Oh, the Humanities!

Ever had a conversation with a colleague in another department about some shared area of interest that led you to think, ‘We should be teaching this together!’ If so, welcome to the birthplace of most Humanities courses! 

The Humanities Program has been around now for the better part of three decades, but I suspect that many faculty, especially those who have arrived in recent years, are only dimly aware of its existence and how it works. If you fall into the ‘dimly aware’ camp, I hope this post serves as a useful introduction to the program. But more than that, I hope it encourages some of you to consider teaching in Humanities. 

To give you some idea of the content of the program, here are some of the courses taught within Humanities over the past few years:

HUMN 204     Experience, Expression, and Exchange: Utopias and Dystopias 

This course explores how utopian, dystopian, and post-apocalyptic discourse imaginatively engages – and has engaged – cultural and historical challenges. Using approaches related to history, philosophy, literature, political theory, and the visual arts – especially film – this class seeks to ground utopian and dystopian speculation in the historical and cultural circumstances engendering it. Possible texts include works by Rousseau, More, Plato, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Marx, Leibniz, Voltaire, Huxley, Orwell, Zamyatin, McCarthy, Burgess, Atwood, Ishiguro, Lovecraft, Fritz Lang, and Ridley Scott.

HUMN 205     Reading the Labyrinth

The labyrinth is both a built environment and a conceptual space. Class lectures and assignments will interrogate the labyrinth as a pervasive structure and narrative device from antiquity to the present through its various manifestations and representations. Adopting a global perspective, this interdisciplinary class will address the labyrinth in different cultures through literature, architecture, the visual arts, film and contemporary media. A main thread for the course will be the work of Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges, and the connections it proposes between the labyrinth and multiple philosophical and artistic traditions.

HUMN 214     Experience, Expression, and Exchange: Histories of Science, Vision, and Art: 1500-Present

This course focuses on the histories of relations between visual art and contemporary scientific method(s). It looks at why and how major socio-economic, cultural, and political changes associated with the history of “the West” (c. 1500 to the present), involved a preoccupation with vision and its effects. The course hones in on artists and “scientific observers”, many of whom were directly involved in colonial and commercial projects. Topics of focus include: the uses of instruments (such as the microscope) for mediating sight and producing new knowledge about nature: the ordering, politics, and display of visual objects in collections, and more.

HUMN 225     The Nobel Prize

The Nobel Prize is widely considered the most highly reputable award in the fields of literature, medicine, physics, chemistry, peace, and economics. This course considers the history of the awards, the Nobel Foundation, and the selection process. Primary emphasis centers on particular awards and the impact they have had in their fields and in the world. Topics vary from offering to offering.

What’s important to understand about these examples is that all of them emerged from conversations and shared interests between faculty. Humanities courses are collaborative and interdisciplinary, with a typical class taught by three or four faculty from different disciplines. 200-level classes are generally organized around a particular topic or topics, and the topics covered are determined by participating faculty. What does it take to be a participating faculty member? Rounding up a sufficient number of faculty interested in and able to teach the course, discussing it with the director of the program (Derek Ettensohn), jumping through the usual hoops to get a new course on the books, and planning the course itself. In addition to the courses at the 200-level, Humanities offers a series of courses at the 100-level that form a chronological sequence, examining the ancient, medieval, early modern, and modern worlds, and the same holds true for these courses as for those at the 200-level: the focus of each course is determined by the faculty teaching it, though of course an interest in the relevant period is a prerequisite.

The structure of a Humanities course, including the format of class meetings, is also determined by participating faculty, but in my experience the meetings tend to be a mix of plenary sessions – attended by all faculty and students – and seminar meetings, in which each faculty member meets with their own section of students. Seminars are typically devoted to the discussion of texts (broadly construed so as to include films, works of art, music, etc.), while plenary sessions can take a number of forms – lectures, panel discussions (faculty or student), trips to the University Art Gallery, etc. – though their purpose is often to introduce texts and provide background or context for understanding them. Because this sort of collaborative teaching requires coordination between faculty members, it’s also common for a teaching team to have weekly meetings to discuss the readings and how best to approach them in class, to plan upcoming assignments, and to troubleshoot aspects of the course.

While the idea of additional meetings outside of class might initially sound burdensome, for me this has been one of the most rewarding aspects of teaching in Humanities. My experience of teaching in general is that, apart from class meetings, it’s often solitary: reading, prepping, and writing all require seclusion. And while I likely wouldn’t have been drawn to academia if I didn’t find these conditions congenial, the sense of common purpose and mutual support that can come from collaborative teaching is often energizing. From a pedagogical point of view, regular team meetings and plenary sessions, in which one has a chance to see other faculty at work with students, are an opportunity to discuss and observe different pedagogical methods, strategies, and tricks of the trade – different ways of approaching texts, of leading class discussions, or commenting on student work. I’ve heard colleagues describe the program as a laboratory for teaching, which gestures toward this sharing of pedagogies and the ways it can inspire new ideas for one’s own teaching.

You might think of teaching in a Humanities course as akin to a semester-long version of the CFT’s Celebration of Teaching, with the difference that you too are teaching in the course you’re observing. And this difference makes a difference. Because the teams are interdisciplinary, you will often find yourself teaching texts outside of your discipline. This can be a source of anxiety, but leaving your intellectual comfort zone can also have salutary effects on your teaching. Giving up the pretense of authority and expertise concerning all of the texts the course covers can make students more willing to venture their own ideas and hypotheses, and transforms the classroom into a more collaborative space in which both you and the students have a shared responsibility to make sense of the texts you’re grappling with. Modeling curiosity can be the goal, rather than performing expertise. And colleagues with the relevant expertise are generous in sharing tips for approaching particular texts and topics. 

I could say more about the program, but in the interest of not taking up too much of your time with this post I’ll bring things to a close. I hope the foregoing gives you some idea of the appeal of Humanities and how it works, but if you have questions about the program that I haven’t answered here I, or any of the other faculty involved in the program, would be happy to try to answer them. I’ll end with some of the analogies that I cycle through in thinking about what I value about the program. It sometimes has the feel of a reading group with other interested faculty. It often strikes me as a remedial education, giving me time to read texts and think about topics that I should have read or thought about long ago. More recently I’ve valued the ways it functions as a semester long pedagogical workshop. And in the busier and more stressful times of the semester, it can function as a teaching support group, in which we commiserate over the frustrations and anxieties of teaching and brainstorm ways of addressing them. If any of this sounds appealing to you, then consider joining!

Andrew Moser, Department of Philosophy

(For more information about the Humanities program, contact program director Derek Ettensohn.)

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