I Put the “Human” in Humanities

In 2017, I stepped into my first college level English course titled “The British Bestseller”. At the time, I was a computer science major with a pocketful of humanities transfer credits and advisors that wanted me to stay focused so I could graduate early. Being an 18 year old who knew nothing about coding (or himself), I found myself fearful of diving into any particular career path. That class served no purpose on paper, but for me it served two purposes: it was the first of many stepping stones that would led me to pursue a degree in English and it helped my find my own humanity. That second part may be a bit abstract and vague, but I think Christian Madsbjerg sums it up well: “When we focus solely on hard data and natural science methods – when we attempt to quantify human behavior only as so many quarks or widgets – we erode our sensitivity to all the forms of knowledge that are not reductionist.” It’s hard to find a true value in life, human life, when that value corresponds to a number. For most of my college career, that value was based on numbers. One that correlated with how much money I could make to justify the cost of my education, one that correlated with how many people I could make happy based on my career choice, and one that correlated with what minimum possible grade I could get on a final exam to pass. This made me feel isolated and depressed, which is not a recipe for a successful career, let alone a happy life. It wasn’t until I committed to an education in English that I began to feel liberated, to make friends, and to find joy in my work. On a personal level, the value is clear. On a professional level, those values require a bit of translation.

Let’s start with a challenge: “Baby Keem’s DIE FOR MY BITCH and Self-Expression in Rap Music”

That title still brings me joy because it feels appropriately resistive to the academic, while still being an academic project. I chose this piece, not because of the quality, but because of the lessons I learned creating it. I chose Baby Keem as a topic because I was an avid fan of his work and felt that there had to be something deeper to his music that might be lost given its genre and tone. I then spent hours listening to his album on repeat, trying to find lines that stood out. It was difficult because I knew what I was looking for, but I couldn’t put it into words. After compiling an erratic list of lyrics that didn’t really seem to have a clear connection, I started scouring academic journals in order to find someone who had that same biting feeling about rap. I got lucky with a couple scholars who were interested in the performance of masculinity in rap music. That work having been done, I started to mash my work with theirs in the best way I could come up with, which resulted in an unguided, inconsistent paper that really enjoyed being vulgar. At the time, I only felt relief at having finished such a large project in a style that I had never attempted. While I didn’t really achieve any of my goals in this project, it set the foundation for me to navigate the awkward work of bringing another person’s ideas into my own. Writing for me, up until then, had always been a solo gig. I say what I say and you either accept it or reject it. After that, I learned that collaboration is an incredibly helpful tool in order to effectively promote an idea.

The more words the more better: “The Power of a Good Goodbye: Farewells as Portrayed by Jane Austen’s Novel and Ang Lee’s Film Adaptation of Sense and Sensibility

I almost ran out of breath typing that. As the title so conveniently describes, this project was a comparative analysis focused on a novel by Jane Austen and one of the many films based on it. Also described in the title was my topic, which was the portrayal of a farewell scene that’s present in each piece of media. This project involved a particularly close reading of about four sentences in the novel, which was compared with a thirty second scene in the film. Through some careful math, you might deduce that this would all add up to about seven pages. This is one of my favorite things about English classes. Creating a lot from relatively little. It requires a good sense of organization and imagination to make possible. Without it, you’d just have some isolated quotes with arrows pointing towards pictures and that leaves a reader in the dark. Yes, these two scenes are obviously linked because one is based on the other, but the challenge comes in communicating the what and the why, a skill that is invaluable.

Now we’re getting somewhere: “Concealed Race in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night

Well that’s certainly a concise title, if I do say so myself. This project was pretty much the culmination of all our work in “Race in the Renaissance”, a course that focused on applying contemporary critical race theory to Renaissance texts. I use the word “culmination” intentionally here because Twelfth Night is a Shakespeare play that is distinctly devoid of any direct references to race, especially when compared to a play like Othello whose actual subtitle is “The Moor of Venice”. I found myself rather challenged in this process because nothing was clear. Any evidence I chose had to be solid and well justified. Much of my work heavily relied on theory, rather than my own thoughts. Everything I’d ever written brought me to this point (Cue the dramatic music). I was working collaboratively with theorists and integrating their work into the greater conversation about racial theory, reading as closely as possible in order to find signals pointing to a critical idea, and relentlessly reiterating and justifying my thesis in order to sustain my idea throughout the paper. It was by no means perfect, but it felt rewarding to literally engage with these skills I wasn’t sure I had. This project allowed me to synthesize a text and theory that previously had no business being connected.

Returning briefly to the personal, my goal as a writer is to be able imagine and communicate my ideas in a way that is clear and cohesive to a my audience. This sensitivity is critical in order to form a connection with others, a concept that is as important in life as it is in business. There is a value in the sciences, as none of the technology we have today would exist without people dedicated to the numbers, but there is also a value in the humanities because none of that technology would be in the hands of the masses if it weren’t for someone imaginative to make those numbers accessible, legible. While I can’t code well enough to make six figures, I can confidently say that my education in English has made me more human, which, to the right person, is priceless.

One Response to I Put the “Human” in Humanities

  1. Prof VZ February 16, 2023 at 5:04 pm #

    I like how you frame the question of values vs viability. It’s not so much that these are clashing (passion vs. professionalization). It’s just that what is self-evident in one arena requires what you call “translation” to get at the question of skills. Ideally, these skills aren’t divorced from values, but ways in which those values have become evident and available. I also like the skills reflection here: organization and imagination; viewing yourself as joining a conversation rather than just going rogue; finding relevant research conversations and contexts for your ideas; imagining the presence of something (ideas or race, etc.) where they might seem less pronounced. All highly relevant to the life of the mind and life generally.

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