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By Sarah E. Marsh (Ph.D. candidate, English and Comparative Literature)

When I first met Dr. Andy Perrin, he greeted me in full stride, running to our interview directly from the last meeting of his graduate seminar on the sociology of culture. After we took our seats in his office, he explained to me, with a wide smile, that this marked the end of his tenth year in UNC’s Department of Sociology, where he teaches courses ranging from introductory sociology classes for undergraduates to graduate-level seminars on social theory.

Perrin’s research informed these classes with its focus on the social and cultural elements of democracy — as he puts it, “what people need to do, say and be to be good citizens.” While there are a number of angles and approaches he brought to the material, his chief interest was in the human behaviors and ideas that underwrite democratic citizenship.

Now in his 14th year at Carolina, he teaches courses in introductory sociology, sociological theory and the sociology of culture as well as first-year seminars in U.S. Citizenship and Society and Difficult Dialogues.

The 2011 Weil Lecture

It is not surprising that Perrin was invaluable to the IAH’s 2011 Weil Lecture on American Citizenship, given by Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf. Abdul Rauf is the author and activist who made headlines that year with plans to build an interfaith community center containing a mosque two blocks from the site of the World Trade Center in Lower Manhattan, known infamously in the media as the “Ground Zero

When the Weil lecturer selection committee, a faculty committee that Perrin served on, selected the imam as the 2011 Weil Lecturer — a potentially controversial choice at and beyond UNC — the role of civil discourse at the academy became one of the event’s organizing principles.

Under Perrin’s direction, the IAH hosted a panel on civil discourse at the University. “It was really fun to do that panel,” he recalled, while pointing out the attendant difficulties of organizing a conversation between academics and audience members from beyond the campus community. The result was, in Perrin’s view, ideal.

“It’s exactly what you would hope for: to bridge worlds and ideals within the academy and translate them into real-world discourse.”

If anything, Perrin added, the atmosphere of the talks was potentially too collegial for their purpose. While civility is very valuable to public discourse, he pointed out, it’s not worth sacrificing honesty on the altar of courtesy or pretended respect.

“There’s nothing respectful about not challenging dumb ideas,” he added frankly.

Making the University Jive: The IAH and the Life of the Mind

As a Faculty Fellow in the fall of 2007 and an Academic Leadership Fellow in 2010, Perrin identifies the Institute for the Arts and Humanities as a primary place on campus where “the life of the mind actually happens”—where thoughtful and critical conversations produce a synergy of ideas that is more than the sum of its parts.

During what he calls an “inspirational” semester at the IAH as a Faculty Fellow, Perrin did the bulk of his work for two new translations of work by the German-born polymath Theodor W. Adorno: Guilt and Defense: On the Legacies of National Socialism in Postwar Germany (Harvard University Press, 2010), and Group Experiment and Other Writings: The Frankfurt School on Public Opinion in Postwar Germany (Harvard University Press, 2011), both in collaboration with colleague Jeffrey K. Olick at the University of Virginia.

When he returned to the Department of Sociology after his semester as a Faculty Fellow, Perrin brought with him a unique interdisciplinary perspective acquired from working at the IAH with scholars outside the social sciences. This, Perrin explained, helped him to better see the role of sociology at a public university: both how sociology interfaces with other disciplines — and what its intellectual responsibilities might be in the university at large.

During Perrin’s tenure as a Leadership Fellow at the IAH, he built on his experience of being a Faculty Fellow by studying and discussing with other Fellows how university faculty can better “make the university jive with intellectual reasons for its existence.”

When I asked him if we’re doing that — if we’re making the university jive with reasons for its existence — Perrin replied:

“We don’t fully accomplish it, but we fight for it all the time: we struggle to respond to concerns and problems of the university while remaining faithful to intellectual values, and these responses are always particular because they have to be.”

Perrin added that the university faces a special breed of difficulty in the face of a weak national and global economy: How do we cut budgets, he asked, and maintain the integrity of the university’s goals?

But, he emphasized, the IAH is precisely the place on UNC’s campus where faculty are working to respond to challenges like these.

“The combination of the IAH’s intellectual ambition and interdisciplinary focus are what make it such an extraordinary place,” Perrin says. “This is where the University nurtures big ideas that can’t be constrained by disciplines or corralled into a given research project — but that really deserve to be given strong consideration and careful thought.”

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