Humanities Center Blog

Home for Christmas

Posted by on Dec 2, 2019 in Homepage Features, Humanities Center Blog | 0 comments

Home for Christmas

In my first semester at BYU, as I introduced myself hundreds of times to the other wide-eyed freshmen at Helaman Halls, I quickly realized I had never quite figured out how to answer the question: “Where are you from?” My dad was in the Air Force for the majority of my childhood, so we moved around a bit. I can separate my childhood and adolescence into three distinct “worlds”: Coastal Mississippi, where the air was heavy and the frogs plentiful. I caught lizards and hung them from my ears, stomped on fire ant hills, ran through sprinklers in the scratchy, thick-bladed grass. The rhythms of our lives were modulated by the cycles and whims of the insects and the ever-looming Hurricane Season. Colorado, where I could see Pike’s Peak from my bedroom window. I traversed the mazes of connected neighborhoods with ease, climbed the winter snowdrifts over the fence that divided our backyard from the neighbor’s, listened to the constant rustling of the quaking Aspen trees. And Southern Utah, all red rock and palm tree and inescapable heat. I jumped from blazing cliffs into Sand Hollow Reservoir, sprinkled fluorescent glowstick liquid on the walls of lava caves, built fires in the sand and watched the stars from car rooftops after football games. My family has remained in St. George, so any one of them would likely call it home, but my four years was not enough to root me in the dry terrain. These diverse lands all hold memories for me, and yet none of the three beckons me to claim it as my own. And they have all changed in my absence. Hurricane Katrina overturned my small town of Ocean Springs, commercial developments popped up all over the nearby empty lots in Colorado Springs, and my parents remodeled the house in St. George—now barely recognizable as the house of my high school years. Like the home in the “Time Passes” section of Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, the home-spaces I had established continue to shift. People alter the space; nature takes its toll. At six years, I’ve been in Provo for longer any of these places, so I suppose it’s as much of a home as any. Certainly, I’ve made home-like spaces in cozy nooks of the JFSB, in one small desk in the basement of the library, in the café on Center Street, in the worn uphill pathways I trod each morning. Yet, to claim Provo as my native town rings hollow when I moved here as a legal adult and spent a good portion of my time here complaining about it. (Provo has since crept into my heart and found a permanent space. I love this weird town and I’ll miss it when I leave.) I can’t help but feel a little envious of those who spent their first eighteen years in the same house or even in the same city, who knew their classmates by the way they ran the playground in third grade, who passed by the same tree every day on the walk to school, who grew with the land and people around them. Perhaps this dilemma has been on my mind lately because I’ve been in Professor Aaron Eastley’s graduate seminar on Nations, Migrations, Odysseys, and Exiles. We’ve studied the works of writers like Monica Ali, James Joyce, and Derek Walcott, as well as theories of nation and homeland by Kachig Tölölyan, Stuart Hall, and Robin Cohen. The common theme among so many of them was the longing for their homeland, for their inherited nation—a longing I couldn’t quite understand because no...

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Vulnerability on Stage: A Meditation on Opera in the XXI Century

Posted by on Nov 18, 2019 in Homepage Features, Humanities Center Blog | 2 comments

