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Political Activism and the Academy

Posted by on Feb 11, 2019 in Homepage Features, Humanities Center Blog | 0 comments

Political Activism and the Academy

“To act … and not to be acted upon” (2 Nephi 2:26). One of my favorite essays on the field of Brazilian Studies bears an unusual and entertaining title: “Brazilianists, God Bless ‘Em! What in the World is to be Done?”1 Written by Richard Morse, one of the most eminent scholars of Brazilian culture and history during the twentieth century, the speech in question was given at the time of his retirement, a sort of farewell address to the academic community. In the paper, Morse reflects on the role of the academic in society and he concludes with a provocation: “The central function of scholarship and universities is, after all, curatorial and not revolutionary—nor even, alas, intellectual. Any tidbit, once gathered and classified, has its interest some time for someone. … We need to be on the lookout for occasional prophets coming along in our seminars. We’ll recognize them because they’ll be impatient with meticulous demonstration and more concerned with pointing and exhibiting; they’ll take paradox as acceptable statement rather than as a resolvable issue; they’ll have discounted the precept of freshman English manuals to connect all assertions by straight lines. We needn’t do much about these prophets or place them in the hydroponic soil of a greenhouse. We need merely flick off the academic seat-belt sign and allow them to move about the cabin. Which takes confidence on our part and, of course, assumes that we’re airborne. (But please, no smoking in the lavatories.)”2 Here, Morse highlights the role of the scholar as a teacher and a steward of knowledge. He asserts that the role of the professor is one of preparing the rising generation to grapple with the complexities of contemporary society. I doubt few at the university would bat an eye over Morse’s defense of the professor as teacher, guide, and mentor. On the other hand, I am certain that many within the academic community would question Morse’s claim that the function of scholarship and the university is “curatorial and not revolutionary.” In an age when universities increasingly serve as sites of political contention (consider, as just one example among dozens, the recent debates over the placement of confederate statues on university campuses), and when professors place themselves (literally) on the front lines of political protest, many in the academy ardently call for revolution. A tension thus exists between two extreme views of the purpose of the university. If I might hazard a gross exaggeration, we could summary the two positions in this way: Critique 1:      The academy exists in an ivory tower, cut off from the “real” world. The university is a place of theory and impracticality. The role of university is to preserve knowledge. Critique 2:      The academy is composed of “activist professors” who teach ideological positions and seek to “indoctrinate” students. Professors inappropriately use their privileged positions to unduly influence students and to be involved in local, national, and international politics. From our vantage point as teachers and scholars, as we consider the myriad difficult issues facing both local and international communities, we may find ourselves wondering where we fit between these two extremes, and we might ask the same question posed by Morse: “What in the world is to be done?” I have been thinking about Morse’s essay recently while pondering the current political situation of Brazil, a country I love deeply and have spent my (admittedly short) professional career researching and writing about. Brazil recently experienced dramatic political change through the election of Jair Bolsonaro, whose political rhetoric has led him to be characterized by numerous political commentators as the Trump...

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A Field Guide of Birds and Grace

Posted by on Feb 4, 2019 in Homepage Features, Humanities Center Blog | 2 comments

