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Historical Portals in the City of Lights

Posted by on Mar 9, 2020 in Homepage Features, Humanities Center Blog | 1 comment

Historical Portals in the City of Lights

When I was first learning French in high school, I was enthralled by Paris. Not only did I love the language, but the cuisine, the culture, the history, and of course the art seemed as though they were all part of this mystical world I wanted to get to know—and that Paris embodied. But it wasn’t until I went on a study abroad to the City of Lights last spring that I was truly able to see and experience the history that’s embedded in every part of the city. As I walked through the cathedrals, streets, hotels, and doors, I was able to see almost the whole history of Paris. Roman antiquity left its gladiator arena in the 5th arrondissement, while the Middle Age dotted the city with churches and gothic cathedrals. Then, amid the industrial revolution, the city’s architecture exploded with the Haussmann architectural style. While there are many examples of this transition, my attention was immediately drawn to the doors on the buildings. I came into Paris with adequate knowledge of how much history was there, but I was slightly intimidated about how to learn from it all. I was surrounded with an abundance of architectural history and had absolutely no idea how to dissect it. So I chose the first thing I encountered, which were the entrances to the buildings I visited. Doors are often symbolic of a transition from one place to another, thus signifying a transformation that can be physical, intellectual, or spiritual. For me, the focus on doors brought a unique intellectual transformation in that they were my entry into the history that I was standing in. With their intricate molding and varied decoration, I realized that the doors themselves tell a unique history of Paris. While this can’t necessarily be classified as a door, “le Cloître des Billettes” is a classic example of medieval architecture. As is common in gothic architecture, the pointed arches seen in these images served to guide the eye upwards as a symbol that all knowledge comes from God. The most infamous example of this (although currently inaccessible due to the fire in April 2019) is the entrance to the Cathedral of Notre Dame. The tympanum, which can be found in most gothic cathedrals, served as a reminder to visitors of the prophesied last judgement, and would have been recognizable to anyone that entered through the door. The Gothic style then transforms to the Renaissance style, which marks the transition between the Middle Ages and the Modern era. With the style reintegrating more classical ideals, we start to see columns and rounded arches that appear not only in the doorways to churches and cathedrals, but in secular buildings as well. Many of the doors leading into government buildings today reflect this style and appeal to classical ideals such as power and authority, both of which are necessary for a functioning government body. Under Louis XIV, the style gives way to the French Baroque with ornate and ostentatious decoration, as seen in the Palace of Versailles. This style was meant to emphasize the power of the king and persuade court members to stay in reach of his influence. After the French Revolution ended, there was a societal awakening to the importance of architecture. Not only had the population drastically increased, but the industrial revolution introduced new ways of transportation that crowded the streets of an architecturally unprepared Paris, rendering certain parts of the city inaccessible. Georges-Eugene Haussmann was named prefect of Seine by Napoleon III, who commissioned him to address this problem. You might be familiar with the Haussmann...

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Chasing the Literary Sublime

Posted by on Feb 24, 2020 in Homepage Features, Humanities Center Blog, Uncategorized | 0 comments

Chasing the Literary Sublime

I’ve just finished reading Ulysses in one of my classes. As a group, we struggled and wrestled and plodded through the dense text in a month, coming to class only to realize that a mere three hours a week was barely enough to scratch the surface of the segment we had read. Ulysses—and Joyce’s writing in general—has a well-earned reputation for being, well, inscrutable. Virginia Woolf, Joyce’s contemporary, wrote of the novel: “I finished ‘Ulysses’ and think it is a mis-fire. Genius it has, I think; but of the inferior water. The book is diffuse. It is brackish. It is pretentious. It is underbred, not only in the obvious sense, but in the literary sense. A first-rate writer, I mean, respects writing too much to be tricky; startling; doing stunts.”[1] And perhaps she has a point here—though Woolf is not entirely innocent of being startling or doing stunts in her own work. My process of reading Ulysses consisted of far more than merely following words on a page. Rather, I unashamedly used nearly every tool available to me: online chapter guides, various Google and Wikipedia searches, a Librivox audio recording on 1.5 speed, a set of academic lectures on Audible, and my fellow classmates. When I finished the novel, pushing through the last two chapters in one six-hour stint, I felt like I needed a week-long hibernation. Reading Ulysses was difficult and frustrating and funny and tragic and grotesque and beautiful and incredibly rewarding—I understand why it is so widely considered a masterpiece. To me, reading Ulysses was a worthy endeavor, but I’m well aware that not everyone agrees. I remember one particular class that I taught last semester, in which I introduced Modernism and Joyce’s writing to the class. One student asked resentfully, “Is this really good, though? If what Joyce is writing is so difficult that no one can understand it—if he doesn’t want to be understood—is he even a good writer?” This was not the first time I’ve fielded this question, especially directed at modernist literature. For the record, I think that student has a valid point regarding experimentation and difficulty for the sake of pretention and gatekeeping. And there’s the equally valid point that these massive novels are typically written by privileged white men. I don’t mean to impose a hierarchy here. I’m not claiming that Ulysses holds more value than A Room of One’s Own or Persuasion because of its relative impenetrability, or even that reading challenging works is always enjoyable or worthwhile. I’m also not denying the pleasure I derive from a good “beach read”—in fact, I usually follow up particularly difficult “classics” with a quick celebrity memoir or pulpy YA novel. Still, I’ve realized that my desire to work through these massive, dense tomes has increased in the last few years. Last year I finished Infinite Jest. The year before that, I participated in a summer book club called “Prose before Bros” that formed around the common goal of finishing Middlemarch. And this affinity does not only apply to books, though I think as a literature student I’m naturally more inclined toward the verbal arts. Last year, my Image Theory course watched 2001: A Space Odyssey, and then a few months ago I finally saw Tree of Life. I left both movies with a similar feeling to what I felt at the end of these much-lauded novels: exhaustion, satisfaction, and a desire to return soon. I also had a similar feeling standing in front of Chagall’s stained glass windows, Picasso’s cubist works, and the brief minutes I had in the Sistine Chapel...

