Fulbright Scholar award recipient Fenton taking humanities ‘out of the classroom’ and to Hungary

Mimi Fenton

Western Carolina University English professor Mimi Fenton’s upcoming Fulbright trip to Budapest, Hungary, will interweave research and teaching that focuses on the works of English literary icon John Milton and the role of the public humanities.

In both of her Fulbright projects and courses, her goal is to take the humanities “out of the classroom” and to the public.

One of three WCU faculty members announced as recipients of prestigious Fulbright Scholar awards early this year, Fenton will be leaving Western North Carolina at the end of December to travel to Budapest. During her six-month stay in the capital city of Hungary, one of the English professor’s activities will be leading a course focusing on the humanities for students at Károli Gáspár Református Egyetem, a university of 8,000 students in central Budapest. Some of the weekly class sessions won’t be held inside a classroom, but instead will take place on location at one of the city’s cultural landmarks and will be open for attendance by the general public.

Fenton’s relationship with Budapest began almost a decade ago when she participated in an international conference on Milton held there. “Budapest has evolved into a sort of epicenter of Milton studies because of its complex history with authoritarian governments, revolutions, religion and individual freedom, and that’s what Milton was about and that is what ‘Paradise Lost’ (Milton’s epic poem) is about,” she said.

Fenton was invited back to Budapest to present public seminars and lectures in 2010, and then returned again in 2012 to work with graduate students. “I’ve had a really good working relationship with the faculty at the university, but I also just love Budapest. It’s a fascinating and culturally diverse Eastern European city, with that beautiful Danube flowing through it,” she said.

So, it was no long stretch for Fenton, a WCU faculty member since 1992, to propose a teaching and research project in Budapest in her Fulbright application.

An internationally recognized scholar of Milton’s works, Fenton will be working on two interrelated projects, “Public Milton” and “The Humanities in a Globalized Era.” The latter project involves her teaching a course in “The Role of the Humanities in an Era of Globalization.” The course will include modules in social psychology, religion, art and the environment, and each module will be launched by an expert guest lecturer for a public class session at a Budapest cultural site. The class held the week following the guest lectures will involve Fenton working with the students to relate the previous week’s material to literature of her choosing, and at the end of the course students will complete a public-facing capstone project.

Fenton said one of her goals is to honor the Fulbright goal of creating interinstitutional faculty and student exchanges, and she wants her opportunity benefit WCU. So, on conjunction with Hungarian expert lecturers, two of the expert lecturers for the humanities course are WCU faculty members who will travel to Hungary to participate. Ron Laboray, associate professor in the School of Art and Design, will address the social role of art and the humanities, and Brian Railsback, professor of English, will speak about environmental literature.

Fenton’s research activities related to the humanities course include expanding the public humanities pedagogies website she developed as WCU’s 2016-17 Hunter Scholar.

For the “Public Milton” project, Fenton will be team-teaching a Milton course for Hungarian undergraduate and graduate students majoring in English. “We will be focusing on ‘Areopagitica,’ Milton’s tract about freedom of expression, which was revolutionary and in many ways remains revolutionary, and his ‘Paradise Lost’ and its engagement with public and civic issues, as well as its poetics,” she said.

In conjunction with the “Public Milton” course, Heidi Buchanan, reference librarian and coordinator of information literacy at WCU’s Hunter Library, will be journeying to Hungary to work with students on conducting research using large databases and free access “because their library research materials and access are very different from ours,” Fenton said. Buchanan also will be participating in a workshop on information literacy and touring some of the major libraries in Budapest, an activity that is expected to result in a workshop at WCU, Fenton said.

Research related to the “Public Milton” project includes a public event on the “Areopagitica” tract, with scholars and students engaging in presentations and discussions about free expression, based on Milton’s tract. Fenton also will be working on a collaborative article on the important Hungarian drama “The Tragedy of Man,” which was heavily influenced by Milton’s writings.

Fenton’s recent preparations for her trip have included lessons on the Hungarian language from Zsolt Szabo, assistant professor in WCU’s School of Music. Szabo is a native of Transylvania, which was formerly part of Hungary. Fenton’s duties as a Fulbright Scholar officially begin Feb. 9 with orientation for her and the five other “Fulbrighters” who will be working in Hungary at the same time.

“I feel like this experience will be personally and professionally invigorating, productive and transformative, and, I hope, beneficial for Western,” she said. “It’s going to be busy and really rich.”

WCU’s two other Fulbright recipients are Turner Goins, the university’s Ambassador Jeanette Hyde Distinguished Professor of Gerontological Social Work, and Paul Worley, associate professor of English and director of graduate programs in English.

Worley traveled to the Mexican state of Chiapas in mid-August to teach and conduct research aimed at helping speakers of the indigenous language Tsotsil Maya learn English, and teach English to others in that linguistic group. He will be working on his Fulbright project through next May.

Goins will be traveling to New Zealand to examine the meanings, beliefs and practices of healthy aging among a group of older Māori, the indigenous people of that country. Her project begins in February and will continue through next November.

The Fulbright Program is the flagship international exchange initiative sponsored by the U.S. government and is administered through the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. The Fulbright U.S. Scholar Program in which Fenton, Goins and Worley are participating sends about 800 American scholars and professionals to approximately 130 countries annually to lecture or conduct research in a variety of academic and professional fields.