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Two Florida State professors win National Endowment for the Humanities fellowships

Elizabeth Spiller
Randolph Clarke

Florida State University Professor of English Elizabeth Spiller is intrigued by life during the Renaissance. Her research has led her to better understand what people read, cooked — even how they set up house.

Spiller has examined topics as divergent as reading and race during the period, written two award-winning books on the topics and edited a couple of 17th-century English recipe books.

For her efforts, she was recently awarded a National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) fellowship to pursue research on her most recent book: "The Sense of Matter: Science, Aesthetics and Literary Creation in the Renaissance." The project will offer new answers as to why literature "mattered" in thinking abut the physical boundaries of the world and our experiences of it, Spiller said.

The $50,400 award — her second in five years — will allow Spiller to travel and dig through libraries at Yale and in England, as well as precious time to read and write.

For her part, Spiller said she is incredibly grateful to the NEH, which she calls a "truly trickle-down organization" because it funds so many projects from oral histories collections in small-town libraries to reading projects aimed at middle-school students.

"I think as a culture to know who you are and where you are going to go is very important," Spiller said. "The NEH gift is ongoing in the sense that it allows us to continue to explore our cultural history."

The NEH also awarded an identical fellowship to Florida State philosophy Professor Randolph Clarke who studies free will and human agency. Human agency is the expression of our capacity to make choices and carry them out.

"It's very exciting, and a pleasant surprise, to receive the fellowship," Clarke said. "I've been working on a project that I'll now be able to complete during the year covered by the award."

The NEH grant was awarded for Clarke's most recent project: He's writing a book about an important aspect of human agency that has received relatively little attention.

"Theories of agency — whether in philosophy, law or psychology — generally focus on actions, on things such as firing a gun or telling a lie," Clarke said. "Of course our actions are important; they have consequences, and we're generally responsible for them. But we also sometimes omit to act or refrain from doing a certain thing. On such occasions, not acting, too, can have important consequences, and we can be responsible for not doing something we ought to have done."

Clarke offers this example: Suppose that an adult is charged with several acts of child abuse. Others have witnessed the abuse or been told about it but failed to intervene or notify the police. The failures to act have had bad consequences, allowing the abuse to continue. The individuals would seem to be blameworthy for not taking action, and some of them might be legally culpable.

His work will focus on similarities and differences between actions and omissions of this sort. And, Clarke added,  "how we're to understand responsibility for not acting in such cases."

For more information, contact Clarke at (850) 644-1483 or, or Spiller at (850) 459-1011 or

By Elizabeth Bettendorf
31 January 2012

"I think as a culture to know who you are and where you are going to go is very important. The NEH gift is ongoing in the sense that it allows us to continue to explore our cultural history."

Elizabeth Spiller
Florida State University Department of English