Posts by hcintern

On Teaching Postsecular Theory as Postsecular Practice

Posted by on Apr 9, 2018 in Homepage Features, Humanities Center Blog | 0 comments

On Teaching Postsecular Theory as Postsecular Practice

“Do you consider yourself postsecular?” That was the last writing prompt I crafted for students of my graduate course on postsecular theory this semester. The responses were creative and frequently moving, as I expected they would be. More on those responses, including my own, below. First, let me provide some backdrop for those who may be less familiar with postsecularism or its contexts. Postsecularity broadly names a renewed interest in religion, spirituality, or some combination thereof. This is an academic field, and it designates a body of theory – a field defined by a densely secular history – so it should surprise no one to learn that postsecularity is characterized by wide diversity of opinion and approach, much of it ambivalent. Some scholars in the field are devoutly religious and welcome the prospect of addressing religion and religious experience – in language that is, or is almost, religious – in academic work. A greater number are not religious, at least not overtly so, but express fatigue with the hegemonic “hermeneutics of suspicion” and delight in a resurgent cultural poetics of wonder. Still others embrace the postsecular as part of an unfolding, global project of enlightenment, contending that “we moderns” must make a space for religious cultures in the public sphere lest we betray our secular ideals by becoming as dogmatic as they. And then there are those who, affecting a kind of world-weary wisdom, argue that it might be nice if we could actually invest faith in religious nonsense, given how important it is to our history and all that, but alas … pass the vodka. The end of that last paragraph grows a bit glib, but actually, I empathize with the skeptics, at least to a degree. Religion is all around us, whether we like it or not – and often in forms we don’t like. I’ve heard Church leaders express dismay over the findings of the Pew Research Center that Westerners seem to be less and less religious but more and more spiritual – SBNR: spiritual but not religious – because spirituality is so notoriously individualized and individualizing. There’s great irony in this, to be sure: in his landmark 1902 study The Varieties of Religious Experience, William James concluded that spirituality connects us to each other and to things beyond ourselves: “the visible world is part of a more spiritual universe from which it draws its chief significance,” and “union or harmonious relation with that higher universe is our true end.”1 And yet, in practical terms, spirituality is often “eclectic, practicing outside or on the margins of institutionalized religions,” thus devolving into something “self-authorizing and idiosyncratic … [and] commercialized.”2 Religious fervor, meanwhile, if not downright intoxication, seems more evident in social movements than in traditional faith communities: witness the tribalism infecting American politics, where even ethical causes toward which many of us are sympathetic mobilize gatherings that take on the quality of secular revivalist meetings. In short, religion and spirituality in the modern age are subjects that often emit more heat than light. The postsecular thus represents not so much a “return” to these topics as an exploration of what they mean in our contemporary moment. My class on postsecular theory addressed this question by mapping broad territories of the field. We read Charles Taylor’s massive intellectual history, A Secular Age, which charts the complex course of religious belief in modernity. We took up debates – Jürgen Habermas vs. William Connolly – about whether religion could be accommodated within the rational mores of civil society or, by contrast, whether the depth of religious attachments might help us...

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Why Experiential Learning?

Posted by on Apr 1, 2018 in Homepage Features, Humanities Center Blog | 0 comments

Why Experiential Learning?