A Field Guide of Birds and Grace

SANDPIPER; Calidris himantopus. Voice: A single whu. The last time I saw a sandpiper I was in San Diego, sitting on the beach fully clothed and watching those nervous, light-footed birds skitter across the sand. Their legs move so fast they seem to levitate just above the ground, hovering without the use of wings, defined by quickness and brevity and indecision. That trip, I played bocce ball, picked up broken, spotted shells and stones, and climbed down cliffs to the cold, salty Pacific foam. At night, floodlights poured over the beach like second and third diaphanous moons while my boyfriend and I made rudimentary shadow animals and danced. I ate expensive fish with his mom, like the end of a strange dream. Sandpipers are bustling little prayers, lacking any sort of magnificence, like small hand-written thank-you notes or post-its left on the fridge as reminders to buy butter, cardamom, brown sugar. I want to hold a sandpiper’s quivering body in my hands and whisper that I envy its hollow bones and speckled eggs and obsidian eyes. The sandpiper is a grace note, not graceful, but a half second hesitation between intentionality and improvisation, a lukewarm grace.   AUSTRALIAN BUDGERIGAR; Melopsittacus undulates. Voice: Chattering, chirping. I used to hold parakeets on my fingers and shoulders, and feel the weight of their grace seeping into my body. When I put my finger against their down-covered, cloudlike bellies, they would lift one reptilian-esque foot onto it, then the other, and speak to me in their clicking languages, mysterious messages earnestly spoken to my unfamiliar ears. My ears which they would gnaw on with their hooked beaks, making a meal out of the decaying skin cells. The feeling of their warm, quick heartbeats against my skin is one of unusual vulnerability, as if I were becoming acquainted with two silken angels. Their bodies were as delicate as fragile porcelain figurines illuminated with breaths of pastel pigments, looking like they had rolled in a box of paints, the one Joni Mitchell sings about. I remember when they died, I felt their spirits sink into me, and I grasped at the the amorphous concept of death for the first time. Their poor lifeless forms that had been defined by such rambunctious cacophonies were so still, their vivacity torn asunder in a single moment. Now I imagine cradling those bird corpses, their blood coalescing in my hands, creating a pool of grace.   LARK SPARROW; Chondestes grammacus. Voice: A broken song; clear notes and trills with pauses between; characterized by buzzing and churring passages. I have the bad habit of disturbing large groups of birds congregating together in open spaces, originating from the time I was six years old and saw a conglomeration of sparrows in my front yard. My dad and I were watching them silently. They hopped around the grass gently. I threw open the front door and sprinted outside into the birds, waving my arms and yelping as the sparrows leapt into the air in synchronized motion. I remember my dad scolding me in his pajamas that morning, yes, but the visceral moment of being surrounded by birds in flight has yet to depart my memory, too. I can’t help itching to be surrounded by birds, feeling like I too could lift my feet off the ground and escape in a flurry of motion, leaving this human corporeality in exchange for levitating grace. I watch sparrows rise and fall like vibrant suns, making elegant parabolas in the sky. “At dawn I have birds, clearly divine messengers that I don’t understand, yet day by day feel...

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Old Myths and Current Realities in the Futures of Humanities Majors

Posted by on Jan 28, 2019 in Homepage Features, Humanities Center Blog | 2 comments

Old Myths and Current Realities in the Futures of Humanities Majors

In late April of 1992, with finals week at BYU in our rear-view mirror, four college friends and I set out on a great American road trip built around visits to national landmarks (Mt. Rushmore and the Gateway Arch), church history sites (Jackson County and Nauvoo), and Major League Baseball games (Nolan Ryan pitching for the Rangers at Comiskey Park and a 11-inning marathon between the Cards and Expos in a freezing Busch Stadium). Oddly enough, amid a jam-packed itinerary, one of the trip’s most memorable experiences came while waiting for a table at Gino’s East Pizza in Chicago, where we befriended a group ahead of us in line who were in town for a gerontology conference. All roughly our parents’ age, these gerontologists were true evangelists for their field. Upon discovering we were in college, they promptly set out to convince us that any right-thinking university student would do well to position him or herself to capitalize on the imminent mass-retirements of America’s baby boomers. After a few minutes, one particularly zealous member of their group began grilling us about our chosen majors, assigning a grade for how well prepared each of us would be for an economy soon to revolve around elder care. Much to his delight, the first four he interrogated proved golden investigators: an aspiring orthopedic surgeon (A+), ophthalmologist (A+), physical therapist (A), and pharmacist (B+, but correctable to an A if he dropped his major in art). Alas, however, he then came to me, a wannabe literature professor who had somehow thought it a good idea to spend much of this testosterone-filled road trip reading Pride and Prejudice in the back of the van. Not surprisingly, the gerontologist was considerably less keen on my professional prospects, struggling to find something, anything, an English major might offer the economy of tomorrow. Somewhat reluctantly, yet much to my friends’ delight, he ultimately suggested that starting college anew with a more pragmatic major might be my best option. Over a quarter-century later, our encounter outside Gino’s East remains a good enough story that it still regularly resurfaces whenever this group of friends gets together. That said, it’s not that good of a story, and I suspect many readers of this blog will have tales of their own in this genre that would easily top mine. Even at a selective university like BYU, where cultivating broad knowledge and intellectual curiosity remain integral to the institutional mission, we’ve yet to see the moment when students studying English, history, or philosophy haven’t reflexively assumed defensive positions whenever the discussion pivots to one’s choice of majors. Of course, humanities students and, better yet, their parents can take some comfort from the “humanities majors desperately wanted”articles that routinely pop up in venues like the Wall Street Journal, Business Week, and Forbes. Yet, as I learned from Jane Austen back in 1992, a particular idea having become “a truth universally acknowledged” in certain circles by no means guarantees its being considered natural law or even common sense beyond that group’s borders. In some respects, arguments for the enduring value of humanistic methods and traditions are akin to polemics about the reality of global warming, the necessity of immunizations, and the benefits of sunscreen, as all of these “verifiable truths” are wont to be easily forgotten or obscured if not communicated strategically, creatively, and repeatedly. In this spirit, I’ll close by sharing what my five years (2012-17) as the faculty coordinator of BYU’s European Studies program taught me about the value and challenges of liberal arts degrees in the early twenty-first century. Drafting largely off...

