An illustration of the Oakley Center surrounded by a grassy field and mountains, with a flower in the foreground.
By Tomas Weber Illustrations by Nicolás Ortega

For nearly 40 years, the Oakley Center has provided support for research and a forum for interdisciplinary exchange to faculty and students in the humanities and social sciences.

Most Tuesday mornings find Benjamin Twagira working in an office inside a stately white house on the southern edge of campus. Twagira, an assistant professor of history currently on sabbatical, calls the house a “hideaway,” where he can dedicate time to working on his book manuscript.

But it’s the lively afternoons he looks forward to the most, when he joins other scholars for seminars about their research. A historian of Africa, Twagira engages in wide-ranging discussions with researchers in fields spanning the humanities and social sciences. The experience, he says, is unlike any other he’s had in academia.

“It’s such an important resource,” he says. “It’s an opportunity to have an ongoing conversation with colleagues, all of whom are doing diverse and interesting research, sustained throughout the academic year.”

The house is home to the Oakley Center, which supports research in the humanities and social sciences and provides a forum for interdisciplinary exchange. This academic year, Twagira is one of 10 professors and two students serving as Oakley Fellows, conducting independent research on subjects such as caste in India, racial disparities in the American judicial system and Soviet-era family photography.

Two or three times a week, the center hosts guest speakers, colloquia, reading groups and other events. And every Tuesday, after eating lunch together in the building’s cozy dining room, the fellows take their seats around a large wooden table for an in-depth discussion about the work of one of their peers. In February, it was Twagira’s turn.

Twagira had circulated a draft of his book chapter in advance. The sole Africanist among this year’s fellows, his project is a history of Kampala, the capital of Uganda, during the militarized period between 1966 and 1986. The fact that the other fellows do not share his expertise in the social history of modern Africa is, for Twagira, a benefit. It means they can approach his work with fresh eyes, uncovering issues he hadn’t considered, while helping him present his research to readers outside of his field.

During the roundtable, political science professor Sidney Rothstein, a spring 2024 Oakley Fellow, raised a point that caused Twagira to think more deeply about how to integrate ideas of class and capitalism into his work. And exchanges with Erica Moiah James, professor of African, Black and Caribbean art at the University of Miami, who holds a joint fellowship with the Oakley Center and the Clark Art Institute, led Twagira to draw a fertile comparison between Kampala and Cuba during the 1970s around the economics of sex work.

“I’m learning intensely from the other fellows,” Twagira says. “But I’m also learning from them about my work. If you want to understand how to write for a broader audience, the Oakley Center is the perfect place. It’s something you don’t get anywhere else.”

What makes the center special? Amid the frenzy of an academic semester, it can be difficult to sustain in-depth conversations over any significant duration. The center provides the opportunity for ongoing dialogue throughout the year. Those conversations help scholars—who can sometimes end up working in relative isolation—discover how their work might connect with other fields and disciplines.

German professor Christophe Koné has experienced the interdisciplinary ethos of the Oakley Center firsthand. A fellow during the 2019-20 academic year, he worked on his book Uncanny Creatures: Doll Thinking in Modern German Culture, due out this summer.

The experience led him to apply to become the center’s director. Now midway through his three-year term, Koné says he wants to ensure that the center is accessible and welcoming to faculty and staff. To that end, he’s developing a variety of programs and events, including a regular movie night with films screened from around the world, “bringing directors we might not usually encounter into the limelight,” he says. “At Williams, we have a very international community. My goal isto take advantage of it.”

The idea of a dedicated center to support interdisciplinary research in the humanities and social sciences first germinated among a group of Williams faculty in the early 1980s. The college has always placed the humanities at the heart of liberal arts education. But at the time, humanistic scholarship was coming under scrutiny, with the Reagan administration intent on slashing the budgets of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH).

“The humanities and the social sciences were under fire,” says Krista Andrews, the Oakley Center’s associate director. For humanists, it was a time of great uncertainty. “The idea was to find a way to underpin the humanities and social sciences, to bolster and support them in perpetuity,” she adds.

Under Francis Oakley, who was Williams’ president at the time, the college led a fundraising initiative. The NEH agreed to match the raised sum of $175,000. An endowment was created, and in 1985, the Oakley Center was born. Today, Oakley, for whom the center is named, is the Edward Dorr Griffin Professor of the History of Ideas, Emeritus, and a Senior Oakley Fellow.

The center moved into its elegant premises, a home that the family of Charles Makepeace, Class of 1900, had recently gifted to Williams. Makepeace was the college’s treasurer in the early 20th century, and the official name of the building remains Makepeace House to this day, “which we like,” Andrews says, “because the house feels like a calm retreat.”

Of the Oakley Center’s many resources for faculty and scholars, Andrews, who joined the center more than 13 years ago, is most proud of the manuscript review program. Faculty across the college who are coming to the end of a large project—whether a book, a series of articles or even a play—can invite several internal and external reviewers for a daylong session in which they all go through the manuscript with a fine-tooth comb.

“It’s like having all the people you’d want to talk to over for a party,” Andrews says. “You get together and discuss the thing that is most interesting to you in a beautiful place, where you’re all well fed, wonderfully supported and welcomed. Faculty describe feeling exhilarated and energized afterward, too. It’s a great way to accomplish serious and high-stakes work that under other circumstances could feel deeply distressing.”

An illustration of pencils grouped together, with points touching and a butterfly at the points.

Although the Oakley Center is faculty focused, each semester, one student in their senior year can join as a Ruchman Fellow, which includes a $2,000 stipend for research-associated expenses.

Last fall, April Owens ’24 held the Ruchman Fellowship to work on her senior thesis. Her project aims to unite cognitive science and philosophy and offer an original way of thinking about how the mind relates to the body. The direction of her research, she says, has been deeply enriched by her experience at the Oakley Center.

When Owens was presenting a chapter of her project, theater professor Shanti Pillai, a fall 2023 Oakley Fellow, posed a question that Owens had not considered: What if the mind/body split were a contingent product of Western intellectual culture—one we could bypass with, for example, a Buddhist psychology in which the distinction does not exist?

“She forced me to think about the contingency of the problem I’m working on as well as its broader implications,” Owens says. “That’s just the kind of exchange that might not happen if I were giving this presentation in a room full of philosophers of mind or cognitive scientists.”

Since the center’s founding, criticism of the humanities and social sciences has only intensified, making the opportunities offered by the Oakley Center more important than ever.

Koné points out that this is happening at a moment when Americans, divided into conflicting political and cultural camps, are struggling to hear one another across partisan lines fortified by social media. At a time like this, he believes, society most desperately needs what the humanities and social sciences are best placed to provide. “Our disciplines are the ones that teach people how to think, how to critically assess information and how to engage with an argument,” he says. “At the Oakley Center, we bring people together and start a conversation.”

Koné adds that in much of the world today, “There is a lot of arguing happening but not much listening. With people hiding behind their screens, it feels important to bring people into a room to have face-to-face conversations where they engage,listen, ask questions and think with care.”

Photo of freelance writer Tomas Weber in front of a tree.
Tomas Weber is a London-based writer whose work has been published in The Economist’s “1843 magazine,” WIRED, Smithsonian Magazine, The Guardian, Artforum, ArtReview and Frieze.
Black and white headshot photo of Nicolas Ortega.
Nicolás Ortega is an award-winning graphic designer, illustrator and art director from Colombia, based in New York. His illustrations have been published in The New York Times, The Guardian, The New Yorker and more. In 2021, he was named one of NBC’s Top 20 Latino Artists to Watch.