This post was written by Greg Thompson, Spanish and Portuguese, HC Faculty Fellow A lab coat, a lab coat! My kingdom for a lab coat! When President Worthen first announced the university’s new focus on inspiring learning, I was initially slightly saddened by the fact that our teaching had not been “inspiring” during BYU’s 140 years+ history and required an initiative in order to get faculty and students inspired. However, I was relieved and quite elated to realize that President Worthen was not referring to some lack in focus by students and faculty but to an increase in the incorporation of experiential learning into our classes and programs. The reason for my elation is that I have studied, researched, and published extensively on service learning, a sub-field of experiential learning, and I was pleased to see that BYU was prompting this type of instruction and learning. This announcement and subsequent announcements have been accompanied by a video of a wide range of students and faculty working together through different types of experiential learning. I was made aware in a Humanities Center Colloquium titled, “Test Tubes, Book Spines, and Broken Contracts” by Brian Croxall of Digital Humanities, that it seemed that this inspiring learning necessitated either a fishing boat on a distant body of water, travel to some exotic tropical location, or a white lab coat. Giving my slightly sensitive stomach to travels on large bodies of distant water and my lack of affinity for the dissection of marine life as well as limited travel funds, I, like my colleague in Digital Humanities, will focus on white lab coats (available in the BYU Store for only $19.95). I have thought that maybe the lack of inclusion of the College of Humanities in these BYU videos is due to the obvious lack of lab coats in our classrooms and that possibly purchasing them for our students, might lead to our inclusion in subsequent promotional videos about inspiring learning. Picture this: a scene where a group of English 317R-Writing Creative Nonfiction students are seated in the JFSB basement all wearing their labs coats while discussing theories and methodologies related to creative writing in non-fiction and then a cutaway shot to these same students, still adorned in their lab coats, assisting a local non-profit in revising and developing promotional material about the resources and services of this organization to the local community members. The video would then cut away again, but this time to a group of Spanish translation students. Again they would be outfitted in lab coats, working and collaborating together to translate said promotional material into Spanish, and thus making it accessible to the Hispanic population that represents the largest minority population in Utah County. The final scene of this moving video would show digital humanities students, robed in their lab coats, in DIGHT 350-Web Information Technologies helping to develop a website for the local non-profit organization that includes the work of the other lab coat equipped students thus allowing them to reach more people and better serve the community in and around BYU. Imagine the value of this type of service and the learning that would take place as students and local community members worked together to better help those around us all the while applying what they are learning in class. Envision these different classrooms as our lab-coat-garlanded students returned to reflect on some of the struggles and challenges they faced while carrying out this project, and this led to guided discussions about the implementation of the ideas discussed in previous classes. Contemplate the connections that students would make...

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The Fruits of Failure

Posted by on Mar 26, 2018 in Homepage Features, Humanities Center Blog | 0 comments

The Fruits of Failure

“It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all—in which case, you fail by default” J.K. Rowling, Harvard Commencement address (2008) My friend shared her experience in a small town piano recital. Most of the judges felt that giving a child anything less than a perfect grade (superior) was going to be detrimental to that child’s self-esteem. “But they worked so hard,” “She is shy,” “He did his best,” etc. As a result, all except one judge (my friend’s mom, a Piano Guild-certified instructor), gave superior ratings despite the child’s actual performance, which was often times subpar. My friend’s mom, however, wasn’t afraid to give lower ratings, and she received a lot of flak for it around the community. I think the “everyone is a winner” mentality encourages an unhealthy perception of success and self-worth. When we tell anyone, especially children, that they win even when they lose, or that they performed well on a musical number that they bombed, are we not teaching them that failure is shameful, something to be avoided? But how can we possibly avoid failure? The truth of the matter is that failure is the best teacher. Failure will be the best thing that ever happened to you because it forces you to clarify what you want and then to work harder/more efficiently for that thing. Failure is what pushes you to be better, to improve, and to change. I think we need to be more honest about failure and to allow it into our lives as a teacher—not as a disciplinarian or as a form of punishment—but a stepping stone to future success. This concept really hit home for me when I read J.K. Rowling’s Harvard Commencement address for the first time. I have returned to it time and again as a reminder of the benefits of failure. Rowling shares a bit of her life story before Harry Potter. She had graduated with a degree in Classics, had moved to a different country, got married and had a child only to have her short marriage fall apart. She ended up a single parent, jobless and well below the poverty line. She shared that “Failure gave me an inner security I had never attained by passing examinations. … I discovered that I had a strong will, and more discipline than I had suspected; I also found out that I had friends whose value was truly above the price of rubies.” She knows what it feels like to pursue the thing you love and to fall flat on your face time and again. But what came out of that was a sense of confidence that she was “secure in [her] ability to survive.” I just love that. Rowling said, “so rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life,” and it can be that way for us, too. The difference, I think, in our perception of failure comes really in the form of what Carol Dweck calls fixed or growth mindsets. If we allow ourselves to believe that when we fail at something that then defines who we are—we tell ourselves “you are a failure”—we are feeding the pernicious and self-deprecating lie. Failure doesn’t mean that you are a failure. A growth mindset would think “ok, you failed. What can I learn? How can I improve?” It seems like such a small thing to change our self-talk, but it makes a world of difference. We so often only see the final product of months or years of...

