Esther Schor named Chair of Humanities Council

August 31, 2021
Image of Esther Schor

By Lisa Kraege, Humanities Council

Esther “Starry” Schor, Leonard L. Milberg ’53 Professor of American Jewish Studies and Professor of English, has been appointed Chair of Princeton University’s Humanities Council.

Schor’s experience with the Humanities Council is well established. In 2015, she became the inaugural Behrman Professor at the Council, and from 2017–2018 she served as Acting Chair. As Acting Chair, she was instrumental in the establishment of the Journalism Certificate and hosted the 25th anniversary of the Western Humanities Sequence.

Her view of the Council is centered on collaboration. We like to say that the Council is a crossroads, a meeting-place, a hub for humanistic research and teaching on campus,” Schor said, referring to the physical space of the Council on campus at Joseph Henry House. “But the Council is also an invisible network of conversation. It looks like two or three people at a table brainstorming, sketching a budget, sparking a plan for a campus-wide series, event or performance; it usually smells like coffee. In a deep sense, as Herman Melville wrote, the Council ‘is not down on any map; true places never are.’”

Schor joined the faculty in 1986. She earned her BA in English and Music and Ph.D. in English from Yale. At Princeton, her teaching and research encompasses two major areas, British Romanticism along with literature, scripture, and religion. She has taught courses from the Humanities Sequences, including the capstone course in 2017–2018. She also teaches in the Program in Judaic Studies, where she has long served on the Executive Committee. Her innovative teaching was recognized in 2015, when she was awarded the President’s Award for Distinguished Teaching.

As Chair, Schor aims to nurture the Council’s increasing efforts to connect the humanities at Princeton with communities beyond the university. “In the past two decades, the Council has turned its face outward,” she said. “Our priorities include Innovation and Collaboration; Confronting Racism; Global Perspectives; and Public Humanities,” she said. “These last three priorities announce our commitment to social justice, to engaging new audiences, and to expanding our cultural and historical reach while building networks of scholars from around the world.”

Schor’s goals for her time as Chair are informed in part by her experiences as a teacher and scholar. She has an “abiding commitment to bringing the humanities to nontraditional students,” including her incarcerated students at East Jersey State Prison, whom she taught through Princeton’s Prison Teaching Initiative, as well as adult learners. Her work as the founder and co-director of the PIIRS Migration Lab requires worldwide collaboration with historians and social scientists on issues of immigration, racism, and language justice and exemplifies her approach to the humanities. “My own life in the humanities has been global and public for years,” she said.

At the same time, Schor is mindful of upholding the Council’s nearly seventy-year history of sponsoring “interdisciplinary, cutting-edge scholarship and teaching” among the Princeton community. “We want to showcase the humanities for the Princeton community, especially incoming and first-year students,” she said. “To that end, we’re changing up our communications program and (spoiler alert!) launching our first-ever podcast to bring new projects and new voices to the community at large.”

Schor assumed Chair duties on July 1, succeeding Eric Gregory, who held the position from 2016–2021. “Leading the Council in the past, tumultuous year—a year of rage, bewilderment, fear, illness, and isolation—was not easy,” Schor said, referring to the challenges brought about by the pandemic, “but Eric Gregory, Kathy Crown and the entire Council staff were equal to the challenge.” The Council’s response to the pandemic, like the creation of Rapid Response grants and reallocation of funds to those in need, gave humanists “tools to think with,” she said. “These are the tools with which we humanists expect the unexpected.”

Schor is a prolific writer across multiple genres. She is the author of Bearing the Dead: The British Culture of Mourning from the Enlightenment to Victoria, and the biography Emma Lazarus, which won the 2006 National Jewish Book Award and introduced her to writing for the international public. She edited the Cambridge Companion to Mary Shelley, and co-edited The Other Mary Shelley: Beyond “Frankenstein” and Women’s Voice: Visions and Perspectives. She has also published two books of poems.

Her most recent book, Bridge of Words: Esperanto and the Dream of a Universal Language, was published in 2016. She described it as “both a biography of the Esperanto movement and a memoir of my research for the book.” The genre crossing, interdisciplinary project took her around the world to learn from contemporary Esperantists and required learning a new language from scratch.

Despite the difficulties of the past year, Schor remains hopeful: “As we emerge from a grim year and a half, it’s worth remembering to be on the lookout for marvels as well as disasters. Why just this morning I learned that breakdancing will be featured in the Paris Olympics. Who knew?”

This story also appears on the University homepage.

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