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Belknap Robert L. The University Seminars at Columbia University

  The University Seminars are part of an enterprise to which Columbia University devotes unique attention, the education of its own professors.  Almost a century ago, Columbia invented a core curriculum which forces a thousand undergraduates to read a translation of the same major classic in the same week, and read it well enough to talk about it in a small class, since there are no lectures in these courses.  Besides changing the conversations in the dormitories where these students live, these core courses force the fifty professors, assistant professors and graduate students who teach them to read the same book actively.  Slavists who have had to teach Homer, Plato, and Dante a few times in such a course, and have discussed them with their colleagues in other departments, have received an education few other Slavists have; and the classicists and philosophers forced to discuss Dostoevsky have a symmetrical experience.   Columbia also invented regional studies institutes which force graduate students in Russian literature, for example, to take courses in Russian economics, history, and other subjects.  These institutes also educate the professors in academic specialties remote from their own, but useful to the breadth of their work.   Working in the core courses or in an institute teaches professors the context of their specialty.   The third great Columbia invention for the education of its professors is the University Seminars.

  Each of these eighty Seminars chooses its own members, who must be professors or other experts, ambassadors, curators, monks, etc.; about half of the Seminars admit graduate students and others as guests.    Most Seminars select a speaker each month and gather to discuss the presentation.  A few have no speakers and study a text or a problem together at their sessions.  All Seminars must involve people from Columbia and from other institutions, and must involve people and problems from at least two university departments.  Some Seminars have more than forty members, but some of the best have only a dozen, who have been meeting once a month for years and can talk in shorthand about their research.  The subjects range over the entire intellectual world.  There is a Seminar on China before 500 BCE, and another on Genetic Epidemiology, one on Shakespeare, and one on Slavic History and Culture.  Each Seminar has a rapporteur, a Columbia graduate student who sends out notices, reserves rooms, and writes the minutes of each meeting.  The Seminar on the Middle East will sometimes enhance candor by keeping its minutes very private; the Seminar on Pollution and Water Resources has just published the thirty-seventh volume of its annual minutes.    

   Frank Tannenbaum, an eminent and energetic professor of history at Columbia , founded the first three Seminars in 1945.   The one on Religion and the one on the Problems of Peace still meet every month, as do half of the others that have been founded over the years.  Tannenbaum believed that voluntary, unpaid, ongoing groups could solve intellectual and practical problems that more formal institutions were too slow and rigid to handle.  He told the President of Columbia University that it was necessary to protect these Seminars from an inevitable concomitant of administration, uniformity.  Each Seminar therefore elects its own chair, decides on the format and subject of its meetings, and turns to the Director of the University Seminars only if it needs travel funds for a speaker, subsidy for a conference or publication, or consultation on a particular problem.  And the Director, while appointed by the President of Columbia, is selected and instructed by a large committee consisting of the President and Provost of the University and the chairs of the eighty Seminars.   Only after the University Council approved a charter guaranteeing this independence did Tannenbaum give a substantial endowment to support the work of the Seminars.

  <...>  This enterprise serves the University well.  Much of the most exciting thinking occurs not in the established fields but in the interstices between them, where the Seminars flourish.  The Seminars can fill gaps in the University’s program.  After leadership in the area dating back to the 1750’s, Columbia greatly reduced its commitment to teaching and research about the ancient Near East.  We no longer teach Eblite or Ugaritic, but the University Seminar on the Ancient Near East continues to make Columbia a gathering place for experts in the field.  At the other end of the time scale, University departments try to be alert to the latest techniques, and concerns.    But a great university also needs a place to consider the next set of techniques and concerns, or the one after that.   Thirty years ago, doctors who treated overeating were approached by the medical establishment with gentlemanly scorn, but the University Seminar on Appetitive Behavior was already at work on the biology and sociology of appetite.  When obesity surfaced as a national and a worldwide problem, Columbia had already been at work on it for a generation,  Of course, it is easier to identify the current intellectual fashion than the next one, and Departments can rarely afford to guess wrong when a tenure appointment might lead nowhere.  The University Seminars can take intellectual risks that departments cannot and should not take.  New Yorkers will not waste their time; a Seminar whose subject matter becomes uninteresting simply dissolves, with no sense of defeat.  It has done its job.