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The Human Contradiction

Posted by on Mar 19, 2018 in Homepage Features, Humanities Center Blog | 1 comment

The Human Contradiction

This post was written by Hannah Leavitt, HC Student Fellow The first time I read Anna Karenina, I was quick to pick sides. As I continued to read, I recognized that despite their major flaws and mistakes, each character acted authentically. Reflecting on this experience, I realized that, like each of Tolstoy’s characters, I am similarly contradictory. While sometimes I am objective in my decisions, other times, I knowingly make biased decisions. In one way or another, we all are contradictory.   Contradiction is one trait that all humans share. Despite our best intentions, none of us can escape conflict in our feelings, beliefs, and desires. Though mainstream media often creates stories focused around a “good guy” battling against a “bad guy,” it is hard for anyone to actually be completely good or completely bad. Doesn’t the “good guy” also make poor decisions and choices that hurt the people they love? Often, isn’t the “bad guy” someone we would, in a different setting, try to understand? In contemplating the many ways in which I am contradictory, I cannot help but feel that allowing others their contradictions would enable me to also accept others. Maybe, by recognizing the opposites that exist in each of us, we can realize the similarities we have with those who seem foreign to us. In the end, we all are just humans making choices. Accepting our own contradictions gives each of us an added measure of power. Maya Angelou expresses this thought eloquently in her poem “A Brave and Startling Truth:” We, this people, on this small and drifting planet  Whose hands can strike with such abandon  That in a twinkling, life is sapped from the living  Yet those same hands can touch with such healing, irresistible tenderness  That the haughty neck is happy to bow  And the proud back is glad to bend  Out of such chaos, of such contradiction  We learn that we are neither devils nor divines Realizing that I, like you (and everyone else), am full of contradictory potentials and realities affords me the ability to truly choose between them. Humans have the unique ability to both harm and heal. We can love, and we can hate. We can acquiesce, and we can refuse. In the process of sifting through our own contradictions, choosing the sides we will take, and learning how our choices affect those around us, we can discover the type of people we want to be and what we want to stand for. There are times when we should happily bow our necks. There are times when we should refuse to concede. “Out of such chaos, of such contradiction” which is life, we learn that we are truly “neither devils nor divines.” Rather, we are free to...

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Adaptation: (Not) a 21st Century Phenomenon

Posted by on Mar 10, 2018 in Homepage Features, Humanities Center Blog, Public Humanities | 0 comments

Adaptation: (Not) a 21st Century Phenomenon

This week’s public humanities post features the experience of Dennis Cutchins, English, on BYUradio Movies are on the mind: many of you watched the Oscars 2018 last week. The award for Best Picture, The Shape of Water, was an adaptation of a book written by Andrea Camilleri in 1994. Adaptation studies is an important field in the Humanities College, and we have some distinguished staff that specialize in it. Our very own Dennis Cutchins was invited to speak on BYUradio with Julie Rose on book-to-film adaptations that came out in September 2017. Movie adaptations are as relevant today as they have always been, and they continue to capture audience’s attention in innovative ways. New technology has dazzled us for decades as it has been applied to a movie experience. CGI has taken the movie industry to new heights and made stories possible to tell on screen that had never been an option before. Anyone interested in adaptations, the cross sections between text and film (or text and text, film and film, text to play, play to text, etc.), should have the experience of sitting down and having a conversation with Dr. Cutchins. His passion for the subject brings even more vitality to an already fascinating and relevant topic. This won’t come as a surprise to anyone, but one of the greatest adaptation achievements of the last decade has been bringing comic book characters to the big screen. The Avengers, Justice League, and X-men are all examples of a new generation of film and story-telling where the limits of computer technology have been stretched in order to tell a superhero’s story in ever more visually exciting ways. Car chases, crashing planes, flying around Manhattan, things that fifty years ago needed to be rendered (with the exception of perhaps a single image or two) in the imagination in a comic book are brought to life through increasingly complicated computer graphics and film technologies. Dr. Cutchins sat down with me and told me how although film adaptation has become much more prevalent in public consciousness in the last 10-20 years, it is nothing new. Adaptation has been around since the Greeks. We adapted myths into a play; we adapted plays of plays. In fact, adaptation has been around since recognizable literature. It has become dominant feature in literature and film and stage productions., we are saturated in them. It is cool because there are so many and they are so prevalent. We are telling something important about contemporary culture and our interest in remakes and reboots. For example, let’s talk superheroes. Marvel has made an empire out of adapting comic characters. New movie every year with stunning regularity. In addition to the (at least) annual movie, they have two different TV shows on Netflix. Marvel is becoming a media powerhouse. Dr. Cutchins said when he was a kid, Marvel was a comic book company. They wrote books for 11–14-year-old boys. Now, in the last 20 years, we have seen them become HUGE! Rivaling (and now owned by) Disney and Lucas Films, Marvel is one of the biggest media concerns on the planet, all based on adapting the narratives and characters and genres. These adaptations are sometimes more direct, sometimes less so, but there seems to be an infinite amount of energy and funding going into creating new characters and scenarios and politics. What is the future of adaptation studies? According to Dr. Cutchins, the future is in the video game industry. He says, “Video games are the next big thing. There is about to be a boom in video game scholarship.” It...