Vulnerability on Stage: A Meditation on Opera in the XXI Century

Overture Though a life-long lover of classical music, I resisted opera for many years. Too elitist. Too stuffy. It asks too much. I mean, how can you watch the stage and read the supertitles and enjoy the already demanding suspension of belief of people belting their emotions? Besides the fact that operatic scenes and characters are so often the object of pop culture ridicule…down deep, I thought, those Simpson parodies (here, here, and here) and Looney Tunes sketches (here) must be based on some truth about the outlandishness of the genre. My conversion, however, came unexpectedly and rather suddenly. First, my wife and I attended Utah Opera’s production of Daniel Catan’s Florencia en el Amazonas in 2013. Her idea not mine, but as someone who studies both Brazil and the Amazon, I thought, let’s give it a try—it’ll be research! The combination of set, costume, and music was stunningly beautiful, and I thought about the performance for weeks afterwards. So we tried again, this time Utah Opera’s staging of Verdi’s La Traviata in 2014. I was enthralled. Afterwards, I obsessively watched other performances on YouTube (my favorite? the 2005 minimalist production in Salzburg with Netrebko, Villazón, and Hampson). At that point, I was hooked. Something about Verdi’s portrayal of Violetta’s precarity and the vulnerability of love touched me deeply. As a novitiate and enthusiastic recent convert, I claim no special understanding or expert knowledge of opera, yet I think I’m beginning to understand opera’s enduring appeal. Opera travels well. The reasons are varied: its unique fusion of music, text, spectacle, and performance; its sweeping scope, grandiose sets, and large choruses juxtaposed with moments of poignant intimacy between two lovers or the solitude of a solitary soul standing alone on stage; its capacity for condensing human emotion and experience into a single aria, or even a single perfect note. Both its form and substance arrest our attention to provoke reflection upon the conditions and purposes of life. Perhaps unsurprisingly, opera travels well not only geographically to concert halls and theaters in far-flung corners of the world, but also artistically, that is, opera makes appearances through allusion, metaphor, and adaptation in other art forms like the novel, essay, visual arts, television, and film. What follows are four vignettes that demonstrate, I think, opera’s continued relevance to the world today.   Act I In the late-nineteenth century, Rio de Janeiro, like other fin-de-siécle cosmopolitan centers, was obsessed with opera, and few writers of the period were as infatuated with the genre as the Brazilian author Machado de Assis (1839–1906). A memorable operatic scene develops early in Machado’s wonderfully entertaining and mordant novel Dom Casmurro (1902). The story’s narrator, Bento Santiago, recounts a theory of life presented to him by an old Italian tenor who affirms: “Life is an opera and a grand opera.” Through an extended metaphor, the tenor continues: God is the poet. The music is by Satan, a young maestro with a great future, who studied in the conservatory of heaven. Rival of Michael, Raphael, and Gabriel, he could not endure the priority of those classmates enjoyed in the distribution of the prizes. It may be, too, that their overly sweet and mystic music was boring to his genius, which was essentially tragic. He started a rebellion, which was discovered in time, and he was expelled from the conservatory. The whole thing would have ended there, if God had not written a libretto for an opera, and thrown it aside, because he considered that type of amusement unsuited to his eternity. Satan carried off the manuscript with him to hell....

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An Artist’s Intention

Posted by on Nov 11, 2019 in Homepage Features, Humanities Center Blog | 1 comment

An Artist’s Intention

In previous blog posts, I’ve written about art and beauty, and how the two terms are not synonymous. Beauty is relative, and limiting artwork to only the beautiful and pleasant restricts the full range and impact that ugly and disturbing art can have. Art is an especially relevant topic for me, given my role as an art student and artist here at BYU, so I found it imperative to expand on this topic—especially concerning artistic intent.  When I use the word “art,” I’m primarily speaking about any purposefully constructed work that is a creative expression of the human mind. Traditionally, this has taken the form of painting or sculpture, but art has long since proven it can take many other forms: literature, theater, video, film, performance, installation, etc. However, as a practicing artist participating in the contemporary, capital-A “Art” world, I will primarily refer to examples regarding this sector of studio art practice.  Artistic intention or motivation ultimately determines the end product that we consider as artwork. Just as a team of writers will determine a movie’s plot progression, an artist determines what material will be used and in what way. Eventually, their work is exhibited in a context like a museum or gallery that allows us as viewers to evaluate what we experience. This can often be met with mixed reactions.  As BYU professor Collin Bradford stated in his Faith and Works lecture, it is not unusual for most people to walk into these places and become agitated when their expectations for beautiful, technically skilled, or uplifting artwork are not met. It is also highly unlikely that you will see the artist present and ready to explain their exact intentions when creating their piece. Rather, it is just you, the museum staff, maybe a few visitors, and the art work—along with all of your preconceived ideas and expectations ready to influence how you experience what is placed in front of you.  As Bradford put it, “I think we approach art as a culture with what King Benjamin might call the natural man…The natural man, King Benjamin tells us, lacks meekness, humility, patience and love.” We often become threatened by what we do not understand and as a result, dismiss or even antagonize something that could potentially inspire or provoke us to think differently. Furthermore, by separating the artist and his intent completely, we are removing critical context that could enrich the way that we experience the work.  One example of an unconventional—but purposeful—artwork is Walead Beshty’s FedEx works. He packed cubes of glass in FedEx boxes and shipped them across the country to various exhibitions and galleries. Normally, artists are careful to protect and pad their artwork from the casual rough handling of mail carriers. In this case, Beshty designed these pieces to break while in transit. His FedEx works were constructed to fit seamlessly within the dimensions of standard shipping size boxes. Then, when shipped, the objects would inevitably crack and shatter. It became the responsibilities of the curators and gallerists to carefully unpack each piece and display them as-is for the exhibition. The fragile volumes were then given titles that specifically mentioned the date, tracking number, and box size of the shipment. This work of Beshty was reliant on his initial intention for the shipping process to affect the overall outcome of the work. The final product then becomes a commentary on a corporation’s ability to copyright the exact dimensions of a box, essentially owning an empty shape, as well as highlighting a typically invisible act. As a culture, ordering items and expecting them to arrive...

