“As you stand outside your own discipline, you think of it anew.”
Cristle Collins Judd served as a senior program officer for Higher Education and Scholarship in the Humanities (HESH) at The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation from 2015–18. A distinguished musicologist, her research has been supported by grants including an NEH Fellowship for University Teachers and the Mellon Foundation’s own New Directions Fellowship. As she prepared to leave the Foundation to become the president of Sarah Lawrence College, we spoke to Judd about the fellowship’s impact on her career trajectory.
Tell us about your journey from performance to scholarship. How did that come about?
My love of music was nurtured first as a performer, but as an undergraduate oboist, I found myself drawn into worlds I’d never encountered. Increasingly, I discovered that while I loved making music, I really loved thinking about music. It’s the great story of a college education, pulling you into places you don’t know.
Was there a particular moment in time that sparked this transition from performance to research?
What began to move me away from practicing five hours a day as a serious conservatory student was a moment in a music history course on Renaissance and Baroque music. As we walked into the first class of the semester, the professor was showing slides of St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice while playing a wonderful recording of amazing poly-choral music. I can still tell you the exact piece—Gabrieli’s In Ecclesiis. I’d never heard it, and I’d never seen the art she showed us, and it was just magical. And I thought, I have to know more about this.
Before you became a New Directions Fellow, what had been the focus of your research?
My research focused on music of the 16th century, at a moment of great religious, cultural and political upheaval. The intellectual tradition of music theory in that period derived from classical Greek theory, which had moved into Latin, and then into English, German, French, Italian—that world we know of the Renaissance. I studied the cultural role of music and writing about music as ritual, as ways of telling stories, as theology. Music as a way of explaining the cosmos.
As a New Directions Fellow, how did your research take a different turn?
My research for the Fellowship moved from the perspective of Western European music theory into cross-cultural comparative work that involved studying medieval and classical Arabic sources, Islamic cosmologies of music, and understanding how, in parallel, these texts had been transmitted to Latin and to Arabic. Understanding the ways that they told different stories, the ways words had different meanings, the ways that cultural interpretations intersected.
There are a wide variety of fellowship programs for humanities scholars around the country. What makes the New Directions Fellowship so unique?
The New Directions Fellowship is unique in a few ways: primarily it requires the recipient to pursue systematic training in a field outside their own specialization. As you stand outside your own discipline, you think of it anew. No other postdoctoral fellowship in the humanities provides such an opportunity. In this way, it fits exactly with what the Foundation has historically done in supporting the arts and humanities and creating resources for path-breaking knowledge.
It’s also unique because it’s a multi-year fellowship. It presumes that if you take the time away for a year of intensive training, you need time around that to both prepare for and assimilate that training, with the expectation that the product will come somewhere down the road. I say somewhat jokingly, “it’s the fellowship that slows you down so you can speed up later.”
Before you managed the New Directions program here at Mellon, you spent three years serving as a panelist. What do you look for in candidates?
Above all, we want the idea of a “new direction” to be prominent. We try very hard not to prescribe what that might look like. We seek a candidate who already has a demonstrated capacity for producing important work in their home discipline, who has imagination and creativity, and who has a thoughtful plan for systematic training in another field. A New Directions Fellow is someone whose intellectual spark is matched by incredible persistence.
What contribution do you think the Fellowship has made to the broader sphere of the humanities?
We’ve seen trends come out of the program that are now established as ongoing collaborations not just across disciplines but across institutions. And across the Academy, the fellowships have helped bring attention to and accelerate the important work of faculty at a key mid-career stage. New Directions Fellows have been the experimenters, explorers, and innovators who have forged a path that in many cases is now incorporated into the curriculum and collaborative patterns of research, including humanities engagement with neuroscience and life sciences, with digital and big data, with public health initiatives and global engagement, and in key policy areas.