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Treating Insensitivity with Compassion

Posted by on Mar 3, 2018 in Homepage Features, Humanities Center Blog | 0 comments

Treating Insensitivity with Compassion

This post was written by Jennifer Bown, Department of German and Slavic Languages, HC Fellow Just last week, a flyer created by a BYU undergraduate student went viral, becoming the object of much derision. A female student organized an event dedicated to Women in Math, publicizing the event with a flyer containing the pictures of four male faculty speakers. The flyer went viral after another BYU student tweeted an image of it, asking, “…is this satire?” That tweet received over 9,000 retweets and 24,000 likes within the afternoon. The story was soon picked up by a variety of media outlets, including the Huffington Post and CNET, who ridiculed the “hilarious (and cringeworthy)” flyer. Though this particular event hits close to home, similar incidents happen every day. In his book, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, Jon Ronson details several stories of private individuals whose innocent, if ill-advised, activities have garnered public outrage. These individuals lost their jobs, took hits to their ego, and saw their lives ruined, at least for a time. Ronson’s book reminds us, as he put it in an interview with Vox, that people are “dimensional, and they’re not the worst thing that they ever did.” That last reminder, that people are more than the “worst thing that they ever did” is even more important when people are attacked for acts that occurred twenty- to thirty-years in their past. In 2017, Father William Aitcheson resigned from his post as a Catholic priest in Arlington, VA, after it came out that he had once been a member of the Ku Klux Klan. At some point in his youth, he had come back to his Catholic faith, repudiated those actions, and embraced a doctrine of love and acceptance. Perhaps Aitcheson’s crimes were too great for him to continue his service in the clergy. But should his whole life be defined by his ugliest moment? Should anyone’s? In the same year that So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed was published, Monica Lewinsky, who, in her words is “the first person to have their reputation completely destroyed worldwide via the Internet” broke her silence, addressing the “culture of humiliation” that has grown up on the Internet and that has been proliferated by the advent of social media. Her story reminds us of the very real human costs of online vitriol associated with the “pile on” culture. Of course, public shaming is not new. But, Ronson, in tracing the history, discovered that it was abandoned as formal punishment in the 1830s and 1840s. Even the Puritans, it seems, found public shaming to be cruel and unusual punishment. There are times for outrage and times for individuals to speak out. Twitter and other social media platforms offer a voice to those whose voices may have too long been silenced. But before posting on Twitter or Facebook, perhaps we should think before we click—think about the people behind the actions that aroused our ire. In the case of the viral flyer on Women in Math, might a conversation with the Math department or an email to the President of the club have been more productive than the tweet? Lewinsky closes her first public speech with the words of Oscar Wilde: “I have said that behind sorrow there is always sorrow. It were wiser still to say that behind sorrow there is always a soul. And to mock at a soul in pain is a dreadful thing.” Dostoevsky’s great novel, The Brothers Karamazov, teaches the value of compassion. Father Zosima, one of the moral centers in the novel, espouses the idea that “each of us is guilty...

