

“Nicholas Allen has been organizing a group of universities along the Eastern seaboard who all engage in coastal studies in one way or the other,” Ehlers said.

This includes collaborating on research, educational initiatives and the area of answering public humanities scientific questions and then effectively communicating the findings to the public, says Ehlers.

Sitting next to him was Pete Brocius, who also traveled to Gainesville from Athens. Brocius is from the department of anthropology and the founding director of the Center for Integrative Conservation Research. He is currently looking at surfing through a lens of various issues within coastal conversation.

“Surfing is a really good lens for all kinds of issues relating to gender, race, dispossession, it’s the drive to a lot of coastal development,” Brosius said.

With diverse backgrounds of knowledge, experiences and cultures, there is room for conversation, questions and collaboration. Similarly, Ehlers came into the conversation with an open mind and eager to learn more.

“I actually don't know a great deal about the topic that he’s discussing today,” he said before the event. “I am very much looking forward to learning more.”

The audience attentively listened to Allen as some took pictures of the slides projected on the wall while others were taking notes.

Rodewald not only found himself sitting in Smathers Library on a Thursday evening, he came in with an interest to learn more about the topic of public humanities. With dreams of being a teacher and influencing others, he hopes his students can feel inspired too from humanities as a whole.

“I really think so much of what humanities work can do is in a classroom but also beyond that in storytelling,” he said.

Arianna is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing