Humanities Center Blog

On Consolation and Explanation: Education at BYU

Posted by on Sep 16, 2019 in Homepage Features, Humanities Center Blog | 0 comments

On Consolation and Explanation: Education at BYU

During the last six weeks of this summer, I had the chance to participate in a study abroad program at Cambridge University. I was enriched and invigorated by rigorous lectures, stimulating conversations with scholars and academics, new friendships with students from universities across the world, and the beauty of Cambridge’s college grounds and countryside. While completing some reading for one of my courses, I came across a passage from Virginia Woolf’s novel, Jacob’s Room, where Woolf drifts into a reflection and description of Cambridge University’s sublime, even spiritual characteristics. She writes: “They say the sky is the same everywhere. Travellers, the shipwrecked, exiles, and the dying draw comfort from the thought, and no doubt if you are of a mystical tendency, consolation, and even explanation, shower down from the unbroken surface. But above Cambridge—anyhow above the roof of King’s College Chapel—there is a difference. Out at sea a great city will cast a brightness into the night. Is it fanciful to suppose the sky, washed into the crevices of King’s College Chapel, lighter, thinner, more sparkling than the sky elsewhere? Does Cambridge burn not only into the night, but into the day?”[i] Though my initial response to this passage was to meander into my own reminiscences on the beauty of the chapel I walked past each morning, I became intrigued by Woolf’s transformation of Cambridge from an ordinary place into a kind of waystation, the meeting-point between heaven and earth. Woolf describes the sky, air, and oxygen of Cambridge as if from the peak of a tall mountain: “lighter, thinner” and more “sparkling” than any other place on earth. Yet the high elevation of Cambridge is of a “mystical” or phenomenological nature rather than literal, granting the university power to provide not only knowledge, but heavenly “consolation” or “explanation” for the difficulties experienced during the travels, journeys, and exiles of life.  Though common in religious practice or belief, receiving consolation or explanation regarding the ultimate is an overlooked, even unexpected, fruit of education. For me, the passage reveals a key difference between the access to transcendent knowledge provided by the normal “skies” of life and the uniquely transcendent access that a university can offer. However, if the sky of Cambridge grants a uniquely spiritual access to knowledge, what do we gain from BYU’s sky? A recent report in the Wall Street Journal ranks BYU, along with the U.S. Naval Academy, as the #1 university in the nation for being “worth the expense.”[ii] The usage of the word “worth” in the report is significant, for it indicates that the study did not operate wholly based on today’s prevailing definition of educational worth, i.e. a net-positive return on tuition costs thanks to high salaries, standards of living, or annual earnings of graduates. Rather, using the word “worth” indicates the report’s consideration of subjective, individualized responses of the polled students. I do not believe BYU achieved this ranking thanks to the economic benefits of Church-subsidized tuition alone. For me, BYU’s elite educational worth, as indicated by the usage of a word like “worth,” is equally bound up in subjective, intimate, and deeply personal experiences with the transcendent nature of education, much like Woolf’s sublime experience with Cambridge This poll, combined with Woolf’s words in Jacob’s Room, demonstrate the way in which seeking and receiving divine consolation and explanation are foundational facets of BYU’s academic and educational worthwhileness. Spencer Fluhman, executive director of the Maxwell Institute and associate professor of history, spoke of this unique spiritual environment in a recent campus devotional, explaining that at BYU “there is no secularizing retreat . ....

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Vulnerability Together

Posted by on Sep 3, 2019 in Homepage Features, Humanities Center Blog | 0 comments