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The Finitude of Winter

Posted by on Jan 22, 2019 in Homepage Features, Humanities Center Blog | 0 comments

The Finitude of Winter

I was lied to as a child. In my elementary school classroom, my teacher displayed on the wall a large wheel with twelve smaller circles orbiting the center, each representing a month of the year. They were separated in groups of three, each group comprising a season accordingly: • Summer: June, July, August • Autumn: September, October, November • Winter: December, January, February • Spring: March, April, May I blame this chart for my consistent detestation of March. By the end of February every year, I mistakenly believe that spring is just around the corner. I get up each morning, hoping for the chance that there might not be frost on my window, that I might not have to worry about sliding around on the ice in my light-as-Styrofoam car, and that my ears might not hurt as they slowly thaw when I enter the JSFB; yet day after day, I am always disappointed. Thankfully, in the past year or so, BYU’s semester schedule has finally mitigated my expectations to some degree. I now view the months laid out in the following manner: • Summer: May, June, July, August • Autumn: September, October, November, half of December • Winter: the happy half of December, and the brutal eternity that is January, February, March, March (I’m putting this one in twice since it seems twice as long), and April 1-28 • Spring: April 29-30 Okay, am I being a bit dramatic? I’ll acquiesce enough to say “maybe.” I really do not know what to do with this time of year. It’s not even that I simply dislike the cold; the cold months before January seem fine. In fact, since October, we’ve had three installments of this blog celebrating the festivals and holidays that we celebrate during the colder months and what they might mean (I myself discussed Halloween and creativity, Marie Orton remarked on Christmas and seeking in our vulnerability, and just two weeks ago, Garrett May spoke about New Years’ traditions and innovations). Yet once all of the holidays are over, the finitude of winter seems to set in and linger. How do and should we conceptualize it? And more importantly, how might we navigate our lives through it? I’m not the first one who has felt strongly about the drawn out feeling of winter. Plenty of writers have concentrated on the long haul of bitter cold rather than the comforting warmth of the hearth. Professor Orton brought up a T. S. Eliot poem in her December post that seems to represent one of these positions. Forgive me for repeating part of that poem, “Journey of the Magi”: All this was a long time ago, I remember, And I would do it again, but set down This set down This: were we led all that way for Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly, We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death, But had thought they were different; this Birth was Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death. We returned to our places, these Kingdoms, But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation, With an alien people clutching their gods. I should be glad of another death.1 After the pomp and circumstance, after the jovial familial gatherings, after the new beginnings and the setting of resolutions, what is there? According to Eliot: death and bitter agony. We know, after embarking upon a new beginning, that there is no returning to the old one. The year is dying, Tennyson might say, and it isn’t always so easy to let it...

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Drafting Tradition

Posted by on Jan 7, 2019 in Homepage Features, Humanities Center Blog | 0 comments