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Dispatches from 21st-Century Europe

Posted by on Feb 18, 2020 in Homepage Features, Humanities Center Blog | 0 comments

Dispatches from 21st-Century Europe

As a specialist in the literature of Britain’s Romantic period, I had little occasion during graduate school or the first twelve years of my professorial career to venture outside the Anglophone world in my teaching and research. This suddenly changed, though, in 2012, when I began a five-year stint running BYU’s European Studies program. Besides providing regular opportunities to learn more about the history and politics of individual nations and the continent as a whole, this position brought new course assignments requiring me to expand my literary horizons in a hurry. Eight years later, I am now teaching my fifth iteration of a European Studies course that uses contemporary fiction as a lens for examining major social, political, and aesthetic trends in modern Europe. Although I still have much to learn on the subject, I thought I would use this crack at writing the Humanities Center blog to recommend five newish titles that my European Studies students have especially appreciated. Here they are, then, in descending chronological order: Olga Tokarczuk, Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead (2009 in Polish; English transl. 2018). Few contemporary writers better illustrate the hit-and-miss nature of what gets translated and when than Tokarczuk, whose works were only just beginning to appear in English when she won the Nobel Prize for Literature last year. Along with her memoir-fiction hybrid Flights (also published in English in 2018), Drive Your Plow has been one of the breakout books of European “literary” fiction in recent years. A thoroughly engaging “eco-thriller” – and an all-too-rare example of a tale narrated by an elderly woman – this is a must-read for fans of William Blake (the protagonist is a Blake translator and aficionado) and those looking for smart and compelling dramatizations of modern environmental crises. Karl Ove Knausgaard, My Struggle (especially Books 1 and 2) (2009–11 in Norwegian; English transl. 2012–19). One of the landmark artistic undertakings of the new century, Knausgaard’s six-part, 3,600-page autobiographical “novel” ranks among the most least likely literary sensations of any age. Although controversially titled Min Kamp in the original Norwegian, this series avoids referencing Hitler’s similarly titled memoir until its final installment. Until then, My Struggle painstakingly retraces both mundane and momentous scenes from its forty-something author’s largely unexceptional life. What would quickly grow tedious in most writers’ hands is inexplicably enthralling, as evidenced by the consistent levels of Knausgaard-mania among the students I have assigned to read Books 1 and 2. Contrary to my expectations and theirs, my students have consistently reported that the middle-aged Knausgaard’s neo-Proustian musings trigger a flood of reflections about their own childhood experiences, family relationships, and current place in the world. Laurent Binet, HHhH (2010 in French; English transl. 2012). Were I to poll my present and former students, the likely winner of the “People’s Choice” award would be HHhH. This riveting postmodern historical novel retells the story of Operation Anthropoid, the 1942 Czech Resistance plot to assassinate Reinhard Heydrich, the notorious SS commandant then serving as the Governor of Prague. Taking his title from the German aphorism “Himmlers Hirn heist Heydrich” (“Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich”), Binet recaps Heydrich’s rise, the atrocities he oversaw, and the heroism of Jozef Gabčik, Jan Kubiš, and other “parachutists” tasked with killing him. More than just a thrilling war story, though, HHhH offers extended meditations on the methods and ethics of historical fiction. Binet regularly pauses to detail his research process, question his assumptions, and interrogate the efficacy of the historical novel in general. As a result, this winner of the prestigious Prix Goncourt for 2010 has been widely hailed as a...