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Please Save Me from Neil DeGrasse Tyson

Posted by on Feb 26, 2018 in Homepage Features, Humanities Center Blog | 0 comments

Please Save Me from Neil DeGrasse Tyson

This post was written by Elisabeth Loveland, HC Student Fellow “I believe in science” is a common mantra these days, but for all its commonality, I do not fully understand what the “science pious” mean by it . . . in fact, given the vulgar conception of belief, it seems to profess a leap of faith in science, and indeed, the cadence of the song “I believe in Christ” isn’t worse for the wear when supplanted with the new religion: “I believe in science; it is my King!” Pity my mind’s eye–suddenly I am imagining Neil deGrasse Tyson singing “I believe in science” and then giddly reporting to his test tubes, “God is an ever-receding pocket of scientific ignorance” with a self-righteous wink.   And there he is again!–flying in v-formation with his science-pious compadres: Richard Dawkins and Bill Nye the Science Guy and flocks of Reddit users, armed with the new faith and harassing ethicists, artists, historians, writers, and the like, harder to shoo than pigeons, informing us that “Somebody as intelligent as Jesus would have been an atheist if he had known what we know today,” and “Science progresses and philosophy doesn’t,” and my favorite, “What they teach in the humanities is not ‘skepticism’ or ‘critical thinking.’ It’s mental masturbation disguised as critical thinking.” But simply dabbling in the humanities is not enough for the science pious. Overused to their authority, they bombard us with the noxious insinuations of cultural scientism, sometimes in brash form, as when Neil deGrasse Tyson warned that philosophy “can really mess you up.” At least he takes care to explain “my concern here is that the philosophers believe they are actually asking deep questions about nature,” a valid concern given that all philosophers do is make etch-a-sketch doodles and bake peach pies. Speaking of philosophers, philosopher Julian Baggini expresses similar concern with the rise of scientism and notes that “when physics is compared with the humanities and social sciences, it is easy for the scientists to feel smug.” Why? Because scientists get results. No, not the kind that would make epistemologists or poets skip, but nonetheless results of enormous instrumentality: self-driving cars, vaccinations, computers, etc., etc., etc. And we, the beneficiaries of science, are rightfully grateful and admiring of the people we once called “dweeb” and “four-eyes” in middle school. But deference and praise encourage what Baggini calls “mission creep” or “imperialist ambitions” in the sciences, and science-culture is beginning to invite in the very leviathan it once defeated: dogmatic, spoiled, intolerant faith, the same that had Galileo locked away and the writings of Copernicus banned. The result is pedantic lectures from labcoats on a wide and strange variety of subjects, and because we are awed with the prestige of science, we nod until we have whiplash. This faithful devotion is too-often ill-starred. For one major example, there are overwhelming reasons to be seriously skeptical that any is statement about the world–the only sorts of statements the scientific method can produce–can ever render (or translate into) an ought statement. In particular, I am concerned with that most important of ought statements, how we ought to live. If we ditch Dickens and Hume and defer instead to Dawkins, we may just miss the answer. My suggestion? Solicit the aid and advice of our longsuffering humanities scholars, the patrons of such oughts. That’s not to say that Dawkins can’t be helpful; he does, after all, remind us, “faith can be very very dangerous.” Image via Wikicommons and NY Daily...

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Thinking through a new Odyssey

Posted by on Feb 20, 2018 in Homepage Features, Humanities Center Blog | 0 comments

