Erin Benay, associate professor of early modern art and director of undergraduate studies and Deepak Sarma, professor of religious studies and professor of bioethics have been named inaugural Distinguished Scholars in the Public Humanities.
Provost and Executive Vice President Ben Vinson III made the announcement in a surprise email to the recipients Feb. 11.
“Their appointment in this position will help us achieve greater social impact, a major goal of the university’s strategic plan,” Vinson said. “We are delighted with their impact to date and look forward to more of their outstanding productivity and ingenuity. They help us illuminate what is possible in higher education.”
The scholars will deliver an annual lecture, showcasing their work in the context of a broader discussion on the impact and implications of the public humanities.
Benay and Sarma also will deliver a public humanities-related course or seminar in conjunction with the Siegal Lifelong Learning Program, intended to reach the broader public.
“The public humanities provide a great opportunity to engage various communities on critical issues of civic, cultural, and public life, which is central to the work of the Siegal Lifelong Learning Program,” said Paul Tiyambe Zeleza, Visiting North Star Distinguished Professor, associate provost and director of the Siegal Lifelong Learning Program. “We’re thrilled the university has established the Distinguished Scholar in the Public Humanities program, and we look forward to working with these exceptional humanities’ faculty in promoting public conversations on important issues.”
About Erin Benay
Erin Benay is an art historian and associate professor of early modern art. Though she specializes in art and visual culture of early modern Italy, she is more broadly interested in the ways in which objects are manufactured, how they move through space and time, and in what ways they contribute to the production of knowledge and belief.
She also is dedicated to the cultivation of public humanities initiatives in Cleveland and works closely with area nonprofits LAND Studio, The Sculpture Center and Zygote Press to incorporate art history into community-engaged practice. Her work with Zygote Press was recently featured by Humanities For All, the premier open-access publication of publicly engaged scholarship. This appointment will help bring additional attention to the newly created Graduate Certificate in Public Humanities and Civic Engagement. As one of the founders and the adviser of this certificate, Benay looks forward to building the institutional footprint of the program.
“I believe we can forge new ground in the humanistic disciplines and render fields like art history relevant to a greater number of people by working with community-partner organizations, seeking expertise outside the academy, and creating opportunities for collaboration on and off campus,” Benay said. “I am excited that CWRU recognizes the possibilities that this kind of work opens up for faculty and students alike.”
Benay is the author of several books and numerous essays on early modern visual culture, and together with her students, she is the founder of Baroque Without Boundaries, a digital mapping intervention that challenges the parameters of the early modern canon.
She has been nominated several times for the Carl F. Wittke Award for Undergraduate Teaching and for the John S. Diekhoff Award for Graduate Mentoring. In 2017, she was awarded the John S. Diekhoff Award for Excellence in Graduate Teaching.
Deepak Sarma is a professor in the Department of Religious Studies at the College of Arts and Sciences. They also hold a secondary appointment in the Department of Bioethics at the School of Medicine. His prime directive is to critically analyze humanly constructed categories and beliefs.
Sarma writes and researches about cultural theory, psychedelic studies, post-colonial studies, Hinduism, contemporary Hinduism, bioethics, Madhva Vedanta, and museology.
Sarma also serves as a cultural consultant for Netflix, Moonbug and American Greetings, helping corporations avoid unintentionally offending people, cultures and sometimes even countries—and preventing the perpetuation and replication of colonial and gender stereotypes and inequalities.
They are regularly quoted in the media in outlets such as the Associated Press and U.S. News & World Report on topics ranging from the inauguration of Kamala Harris to the selection of a new Jeopardy! host.
Sarma believes a great university fosters “audacious irreverence” (read more in their article in HuffPost) and that this appointment is an opportunity to continue to inspire people who are willing (or can be convinced) to question assumptions—especially those beliefs and presuppositions that lead to social injustice and to maintaining oppressive paradigms and ideologies.
“I anticipate creating and facilitating scenarios where thoughtful people may engage in critical reflection upon controversial issues and to find ways to apply them in their everyday lives,” Sarma said.
Sarma also is a curatorial consultant for the Department of Asian Art of the Cleveland Museum of Art and sits on the Lilly Scholars Advisory Board of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. Sarma was a guest curator of Indian Kalighat Paintings, an exhibition at the Cleveland Museum of Art in 2011.
They are the author of several books and monographs on subjects including classical Indian philosophy and Hinduism.
Sarma is a 2014 recipient of the J. Bruce Jackson, MD, Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Mentoring and the Carl F. Wittke Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching in 2007.