Vulnerability Together

As I write this, the Amazon is burning. When I mentioned this to my mom the other day, she looked puzzled and asked, “Which location?” to which I responded, “…the rainforest?” She assumed I was talking about an Amazon Company warehouse, and looked relieved when she learned it was not a potential warehouse fire, but rather a run-of-the-mill natural disaster happening in Brazil. Only it’s not “natural”—the fires were started by cattle farmers looking to clear land for more cattle, their own livelihood likely dependent upon the extra revenue. It’s this week’s Exhibit A of the Anthropocene. When I type in “Amazon” to Google, the first result that pops up is Amazon.com. When I search “Amazon Fire,” Google eagerly directs me to the Amazon Fire stick, a TV-streaming device that provides instant escape and entertainment—which feels particularly dark, given the current status of its namesake. It’s a strange parallel happening right now between Amazon the Company and Amazon the Rainforest, between extreme capitalism (and subsequent waste[1]) and the Anthropocene—two increasingly unnerving events that I, as a grad student in Provo, Utah, can do almost nothing to improve. Sure, I can choose to abstain from beef or give my money to local stores instead of Jeff Bezos, but even my most extensive individual efforts will make no marked difference. Even so, I’m continually drawn to learn about the catastrophes of the world that are far beyond my control, all of which are delivered each morning to my iPhone via podcasts, news headlines, and social media posts. In fact, the news of the Amazon was obscured at first, coming on the wake of mass shootings, the immigration crisis at the border, international conflicts, and constant political chaos. To choose to expose myself to this onslaught of news is at times painful and frustrating. It reminds me that I am vulnerable in a way that I have no power to change. New Yorker writer Jia Tolentino illustrates the ability of the internet to overwhelm and incapacitate in her recent book Trick Mirror[2]. Reflecting on her feelings at the end of 2016, after an especially rough barrage of bad news, she writes: “It seemed to me that this sense of punishing oversaturation would persist no matter what was in the news. There was no limit to the amount of misfortune a person could take in via the internet…and there was no way to calibrate this information correctly—no guidebook for how to expand our hearts to accommodate these simultaneous scales of human experience, no way to teach ourselves to separate the banal from the profound. The internet was dramatically increasing our ability to know about things, while our ability to change things stayed the same, or possibly shrank right in front of us. I had started to feel that the internet would only ever induce this cycle of heartbreak and hardening—a hyper-engagement that would make less sense every day.” And yet, she notes in the same essay that “the internet already is what it is. It has already become the central organ of contemporary life…Even if you avoid it completely, you still live in a world that this internet has created.” In other words, the internet has not only begun to merely influence the world; it very nearly sets the terms for life in the twenty-first century. Tolentino has a gift for articulating the calcification process I see in myself and my generation, a process which leads us to speak and engage with the world in a way that is, for the most part, cynical, ironic, berating, even hopeless. It’s easy to feel suffocated...

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Faith after the Anthropocene: A Prehistory

Posted by on Aug 19, 2019 in Homepage Features, Humanities Center Blog | 0 comments

Faith after the Anthropocene: A Prehistory

The Editor’s Column of the current issue of PMLA (134.3) opens with Wai Chee Dimock sharing a little of her experience recuperating from a serious accident last fall. Many things came to me during my four weeks at Spaulding Rehab: consolatory e-mails, cards, some flowers, and a care package from PMLA that kept me going for the entirety of my stay. What I never expected was a translation of a story by the Japanese writer Shiga Naoya, sent by Scott Miller, dean of the College of Humanities at Brigham Young University (BYU) and the translator. Dimock goes on to describe the Shiga piece and what moved her about it, lighting on a phrase, “collateral resilience,” that describes her impressions of the story and of what BYU specifically enables in its educational mission. I quote here one of the article’s paragraphs: Collateral resilience has no better ground than this university. Faith-based education is central to the mission of BYU: languages, however honored and flourishing, serve an instrumental function. Still, what can be done on this footing is not trivial. For the field coverage here is impressive even as a side benefit, allowing most of the primary languages of Africa, Asia, Oceania, and the Americas to be taught: Akan, Aymara, Bengali, Bicolano, Burmese, Cakchiquel, Cambodian, Cantonese, Cebuano, Dari, Fijian, Guarani, Haitian Creole, Hindi, Hmong, Ilangot, Indonesian, Japanese, Javanese, K’iche’, Korean, Laotian, Malagasy, Malay, Mandarin Chinese, Maori, Maya, Mongolian, Navajo, Pashto, Persian, Quechua, Samoan, Swahili, Tagalog, Tahitian, Tamil, Thai, Tongan, Twi, Urdu, Vietnamese, Waray, and Xhosa. Given this critical mass of spoken tongues, a further side benefit is the emergence of indigenous languages as a galvanizing force at BYU: not a relic from the past but an innovator shaping the future of the university and affecting every aspect of its intellectual life, taking higher education into the twenty-first century and beyond. The column is about indigeneity and its resurgence. In addition to BYU, Dimock discusses the University of Washington and its Department of American Indian Studies and the presence of indigenous peoples in the Pacific Northwest. UW is noteworthy on several fronts, from its interdisciplinary approach to indigenous studies and the “rights-affirming, practice-rich ethos at the UW School of Law” to the catalyzing presence of indigeneity across the UW system. “Language revitalization is at once a collateral effect and a causal agent in this environment, making indigenous languages a generative force across the university.” But she closes, notably, by circling back to BYU, discussing its law school (“a pioneer in American Indian law”), innovative pedagogy in BYU’s McKay School of Education, BYU’s minor in Native American Studies, and recent exhibits in the Museum of Art. It’s an important article that ends on an elegant and optimistic note: “looking to a future that it can create only collaboratively, resilient indigeneity gives us a road map to the future of higher education itself.” In its way, BYU is emblematic of this future. Wai Chee, who teaches at Yale, is one of the nation’s most influential literary scholars. I consider her a friend, and she is a friend of our university and college. The inspiration for her column, as she mentions in the piece, was her presence at the symposium our Humanities Center sponsored last September. It was there that she got talking with our dean, who moved her, first, by being “in attendance almost the entire time,” and second, by telling her about his experience as a missionary in Japan and what it did to inspire him not only with an affection for the Japanese language, but “with an abiding love for Japanese cinema...