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Beauty in Difference: Dr. Hans-Wilhelm Kelling on Loving the Work

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

Beauty in Difference: Dr. Hans-Wilhelm Kelling on Loving the Work

When I walk into Dr. Hans-Wilhelm Kelling’s office, he’s diligently working at his computer. “Have a seat,” he says kindly, “and help yourself to any of these treats.” On his desk is a pear, a bowl of M&Ms, and a bag of grapes. He jokes that he always keeps snacks at his desk so students will like him, though it became obvious over the course of our conversation that Dr. Kelling needs no help from the candy spread—his warm demeanor, genuine interest in others, and infectious energy for research are more than enough to make students feel at home. He has worked in academia for nearly 60 years, past average retirement age—and yet, while many senior academics find it difficult to keep up the same vigor and enthusiasm for research and publishing in their later years, Dr. Kelling maintains an insatiable drive to continue his work. “I love young people, I love my students, I love my colleagues. People are important to me, and that’s why I’m in this profession. I see the progress that students make, and it’s very satisfying to me.” For those who are just starting out in academic research fields, he advises, “The most important thing is choosing something that you love—something you’re really involved with—and then check in on yourself and make sure it still makes you happy.” Dr. Kelling, who started out studying chemical sciences, but has since pursued research projects in German linguistics, culture, and literature, has done exactly that. Right now, he’s working his way through over three thousand transcripts and documents of embassies in the latter nineteenth century, specifically Russian, French, German, English, and American embassies and the ways in which they communicated with each other to form alliances and keep other countries out of the impending French and Prussian war. Dr. Kelling also shows me a massive tome entitled The History of the Arab Peoples on his desk, which he explains he is reading on the side, “not because it has anything to do with my research—just because it’s interesting!” It’s clear that his hunger for information knows no boundaries or borders. He also has a particular interest in the way meaning is deepened by studies in translation. “You learn your own language when you study a foreign language; you discover the equivalences and differences,” he explained. Whether that be different perspectives, different languages, or different religions, he finds that his understanding of a given concept is always enhanced when difference—and dissonance—comes into play. “Young people have a distinct perspective on things—they bring vigor and enthusiasm for the research. But the same is true of Americans and women. Each brings a new point of view and deepens the research: it’s a symbiosis.” For this reason, Dr. Kelling continues to use students as research assistants and mentor undergraduates in their own research projects. This belief is perhaps a product of Dr. Kelling’s upbringing in Germany at the end of World War II. “I come from a culture that was very intolerant, so I had to unlearn what I was taught. That’s an important insight into scholarship, I think: you have to be courageous enough to admit that you’re wrong.” He says that after the war, it was as though he woke up—and now he revels in this ability to admit mistakes and move in a new direction. Dr. Kelling finds that his scholarship strengthens his faith as well: “I see the Lord’s gift to these people. I hear God in Beethoven’s symphony, which affirms my belief in God. I see this in literature as well. I don’t have the gift...

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The Spirit of Autumn and Higher Education

Posted by on Oct 28, 2019 in Homepage Features, Humanities Center Blog | 0 comments

