Why the Arts and Humanities?

It is a privilege to work closely with students as they take on the collective work of culture—of taking up common texts, examining them from their own experiences and perspectives, and discovering in them the questions about meaning and value that make our lives richer as human beings and better informed as citizens; and of telling stories, making art, and engaging in the shared labor of thinking and making.

As a professor in literary and cultural history I am committed to sharing what we know about the world we share with other people—the literary, social, and cultural history that has shaped (and continues to shape) the world in which we live. Students in the arts and the humanities learn through making and interpretation how to reflect critically on the organizations and the society to which they belong. They learn to pay attention and to make connections, to become comfortable with complexity and ambiguity, and to think about questions and problems that can’t be resolved in conventional ways. And they learn to become independent thinkers, engaged members of diverse cultures, and sophisticated communicators.

Students who study in the humanities—whether in a major, a minor, or a sequence of courses—become conscious of what they are experiencing and learn to pay attention to how they are constructing meaning from their experiences. This awareness extends beyond the specialized knowledge and methods of academic training, as well as the functional tasks of a job, to the social structures that exclude people from asking the questions about the nature and purpose of these ways of knowing, methods, and tasks.

All of my intellectual work, whether in the role of teacher, scholar, or editor, is cultivating what I have come to call democratic literacy. As Walt Whitman so eloquently describes this work, “Books are to be call’d for, and supplied, on the assumption that the process of reading is not a half-sleep, but, in highest sense, an exercise, a gymnast’s struggle; that the reader is to do something for himself, must be on the alert, must himself or herself construct indeed the poem, argument, history, metaphysical essay—the text furnishing the hints, the clue, the start or framework. Not the book needs so much to be the complete thing, but the reader of the book does.”

 

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