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Transcendence, Presence, Blackberry

Posted by on May 6, 2019 in Homepage Features, Humanities Center Blog | 0 comments

Transcendence, Presence, Blackberry

Last month on this blog, I remarked on the cognitively dissonant revelations that sometimes break into our daily quotidian lives regarding collective, global, or cosmic concerns. I described in that post how some scholars view our efforts to manage this dissonance through personal meaning absolutely absurd, while others offer ways of countering it through personal conviction and familial relationships. This month, as my final contribution as an intern for the Humanities Center, I would like to take a different tack on the issue—this month, I would like to consider not how texts remark on this divide, but rather how media can present experiences that initially  increase this dissonance yet simultaneously function as tools to help us to manage it. Looking back over my undergraduate experience, I can pinpoint specific personal instances of literary and artistic transcendence—situations in which my experience with media has been wholly indescribable in words—untranslatable. I use the word transcendent here not only in a strictly religious sense (although those experiences are completely valid), but instead in a mode of taking me out of myself, reminding me of the world outside of my mind, connecting me to spheres that seem greater than my own life and even greater than my own language. In doing so, I realize the complicated position in which I’ve placed myself: language isn’t enough to describe these experiences, and yet in order to evidence my own interactions in this vein, I will have to attempt that very thing. I beg your patience as I do so, drawing upon your own personal experiences to supplement my inadequate renderings. I also recognize that scripture is explicitly meant for these very transcendent purposes; in this post, however, I hope to focus on how my humanities education has provided a fitting companion to those experiences, functioning in a slightly different, while still compatible, way. Perhaps the first of these experiences occurred when I was a freshman. While having no idea what “The Humanities” were as a discipline, I opted for IHUM 101 to fulfill a required general credit (it fit my schedule the best, if I remember correctly). At the time, I had no idea that the humanities would become so important to me—had no inkling about the Humanities Center, for instance, and my eventual role in its functioning. And the course itself didn’t actually lead me here; many other intermediary steps were needed. Regardless, the course did become quite meaningful to me. One class in particular stands out. It was towards the end of the course, as we were culminating our education about many of the art forms we had learned through opera. Our instructor, a dedicated graduate student, played for us a clip of the “Queen of the Night Aria” from The Magic Flute. Something about the intersection of malicious intent and beautiful, light, high notes transfixed me. It all seemed grander than my own personal life, something of great importance that I was normally too busy to attend to. I felt myself changed, transformed, in a way that no one else in the class was (I looked around to see if anyone else felt the same way, to no avail). Over the course of the next several years, I would come to experience this same feeling multiple times: a performance of Symphonie du Hanneton in a course on theater history; William Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey” in a British Literature class; Sergei Polunin’s routine set to Hozier’s “Take Me to Church”; Marcel Dupré’s “Prelude and Fugue in B Major, Op 7 No 1”; Gloria Naylor’s Mama Day; Viriginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. Each of these...

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The Power of Re-Reading

Posted by on Apr 8, 2019 in Homepage Features, Humanities Center Blog | 0 comments

