Passion for the arts drives dedication to Humanities Council
By Jennifer Greenstein Altmann
Princeton NJ -- Three weeks after Carol Rigolot arrived on Princeton's campus in 1974, she discovered the perfect job.
Now celebrating her 26th year as executive director of the Council of the Humanities, she approaches her work with the same vigor and dedication that made her a natural choice to serve in this inaugural position.
"The Humanities Council is one of the most interesting places on campus, which is why I've been here so long," she said.
Rigolot, who was hired as a faculty member in the French department, found herself immediately drawn to the Humanities Council. "The French department was in the same building, and the chair of the council was a French professor," Rigolot remembered.
The council, which marked its 50th year in 2003, is a crossroads for artists and writers, a meeting place where students, faculty members and visiting fellows engage in research and intellectual exchange in a broad array of interdisciplinary subjects.
"I saw the activities the council was sponsoring, the journalists and artists it brought in," Rigolot said of her first impressions. "My mother was an artist and my father was a journalist, so the idea that this part of the University could combine my two passions as well as French literature, my other passion just seemed too good to be true, as if I had invented it."
Rigolot started as the council's part-time coordinator in 1977 and, as its offerings expanded, became its full-time executive director two years later, while continuing to teach.
The council, housed in the recently restored Joseph Henry House, currently is home to 20 interdisciplinary committees and programs such as film studies, European cultural studies, political philosophy, theater and dance and the Program in the Ancient World.
It also runs several prestigious programs that bring accomplished writers, artists and scholars to campus, some for stays as short as a day and some for fellowships as long as three years.
And it offers nearly a dozen courses on topics in journalism, the performing arts and literature. "The classes reach beyond the boundaries of a single department and explore new areas of scholarship or new ways of thinking about the humanities and related fields," according to the Undergraduate Announcement.
"In some ways we're like a little college, because we have faculty, courses, donors, programs and alumni," said Rigolot, who orchestrates all of those elements.
"Carol has a finger in every pie the council has (and it has a lot of them)," said Anthony Grafton, chair of the council and the Henry Putnam University Professor of History. "Every one of the courses our visitors offer seminars about which undergraduates speak in hushed and delighted tones is worked out through endless planning sessions with Carol." Grafton praised her "constant, smart, constructive collaboration," and added, "I could not do my job without her daily counsel and her daily work."
A roster of distinguished visitors
Each year the Humanities Council brings several journalists to campus to teach courses that explore topics such as war reporting and narrative writing.
"It's an unbelievable opportunity for the students to study with practitioners," Rigolot said. In the fall of 2000, Jill Abramson, then Washington editor of The New York Times, came to Princeton one day a week to teach a seminar on investigative journalism as a Ferris Visiting Professor of Journalism. Her class coincided with the unresolved presidential election, when weeks went by after election day with no declared winner.
"She would get on the train in Washington at 8 in the morning, and by the time she got here, there were faxes waiting for her," Rigolot recalled. "She would take them off the fax machine, go straight into her class and read them to her students. They had this amazing scoop on everything that was happening before it got into the newspaper."
About 10 people who have excelled as scholars, writers and artists spend a semester at the Humanities Council each year as Long-Term Visiting Fellows, teaching courses and giving seminars to faculty members. "The faculty seminars are a wonderful opportunity for faculty in different departments to talk across disciplines," Rigolot said.
There are 800 applicants for the four or five fellowships available next year in the Princeton Society of Fellows in the Liberal Arts. The program allows scholars who have recently completed their doctoral degrees to spend three years at the University pursuing their own research. Based in the Joseph Henry House, the fellows also teach half time in their academic department or the Humanities Council.
Two other programs in the council bring outstanding scholars and artists to campus for short stays. Last fall one of this year's two Belknap Visitors in the Humanities was artist Chuck Close, who dropped by the studio of each student majoring in visual arts to critique their work. Belknap Visitors typically spend an afternoon meeting with students before giving a public lecture. The half dozen Short-Term Visiting Fellows give lectures and participate in classes and informal discussions during their week-long stay.
Two or three writers in the early stages of their careers are invited to Princeton as Hodder Fellows, which gives them the chance to spend a year on campus working on their own projects.