The Spirit of Autumn and Higher Education

It’s that time of year again. The leaves are dying a vibrant death and so, it seems, am I. Don’t get me wrong. I deeply adore the fall—a season that for me was full of birthday celebrations, fresh school supplies, and unpacking my favorite sweaters from storage. Like Kathleen Kelly, I’d send you all a bouquet of newly sharpened pencils if I could. Autumn is a season of preparation and change-in-action—a brilliant shedding of the old to prepare for the long, bare winter and the hopeful rebirth of spring. But as much as I love the crisp mornings, the startling red leaves, and the pumpkin-nutmeg scent that permeates the air, I’ve begun to harbor a growing resentment for fall because this precious few weeks coincides with midterm season—which feels progressively more daunting each year. As we pass each other in the hallway, students and faculty alike ask, “How are you doing?” with increasing pity, as our responses shift from “Great!” to “Fine.” to “Hanging in there…” (this pattern will continue until mid-November when we communicate with only a heavy sigh and exchange looks of mutual understanding). Halloween ushers in a different kind of fear this year as I take on PhD applications and a thesis in addition to my typical teaching and class workload. I am in the throes of those crucial couple of weeks that will determine whether I take the plunge this cycle and apply to a dozen or so programs, or take a gap year to strengthen my application and apply next cycle. Will my thesis be a polished-enough writing sample to demonstrate my skill? How can I strike the delicate balance between flattery and smarminess, confidence and arrogance in my statement of purpose? Do I spend the extra time and effort to curate the two writing samples that Harvard requires, or should I put that work toward other schools? Which programs will be prestigious enough to secure me a job without the cutthroat culture? Is it more important to apply for a strong mentor or a strong program as a whole? These questions and more are bouncing around my head on a constant loop these days. And while I admittedly have a pretty solid awareness of the process (thanks to many conversations with generous and candid professors and classes like the Future Scholars Program that equip BYU students to jump the required hoops on the way to academia), I’m still baffled by the esoteric nature of the knowledge required to even participate. Knowledge that nearly requires that you have an inside connection in the first place; knowledge meant to exclude rather than include. My feelings about applying vacillate daily as I wonder whether my passion and work ethic is sufficient and genuine—or if I’m just debilitatingly competitive. And then there’s always the possibility that the decision will be made for me. I’m putting my fate squarely in the hands of a group of strangers who will read only a snapshot of my work and review a couple test scores (if the school even requires those—many don’t these days) in a stack of hundreds of applications, and from that, determine whether I’ll be a good fit. Indeed, there is a unique kind of anxiety in the PhD application game—an anxiety which has always existed, but is perhaps compounded by the general affect and direction of the humanities field. For example, I attended a regional MLA conference a couple weeks ago. It was small and very friendly to grad student presenters, for which I was grateful as a first-timer. One of the nights, they conducted a panel...

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Empathy and Foreign Language Learning

Posted by on Oct 20, 2019 in Homepage Features, Humanities Center Blog | 0 comments

Empathy and Foreign Language Learning

As I was writing this blog post, my husband called from Germany, where he is visiting family.   During the course of our conversation, we experienced some confusion over our plans for the coming days—a confusion born of the 8-hour time zone difference. Since it was 10:00 at night for me, but 6:00 in the morning for my husband, my “tomorrow” was his “today.” We resolved the confusion and had a laugh about our initial failure to see the other’s frame of reference. This was a small example of a failure of empathy. Empathy is broadly (and somewhat simplistically) defined as an ability to interpret experience from another’s perspective and to recognize the ways in which one’s own interpretations of experience are necessarily limited by one’s place in the world. Much has been made in recent years of the decline of civility and empathy in public discourse. This decline in empathy is readily apparent to anyone who has spent time on social media. Perhaps more troubling are hints that empathy may be on the decline in higher education. In a relatively recent article in Liberal Education, Nadine Dolby, a professor of multicultural education, wrote of a striking example of students’ inability to see the perspectives of others. Students in one class were presented with a case study of a group of Americans who, in the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, collected toys to donate to an orphanage in Haiti. The toys included stuffed animals, battery-operated toys, and construction sets with hundreds of pieces. One year later, one of the Americans involved in the toy drive had occasion to visit the orphanage and was disappointed to discover that the toys were deemed unsuitable and had never been used. Dolby asked her students to analyze what had gone wrong. To her dismay, the students were unable to understand the problems—that stuffed animals are germ magnets, that batteries are not readily available in orphanages in a country experiencing a state of emergency. Even as she attempted to help her students understand the point of view of the orphanage administrators, her students clung to their own beliefs, insisting that the toy drive was a success. Indeed, the students accused the recipients of being ungrateful. Dolby’s anecdotal experience is backed up by empirical evidence on the decline of empathy among college-aged young adults.  A 2011 meta-analysis of 72 studies on empathy in college students conducted from 1972 to 2009 indicates a decline in empathy of up to 40% during that time period, with the most precipitous drop occurring around the turn of the century (Konrath, O’Brien, and Hsing). The decline of empathy among college students is alarming since it is precisely at universities that students should develop empathy and compassion. Among the goals of a liberal arts education are intercultural knowledge and global learning, which involve an ability to “exercise empathy for and take the perspective of individuals from diverse backgrounds” (Rifkin, in press). Indeed, the Modern Language Association’s 2009 “Report to the Teagle Foundation on the Undergraduate Major in Language and Literature” states that university students should “experience people and places that are different and distant from . . . [their] home communities” and should “apply moral reasoning to ethical problems,” emphasizing the value of cross-cultural literacy. Perhaps one of the best ways to develop empathy, particularly intercultural empathy, among college students is the study of foreign languages. The American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) asserts the need for foreign language study as part of effective and rigorous general education programs, stating that There is no better tool for understanding the...

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