Drafting Tradition

Greetings, 2019. I feel extremely lucky to be—by mere coincidence—the first addition to this platform in the new year. Accordingly, I’d like to talk about the opportunity that this changing of the calendar presents in the way of traditions, which seem to be the blueprints that structure the December and January months. Whatever the roots of these traditions may be, I find it significant that the closing and opening of the year is marked by acts of familial and societal rituals that are performed simply for the sake of doing so. However, the perpetuation of these ritualistic acts is not immune to the critical eye, and it isn’t difficult to question the value of such traditions. I for one find it easy to grumble about the meaningless nature of tradition when my wife’s family declares it time to dress in our matching Christmas eve onesie pajamas. Come Christmas morning though you won’t find me complaining about the abundance of gifts we’ve been given, let alone the attire we wear when tearing the presents open. I think my inconsistent attitude shows just how tricky it is to engage with tradition in a fair or unbiased mode, yet acknowledging this subjectivity doesn’t keep one from repeating the question: what is the value of such traditions? Ironically, the tradition of setting new year’s resolutions presents a chance to answer that question. Looking back on the past year, we can reexamine our routines, our habits, our traditions, and evaluate the function that they play in our lives. With that in mind, let’s talk about our university context, and as an undergraduate, I’d like to bring the student perspective to the table. For professors, I imagine it might be easiest to teach a course the same way you taught it last year. Obviously, you don’t have the time in between semesters to seriously reform course material, and that resolution might have to wait until summer or a leave of absence to be actionable. But what elements of your syllabus have become the subjects of tradition? What things might you change that could benefit your students? I’m told that my student evaluations “really do matter,”1 but do they really matter to you, the teacher? I won’t pretend to know what it’s like organizing a classroom, but having worked in the office of a department in the College of Humanities for two years, I do have a sense of the busy and unending workload of a professor. We undergrads have the fortune of leaving all our worries behind after finals week has passed; the same can’t be said for our instructors. For students, I wonder if the way we go about putting together our schedules has become, in its own way, a subject of tradition. Do we try to register for classes that seem safe, shooting for the easy A? Do we only enroll in courses taught by professors that we know and like? I’ve always been a bit leery of the “ratemyprofessors” exchange, where students can essentially advise each other of which professors to avoid or make judgement calls based on the experiences of a few. I mean, yes, I see the ability to communicate the success and failure of certain classes or teachers as productive, allowing students to engage in a rigorous college system. That’s what anyone does when asking a friend if they’ve ‘taken this’ or ‘that class’ and ‘how was it?’ It just feels like that added layer of information in our decision-making process creates a risk-averse mentality that could forego unseen opportunities. Who knows what awaits us in the difficult classes, with...

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Fragile Beauty

Posted by on Dec 10, 2018 in Homepage Features, Humanities Center Blog | 1 comment

Fragile Beauty

December to me means Christmas, and of all the elements of the Christmas story, the one that fascinates me most is the story of the magi. It astonishes me that learned individuals would set out and travel to another land guided only by a star, and that somehow that star would help them recognize a king who had no outward, worldly signs of his majesty. What was that “new star” and what did it mean to follow it? Learning more about what kind of astronomical event those Persian priest-kings saw only makes their quest more impressive to me. I know that some scholars have theorized the “star” was actually a comet,1a nova, an eclipse, or a planetary conjunction.2 The planetary conjunction theory is my favorite, since the conjunction of Jupiter and Venus that fits the timeline I like (spring of 2 B.C.E) occurred near Regulus (literally “little king”), and thus would have had the astrological implication of a king arising: “As the brightest star in the constellation Leo, Regulus has been almost universally associated in ancient cultures with the concept of royalty and kingly power.”3And if (though no one can be certain) the magi were familiar with the Hebrew texts, they may even have associated the Lion with Judah, an association that may have told them where to seek the king. I have frequent opportunities to look through telescopes, since there are four at my house currently (none of which is mine). I know I am supposed to be awed by the vastness of the universe and the beauty of the limitless stars, but my most frequent reaction is a deep awareness that I am far from understanding the tiny fuzzy tennis balls I see through the eyepiece. It humbles me to ponder on those wise individuals who felt compelled and guided by a light that even with magnification still can seem very faint to me. Of course, our line of sight, our perspective, is an important factor in deriving meaning from the observation. Whatever the Star of Bethlehem may have been, we assume it was visible to all, but only the magi were able to use it to find the new priest-king. As T. S. Eliot wrote at the end of “Journey of the Magi,” Were we led all that way for Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly, We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death, But had thought they were different; This Birth was Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death. We returned to our places, these Kingdoms, But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation, With an alien people clutching their gods.4 The magi relied on starlight to seek the Christ, and found what they had been seeking, thanks to a mindfulness that allowed that starlight to lead them. These ideas were very much on my mind during the presentations of our recent speaker from Princeton Theological Seminary, Prof. Bo Karen Lee. Her presentations on “The Compassionate Christ” and “The Wisdom of Weakness” both emphasized the power of mindfulness in our scholarship, our teaching, our interactions with students and colleagues, and in our spiritual attempts to seek after Christ. She saw these all not as separate endeavors, nor ones with clear paths necessarily. Using as a metaphor the Japanese art/philosophy of kintsugi (the art of repairing broken pottery with lacquer mixed with gold or silver), Prof. Lee suggested that power of mindfulness more often—and most effectively—lies in its power to reveal our own fragility. To employ mindfulness in my professional life was a new idea for...

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