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Unorthodox Academia

Posted by on Feb 10, 2020 in Homepage Features, Humanities Center Blog, Uncategorized | 0 comments

Unorthodox Academia

Here’s a question: could the mediated essay be an underutilized opportunity to expand the scope of academia? >> Intro music and graphics Hey guys, welcome back to the channel! Huge shout out to Squarespace for sponsoring this episode, and of course, thank you to all the patrons who support the channel. Without all of you, this kind of content would literally be impossible. If you enjoy what you see here today be sure to like and subscribe, or you can check out the links for our Patreon in the description below.   Today we’re collaborating with the Eliza R. Snow Undergraduate Fellowship at BYU to give some final thoughts before we wrap up this series on the Humanities. Now, if you’ve hung around the show for very long you’ve probably noticed that we’re really interested in the formation of questions, themes, and innovations that materialize in the overlap between art and the realities of student life. But those discussions have always had an inherent assumption—that the functioning voice of the episode was that of a student within an academic institution. What happens if we removed that assumption? What if the individual speaking about interdisciplinarity, tradition, or pedestrian readings was neither matriculated student nor tenured professor? Could an agent external to and independent of the academic orthodoxy be allowed room to express similar thoughts and feelings? To answer this, let’s turn to the growing enclave of content online and in new media (which for our uses here will narrowly refer to alternatives to traditional broadcast media) consisting primarily of video essays and podcast audio. Though the quality and breadth of these formats differs broadly in their numerous iterations, usually found on platforms like YouTube and SoundCloud, the video essay and the podcast are to me like mediated essays—collections of writings like any other—that are then expressed in media files, visual attachments, and sound clippings. And I find this phenomenon springing up through podcasters and creators fascinating in a couple different ways.  >> ad break >> Wanting to improve your writing but don’t have time for a university compositions class? Check out our long-time partner Skillshare. Whether it’s technical editing or creative drafting, Skillshare gives professionally taught classes that can strengthen the skill of any scholar. Be one of the first 500 to follow our promo code for a two months free subscription. And now, back to the show. And we’re back, talking about the rise of the mediated essay. First, any podcast or video essay that takes on the qualities of a nonfiction, thesis driven essay, emulates my experience in real university classrooms. The channel description or show notes act like course objectives, explaining what the content is all about and trying to accomplish, and then the mediated essay goes on to demonstrate its author’s reflections on a subject, bringing in critical research, differing viewpoints, offering evidence of ulterior examples or the development of specific perspectives. Now obviously not every video essay is created equal, and you may have to learn to sit through some lower-quality content before you discover videos and podcasts that are really hitting the mark. I’ll give some links below for some favorites from my personal feed. Second, these mediated essays are unlike my undergraduate classes in many ways. They bring together a wide diaspora of subjects, threading together ideas that bring attention to areas that we simply don’t seem to have enough time for in the orthodox of “the Academy.” Which is why I can really get behind the establishment of these mediated essays as potential academic work worthy of consideration. There is so much...

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“Affected by the Things We Study”: Professor Marie Orton on Merging Scholarship and Service

Posted by on Feb 3, 2020 in Featured Projects, Homepage Features, Humanities Center Blog | 0 comments

“Affected by the Things We Study”: Professor Marie Orton on Merging Scholarship and Service