  These Seminars also reach out to other institutions and to independent scholars.   They bring hundreds of alumni back to the University every month, maintaining an involvement that serves Columbia in many ways.  The Seminar members and guests from other universities educate the Columbia professors and are educated in turn.  The chair of the history department in another university in New York tells me that she managed to hire the Africanist she most hoped to attract by offering him a good job plus the intellectual companionship available in the Columbia University Seminar on Contemporary Africa.  Other universities have faculty seminars, but none are as ambitious as the Columbia ones, partly because no one has endowed them elsewhere, partly because their independence may look threatening to certain administrations, and partly because New York is one of very few cities in the world where three thousand people have the energy and the curiosity to participate in University Seminars.

These are continuing seminars—the dates in parentheses indicate the year of founding.
Headings are for ease of reference only.


Studies in Religion (1945)

The Ancient Near East (1966)

The Study of the Hebrew Bible (1968)

The Art of Africa, Oceania and the Americas (1971)*

Cinema and Interdisciplinary Interpretation (1974)

Shakespeare (1982)

Iranian Studies (1987)

Buddhist Studies (1990)

Religion in America (1997)

Jazz Studies (2000)

Romanticism and Its Aftermath (2004)


Ecology and Culture (1964)

Israel and Jewish Studies (1968)

Slavic History and Culture (1968)

Culture, Power, and Boundaries (1972)

Irish Studies (1973)

Ottoman and Turkish Studies (1974)

Arabic Studies (1977)

Neo-Confucian Studies (1979)

Disability Studies (2003)

Modern Greece (2005)


The Problem of Peace (1945)

Law and Politics (1963)

Studies in Political and Social Thought (1968)

Political Economy & Contemporary Social Issues (1971)

Globalization, Labor, and Popular Struggles (1998)


Studies in Contemporary Africa (1956)

Modern East Asia: China (1957)

Modern East Asia: Japan (1960)

Studies in Modern Italy (1966)

Latin America (1971)

The Middle East (1971)

Brazil (1976)

China:   International Business (1982)

Southeast Asia in World Affairs (1982)

South Asia (1964)

Post-Communism (2005)


Innovation in Education (1970)

Ethics, Moral Education, & Society (1983)

The History of Columbia University (1998)

New Media Teaching and Learning (2000)


Content and Methods of the Social Sciences (1947)

Organization and Management (1951)

The City (1962)

Computers, Man, and Society (1966)

Women and Society (1974)

Drugs and Society (1975)

Human Rights (1978)

Full Employment (1987)

National Health and Science Policy (1993)

Conflict Resolution (1997)

Sexuality, Gender, Health & Human Rights (1999)

Child & Family Policy (1999)

Urbanism and Public Health (2001)

Aging and Health (2003)


Pollution and Water Resources:  Scientific and Institutional Aspects (1967)

Social and Preventive Medicine (1970)

Death (1971)

Population Biology (1971)

Appetitive Behavior (1972)

The History and Philosophy of Science (1973)

Genetic Epidemiology (1982)

Cognitive and Behavioral Neuroscience (1985)

Scientific Literacy (1987)

Cancer (1988)

Legal, Economic, and Social Environmental Issues (1990)

Psychoanalytic Studies (2000)

Language and Cognition (2000)

Science and Religion (2002)*


The Renaissance (1945)

American Studies  (1954)

Medieval Studies (1954)

Classical Civilization (1957)

Eighteenth-Century European Culture (1962)

Early American History and Culture (1967)

Traditional China (1967)

Economic History (1969)

Twentieth-Century Politics and Society (1992)

Beyond History and Memory (2001)*

Early China (2002)

Modern British History (2004)

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"Knowledge. Understanding. Skill" No. 4 2021
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