Thinking through a new Odyssey

This post was written by Roger Macfarlane, Comparative Arts & Letters, Humanities Center Fellow “This book is really based on the Odyssey. All Roy really wants is to return to a clean home and to a faithful wife.” KUER pitched me this pair of sentences out of the blue when I cranked the ignition and the radio fired up. Skepticism flared up around me. A little curiosity was there, as well. I’ve read and heard such claims so many times. I think I know the Odyssey. That quick claim that some new book was “based on it” did not convince prima facie that would actually be connected profitably to Western literature’s first great travel narrative. Anybody can read the Odyssey into just about any quest, I thought. “So, prove it.” As I pulled into traffic the woman on the radio was discussing characters I’d never heard of — somebodies named Roy and Celestial and … — details from some unidentified novel whose title and author I had missed before climbing in the truck. What was about to happen showed me that Humanities is starting to make me more humane, more tolerant — more tolerable! — and, what’s best, maybe a little more Christian. Adaptation of classical mythology interests me most of all the aspects of a class I teach regularly, Classical Civilization 241 “Greek and Roman Mythology.” In that class, I began about fifteen years ago to focus students’ writing assignments on adaptations of classical mythology that find us just about anywhere we look. Students are assigned to identify a modern usage of a classical myth and analyze it in a careful, short paper. I started assigning these forays into adaptations of myth, because modern reworkings of classical myths can teach us so much. Myths like the Penelope myth are so good for thinking with. And students’ perspectives are so different from my own. They go into different parts of the world that I can scarcely enter myself. I have learned through this ongoing assignment that are lots of way of looking at the world. “The main story of the Odyssey is short: a man is abroad for many years… blah blah blah… ” So starts Aristotle (Poetics 17). And I trust most everybody already knows the story. But, adaptations of the great Homeric epic tend to take the “main story” into sometimes unexpected new directions. Honda’s Odyssey, for instance, is a mini-van. (Yes, I knew that.) One myth student’s paper, an especially memorable effort, showed me the rich irony of the automaker’s name for that model:  Put your family in this car and get ready for anything an angered god might throw in your path; fidelity will secure your precarious homecoming!   More high-brow was another student paper exploring Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain. Yet another student probed Anthony Minghella’s cinematic adaptation (2003) of that same novel. I didn’t know Enda Walsh’s Penelope (2010) until a student found it for me. It’s a drama by an Irish playwright about four “visibly untoned guys in speedos” at a poolside cookout who try to seduce an apparently single woman; she silently puts them off in anticipation of her husband’s expected return. I have forgotten whether I found Contempt (Le Mépris, 1963) or whether a student first found it for me. (That sentence, read aloud, sounds very ominous.) The cinemaste Jean-Luc Godard built this compelling film around the Odyssey— a couple’s marriage falters as the husband attempts to rewrite the screenplay for a cinematic adaptation of the great epic. The audience learns reasons to despise Hollywood cinema in Godard’s adaptation of Alberto Moravia’s...

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Astonishing Creatures

Posted by on Feb 12, 2018 in Homepage Features, Humanities Center Blog | 0 comments

Astonishing Creatures

This post was written by Benjamin Jacob, HC Student Fellow, Interdisciplinary Humanities major I hope you will indulge a personal piece on this week’s blog. You see, this will be my last chance to write for the illustrious (nay the prestigious!) Humanities Center Blog, due to my upcoming graduation.  In preparation for this piece, I toyed with several different ideas but kept coming back to a feeling of gratitude for my time as a humanities student at BYU.  In my piece, I want to express my sincere thanks to you, my beloved professors and colleagues in the humanities, for what I have gained during my years with you.  The majority of you likely have never met me nor had me in your classes. But don’t let that diminish my sincerity. I know that many of your students feel just like I do. I hope to give voice to all of the students in the college of humanities. What I’d like say is thank you.  For many of us, the reasons we study the humanities sometimes defy attempts at explanation. When I try to explain why the humanities matter to me, I am reminded of something the soprano Maria Callas said in explaining how she found inspiration for her movements on stage. She said, “Listen to the music. If you take the trouble to really listen with your soul and with your ears, you will find every gesture there.” As I have “listened to the music” of the humanities, I have felt my soul expand, my understanding deepen, and my empathy increase.  Many of us embrace the humanities because of what the arts say to both our souls and our ears, both the logical and the spiritual, the concrete and the ethereal dimensions of our lives.  Yet, our understanding of this “music” has been dependent on your efforts and talents in teaching.  You have helped us to see complexity when before we saw only homogeneity.  Your high level of examination, analysis, and observation has inspired and motivated us.  And you have been patient as we have struggled to see what you see.  You have given us the chance to share our barbaric yawps and even given us pointers on how to do so.  Countless have been the times when I have left a class filled with exhilaration and wonder about the insights that we explored in those short 50 minutes. Other times I have walked the stairwells and hallways of the JFSB in realization of the horrors of the world, the cruelty of others, and the dangers of mindlessness.  My own humility and smallness have been highlighted; my hope and zeal to explore, express, and exclaim in this world have increased. And it is thanks to you and your work.  Your influence is perhaps greater than you realize. My mother studied humanities at BYU from 1987 to 1992. Although she chose not to work in academic or professional fields, her humanities education provided the basis for her parenting priorities. I grew up surrounded by books of art, philosophy, and great literature. She made trips to museums and historical sites a priority during my childhood. Constantly she would mention artists or philosophies she had learned about at BYU.  Even now, thirty years later, she talks about the professors she had and the classes she took.  What she learned at BYU has never ceased to enrich her life.  Because of the work of her professors, her insights and love for the beauties of the world were passed on to me.  So, speaking as someone who has benefited both directly and indirectly from the work of the College of Humanities at BYU, I...