If you ask Professor Marie Orton for her philosophy on life, she will answer, “In my family, we say for most any experience: it’s either a good time or a good story.” She exudes a contagious fervor for her work, for mentoring, and for life in all of its complexities. And she captures this fervor in her scholarship, which focuses on the literary productions by migrants to Italy and the larger cultural implications of migratory movements. Dr. Orton herself is a labor migrant of sorts, a relative newcomer to BYU. She arrived in 2016 from Truman State, a small liberal arts college in Missouri, where she taught with her spouse, Brent, whose doctorate is in the History of Culture. “We were living the dream,” she recalls, “We had planted fruit trees!” But she and her family uprooted that life and headed west. When she interviewed at BYU, Dr. Orton felt drawn to the university in a way that she had never felt before—impressed by its well-supported language programs and committed faculty. And, while she appreciates the spiritual atmosphere, she admits, “Gospel values are ethical values; anywhere you are, everything you do, you live your values and teach your values.”  Her research interests were certainly inspired by these ethical values. During her graduate program at the University of Chicago, she served with the youth in the Hyde Park ward, many of whom were growing up amid the violence and poverty of the inner-city. She became concerned with the way these teens talked about their future—in terms of “if I grow up,” not “when I grow up”—and so she became involved with a charitable trust founded by several members in the ward in order to help the youth. The program, now called the Inner City Youth Charitable Foundation, still exists today. This experience brought Dr. Orton to the question that initially informed her research: “It was evident that violence alters an individual’s whole concept of identity. A life marked by violence doesn’t just give one a different life; it gives one a different identity.” Her dissertation examined autobiographies of those who experienced trauma and explored instantiations of violence, how people’s identity is tethered with their experiences of violence. Dr. Orton interviewed Italian Auschwitz survivors, African migrants to Italy, and former members of the Red Brigades. “My students would ask me, ‘How can you study those things and not be depressed all the time?’ And I thought—there would be something wrong with me if I weren’t. We should be affected by the things that we study.” Two of her current research projects are translating a history of Jewish women in Italy and co-editing a volume entitled Fictional and Critical Stories of Transmigration through Italy. This will be the first critical study of migration literature in Italy that includes original creative works by migrant authors alongside the scholarly articles that discuss them, mitigating the typical power differential displayed when critics talk from a position of privilege and distance about the work of minorities. “It’s a collaborative work—it shows that we’re all talking about these issues together,” Dr. Orton explains. There is certainly a kind of holism evident in her work. As she continues to research and bring attention to the cultural productions of minorities and migrants, she also practices an ethical pragmatism in the mentoring and service she performs in her capacity as a professor. One her favorite courses to teach is Italian 446, “Multicultural Italy,” and she is currently teaching a course entitled, “Women and Global Migration” (GWS 390R), with Professor Kif Augustine-Adams of BYU’s law school. She also supervises and trains...

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Rereading, Revisiting, Refining

Posted by on Jan 27, 2020 in Homepage Features, Humanities Center Blog | 0 comments

Rereading, Revisiting, Refining

Over Christmas break, I made the pilgrimage with my mom and sisters to see the latest Little Women adaptation. I found the film absolutely brilliant; director Greta Gerwig reimagines and restructures the story in a way that translates beautifully for a twenty-first century audience. I (a Jo, through and through) began crying right around the halfway mark and did not stop until the credits rolled. Even my youngest sister (an absolute Amy at eleven years old), whom we had to persuade to join us, admitted that she “didn’t even get bored!” Before we saw the movie, I made a point to read the novel because the last time I had attempted it was in elementary school, and Alcott’s 1800s moralistic plot line didn’t captivate me the way the then-new Harry Potter series did. Quite frankly, I thought Little Women was dull, so I gave up halfway through. This time around, however, I was awestruck—in both the novel and the latest movie rendering—by the realistic family relationships, the characters’ genuine goodness (without seeming saccharine), and the simple assurance of knowing the plot before it happens. The difference, of course, was not in the text, but in myself. I’ve been doing a lot of this kind of revisiting lately. This year I’ve assisted in teaching British Literary History and Intro to Literary Theory, two courses I took myself when I began the English major several years ago. In preparing for this work, I’ve had the opportunity to revisit texts that I had not read since the first time I encountered them. And, because I’m an avid margin-writer and digital hoarder, I’ve also delved into my textual comments and (deeply embarrassing) previous response papers and literary analysis assignments. It’s a fascinating process, skipping across a chasm of nearly six years of incremental shifts to see the drastically different person I was when I first came to BYU. I can see my cognitive dissonance in my response to Marxist theory and the epiphany behind the tiny, hand-scribbled question in the margins of “A Vindication of the Rights of Women” that reads, “Am I a feminist?” In the subtext of my barely-legible notes I recall the student who had strong reservations about switching to the English major, who saw school as a mere hurdle, and who was in the process of a transformation she couldn’t yet recognize. As I revisit these texts, it’s been especially interesting to see which Wildean epigrams still make me laugh, which of Saussure’s concepts have become clearer, and which philosophical ideas I’ve adopted or discarded along the way. Zadie Smith speaks of this kind of personal change in her essay, “Some Thoughts on Attunement,” in which she reflects on her own process of becoming receptive to Joni Mitchell’s music: But when I think of that Joni Mitchell-hating pilgrim…I truly cannot understand the language of my former heart. Who was that person? Petulant, hardly aware that she was humming Joni, not yet conscious of the transformation she had already undergone. How is it possible to hate something so completely and then suddenly love it so unreasonably? How does such a change occur? The shift toward openness to Mitchell felt drastic for Smith because, as she writes, “I didn’t come to love Joni Mitchell by knowing anything more about her, or understanding what an open-tuned guitar is, or even by sitting down and forcing myself to listen and re-listen to her songs. I hated Joni Mitchell—and then I loved her. Her voice did nothing for me—until the day it undid me completely.” Yet, however untraceable, there were certainly life experiences that...

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