'Intellectual boot camp'
One of the council's most ambitious offerings is a class for freshmen that counts as four courses. "Interdisciplinary Approaches to Western Culture from Antiquity to the Modern Period," taught by eight professors, is an intensive look at the art, history, philosophy, religion and literature of European civilization.
"The students call it intellectual boot camp because it's so intense, but when they finish they're sort of like the Green Berets of the undergraduate student body," Rigolot said.
Other classes offered by the council include the "Princeton Atelier," conceived of by award-winning novelist Toni Morrison, which brings outside artists to campus to help students put together a concert, a play or a dance performance over the course of one semester; and "Creative Non-Fiction," taught by noted author John McPhee.
"Can you imagine how lucky 16 sophomores are to spend a semester with John McPhee? He meets with every student every other week and goes over their writing word by word," Rigolot said.
The council has acted as the birthplace for several programs that are now part of Princeton's fabric. Women's studies started at the council and later became the Program in the Study of Women and Gender. The Program of Freshman Seminars, which began there with a few offerings, now has more than 60 classes coordinated by the Office of the Dean of the College.
"Our mission in life is to be the home for ideas that don't fit easily in other places," Rigolot said. "We're meant to be a hothouse for nurturing ideas until they prove themselves."
Michael Cadden, director of the Program in Theater and Dance, stressed the significance of Rigolot's role in encouraging innovation. "From the perspective of 185 Nassau, home of the creative arts, Carol Rigolot is our guardian angel," he said. "She acts as a superb sounding board for even our craziest ideas, and she has lots of great ideas of her own about how we might best achieve our goals.
"Virtually no one at 185 sees him- or herself as an academic," he continued. "Our faculty is, for the most part, made up of working artists. Consequently, we really need advice on how to engage constructively with the institution as a whole. Carol's deep love of the arts and her belief in the role they have to play at the University make her committed to making that happen; her entrepreneurship and common sense allow us to translate our visions into realities."
Dedicated, disciplined, focused
Rigolot spends her days juggling organizational duties for the various programs, fellowships and courses at the council. Much of her time is devoted to assembling applications and other materials for the committees that select fellowship recipients. She also acts as a guide on everything about Princeton from its grading policies to its housing for visiting professors.
"She's extremely dedicated, very disciplined and very focused," said Cass Garner, who has been the department manager for the council for the last seven years. "I have never in my years working with her heard anybody say, 'I've been trying to get ahold of Carol and I can't.'"
Outside of her many tasks at the council, Rigolot also finds time for her own scholarship, which centers on 20th-century French literature. Her current subject of research is St.-John Perse, a poet who won the Nobel Prize in 1960. She has published a literary analysis of his poems ("Forged Genealogies: St.-John Perse's Conversations with Culture," 2002) and an edition of his correspondence ("Courrier d'exil: St.-John Perse et ses amis américains," 2001). Her next project, to be published by Gallimard, is an edition of the letters among Perse, American poet Allen Tate and T.S. Eliot, who was the first to translate Perse's poetry into English. Winning permission from Eliot's widow to publish parts of her husband's correspondence was a feat.
"Everybody I talked to said, 'Don't even ask because she will never say yes. It's impossible.' She's never given permission to anybody so far," Rigolot said. "But by some miracle she has given permission for this."
Rigolot is relishing the chance to work on the book, even though she knows how challenging it will be.
"You will find a letter that says, 'I had lunch with Fritz and he sends you his best.' You can spend all afternoon in Firestone researching who on earth Fritz could have been, and if you don't find it it's so frustrating, and when you do it's a kind of eureka moment."
On top of that work, Rigolot teaches a seminar called "Contemporary American Prose," a course in the freshman writing program.
Rigolot's colleagues are amazed by her versatility and energy.
"I'm in awe of what she does," said Garner.
Mary Harper, executive director of the Society of Fellows in the Liberal Arts, said she thinks she knows how Rigolot accomplishes so much: "Her scholarship and her teaching are not separate from her administrative work or her life outside her work because her energy seems to come from her love for the arts. And that gives her an enthusiasm and a joy in her work that spreads through Henry House."