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Literary Criticism and Bipartisanship

Posted by on Feb 5, 2018 in Homepage Features, Humanities Center Blog | 0 comments

Literary Criticism and Bipartisanship

This post was written by Nick Mason, English, HC Faculty Fellow Much like the literary classic – which Mark Twain memorably dubbed a “book which people praise but don’t read” – political bipartisanship is at once universally endorsed and virtually extinct. In the past year alone, long-revered U.S. Senate protocols were ditched to expedite the party-line confirmation of a Supreme Court justice and the largest tax reform in a generation moved forward without any across-the-aisle negotiation or minority party support. Bizarrely, though, in the midst of this, any given day’s news featured the likes of Paul Ryan, Nancy Pelosi, or Chuck Schumer singing paeans to compromise and even Mitch McConnell – the chief architect of modern congressional steamrolling and stonewalling – pledging, “We hope 2018 will be a year for more bipartisan cooperation.” It might be high time, then, to require all elected officials to return to freshman English, where presumably they were once taught the ethical and rhetorical necessity of considering both sides before staking out a position. That said, while I’d love to see more national leaders with training in the humanities, it’s hard to imagine our politics magically becoming less partisan if, say, the 2018 midterm elections saw a wave of forty-something English, art history, and philosophy graduates storming Congress. Because, truth be told, after the “negotiation unit” in our first-year writing courses, most of us schooled in humanities departments of the 1980s and 1990s were trained largely in critical modes that, while intellectually enlarging and frequently illuminating, tended to privilege – and, at times, predetermine – partisan interpretations. On the plus side, my generation’s deep immersion in feminist, Marxist, and postcolonial theory and other paradigms of “resistant reading” left us more cognizant of and empathetic toward marginalized voices and more hopeful that literature – and literary criticism – could point the way toward a more just, peaceful, and inclusive society. At the same time, however, the late twentieth-century vogue for leftist theory made the humanities an increasingly uncomfortable place for conservative and even moderate students and faculty. Lingering legacies of this unfortunate trend are the ideological homogeneity found in many liberal arts departments and a tendency toward groupthink on pressing social concerns, even in fields predicated upon open dialogue and clear-eyed interpretation. Given my musings of late on these issues, I not surprisingly found last year’s thematically connected lectures by Deidre Lynch (Professor of English at Harvard) and Rita Felski (Professor of English at Virginia) particularly compelling. For the Humanities Center to book both of these speakers in a single semester was something of a coup, as Lynch and Felski rank among the most important voices in our fields’ newfound reconsideration of evaluative and affective criticism after the forty-year reign of resistant reading and sociopolitical critique. Although Lynch’s work is more historical and Felski’s more broadly philosophical, their recent books and BYU lectures share an emphasis on developing interpretive modes that, while preserving the conceptual sophistication and rigor of “high theory,” offer more space for moderate, negotiated, and perhaps even (my word, not theirs) “bipartisan” readings. In part inspired by these scholars, when the Keats Letters Project – an ambitious scholarly initiative to publish short online essays on the bicentenary day of each of the 252 surviving letters John Keats wrote between 1815 to 1820 – asked me to write on a 3 November 1817 letter where the poet reacts to his cohort’s brewing feud with the arch-conservative Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, I found myself playing the somewhat unconventional role of critic-as-conflict-mediator. While my post is more of a squib than a fully thought-through and worked-out...

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