The Power of Re-Reading

As the end of the school year approaches, I typically look forward to having more free time, and, after two busy semesters, look forward to reading things of my own choosing. While I enjoy reading student papers and perusing research materials, there is something refreshing about reading things I choose to read. I may pick up a new book, but I often find myself turning to something I have read before, an old favorite text I want to read yet again. I do this, I think, because of the comfort of reading something I have read and enjoyed before, such as classic mysteries by Arthur Conan Doyle, John Mortimer, or Agatha Christie, or popular works like the Harry Potter books. I know how they turn out, and somehow knowing they will resolve most of their plot threads and not leave me hanging (and thinking) satisfies me, perhaps because so much of life doesn’t lend itself to such immediate or neat resolution. The experience of re-reading these texts brings me a sense of pleasure and fulfillment so central to pleasure reading. But there are many other texts I find myself rereading on a regular basis because I teach them each year. The texts are familiar, but the experience of working my way through them changes as new groups of students read them and discover and then share in class the insights they have uncovered. While some observations come up time and again, each year new ideas enter into the conversations of learning we have, and each class responds with fresh energy and newfound enthusiasm for texts that are new to them, though familiar to me. I find myself energized by the ideas they broach and the epiphanies they experience. From time to time I have moments of discovery myself as I happen upon a previously unnoticed truth or insight. Then the reading (and teaching) experience becomes transformative for me as well as the students. One text I teach in my modern Chinese literature in Chinese course each fall is a short story by Lu Xun (1881-1936), the pioneer writer of modern vernacular fiction. Entitled “Kong Yiji,” the story focuses on the life of a traditional intellectual, the eponymous Kong, as in Kong Fuzi or Confucius, who struggled to survive in an era of modernization and change in China. Kong failed to pass any of the civil service examinations, and thus failed to qualify for even the lowest government post or a private teaching position. A good calligrapher, Kong is reduced to work copying books and documents for wealthy gentry families. Unfortunately Kong is lazy, fails to complete his work assignments, and has a penchant for wandering off with the books, brushes, ink, and paper that his employers have provided to him to complete his various jobs. When found, Kong is often beaten, and as the story closes, after a particularly severe thrashing, we find him unable to use his legs and forced to scoot along the ground on a reed matt. I first read Lu Xun’s story in a second-year Chinese language class at the University of California at Berkeley. A newly-returned missionary fleeing a failed freshman year as a chemistry major, I enrolled in the class when I took refuge in Berkeley’s temporary home for the undecided student, the “undeclared” major. Not knowing what I wanted to study, much less do for the rest of my life, I knew I wanted to retain, but also to develop my Chinese language skills, and I opted to enroll in a class that would help me build on my then-meager reading and...

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Pleasure, Transcendence, and the Problem of Beauty

Posted by on Apr 1, 2019 in Homepage Features, Humanities Center Blog | 0 comments

Pleasure, Transcendence, and the Problem of Beauty

“Beauty” is an unusual term. According to Webster dictionary, beauty is defined as “the qualities of a person or a thing that give pleasure to the senses or to the mind.”1 However, pleasure is also a problematic term. Eating a tub of ice cream might bring someone pleasure, but is it beautiful? Perhaps so. Serial killers might also find pleasure from murder, but most reasonable people certainly wouldn’t define that as a form of “beauty.” If it’s simply a matter of positive sensory experiences, the term beauty becomes void and meaningless due to the endless variability of taste, opinion, experience and perspective. If it’s only about pleasure, “beauty” becomes an ideal that is neither distinguishable nor reasonably sought after. There’s a popular idea that art, therefore, is an avenue towards the ideal or transcendent, intended to be beautiful or masterfully executed. The English philosopher, Sir Roger Scruton, created a documentary in 2009 called Why Beauty Matters, which proclaims his own stance on the topic. According to Scruton, since the twentieth century, art has become degenerate, degraded from the likes of Michelangelo or Rembrandt into art that is meaningless, unnecessarily crude or outrageous. He cites modern art examples such as Marcel Duchamp, who presented a urinal in an art exhibition in 1917, or Piero Manzoni, who submitted a can of his own feces to a similar venue. Scruton demands a call back towards art that exemplifies the human form in its full, representational glory. He insists that art’s truest form is art that is pure, Christian, inspiring and wholesome.2 The problem with this frame of thought centers around the same issue that made modernism flop and postmodernism take root. Call it Satan’s wiles as much as you like, but postmodernism called attention to the fact that the utopias modernism obsessed so much over were determined by white and privileged men. Their concepts of the ideal or of perfection failed to consider the views of the marginalized. Those of a different gender, race, sexual orientation, economic status, nationality or religion would have had a far more different picture of “beautiful” that, unfortunately, is not found in the history books. What is considered pure and inspiring does not take the same visible or audible form as westernized tradition might suggest. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, as the old saying goes, but if one eye is doing all the beholding, then I’m not so sure who would like to stay a part of that convention. Therein lies my issue with critics such as Scruton who continually insist on a singular mode of thought and goes so far to authoritatively assume criticism over such a broad issue as what art should and shouldn’t be. As any art student soon learns a few weeks into art theory, nearly everything has been done within the art world and nearly everything can be considered “art” if done with the appropriate context and intent. There’s a myriad of different forms, shapes, colors and sizes that has been labeled as art and rightly so. Conceptual art, minimalism, performance art, installation work, afrofuturism, land art, bio art, digital art—the list goes on and on. You don’t even need to get that contemporary to realize that art, or creative expression, never can stay in its patterns for too long. Nineteenth-century realism put critics on their toes by depicting ordinary workers instead of the aristocratic or wealthy. Fast forward a few years, and Monet is lighting fuses when he dares to leave visible brush strokes in his paintings. Of course, some still consider impressionism (and the more radical might even include...

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