The other day I came upon a New Yorker article entitled “Why I Quit My Job to Travel the World.” Like many people, I have an interest in travel and decided to give it the time of day. I expected to read a heartening story about someone who left the drudgery of daily life and created a career for themselves traveling and basking in the glow of cultural experiences from around the world. Upon first perusal, however, I was met with an arrogant, entitled narrator describing a superficial chain of events that, though about traveling, was far from enlightening. Shocked and confused, I wondered how something so conceited, close-minded, and obnoxious made it into such a major publication. Maybe I didn’t understand what The New Yorker was all about after all. It got me asking questions, however, and I did a little digging.
I found at the bottom of the page a tag that said “Humor” and several of the comments below talked about the satirical nature of the article. One especially caustic commenter wrote how if anyone missed how the article was saturated with irony and satire, they were not intelligent enough to be reading at all. I felt a little disheartened at this knowing that I was among those who were initially confused by the style and content of the piece. As I read through the article again, I could see more clearly the stabs the author was making to an entitled and self-righteous attitude so many of the current generation have towards travel and foreign people and cultures.
As an instructor of first-year writing, I teach my students to use rhetorical tools to see the world critically. With a piece of writing, we examine the author, the genre, the tone, the argument, etc. to analyze the message and its overall effectiveness. I realized that though I didn’t see the satire initially, I used those same tools to ask questions of the article and source, which led me to my eventual discovery.
The implications of this particular article are minor, but other articles carry more weight, even if they lack substantive arguments. Sometimes we allow such articles to shape our beliefs, political opinions, and assumptions about others.
So often, for convenience sake, we take at face value the information we are presented on the web. We have a question, immediately consult Google and expect a believable and trustworthy answer in the first couple of clicks. Rarely do we search on more than one or two sites in order to validate our opinion or answer our question. In this digital age, we have developed an insatiable lust for immediate informational gratification. It isn’t until our suspicion is pricked or our curiosity is aroused that we begin to dig deeper, but the humanities endeavors to do just that.
In this simple anecdote, my inner, critical eye said there had to be something deeper going on here. I came to the article because I trusted the publication. I started to ask questions because that is what I have been trained to do in the humanities.
I would venture to say that we all have experience misunderstanding someone’s style or intent while reading on the web. The humanities teaches you to consider opposing viewpoints without immediately accepting or dismissing them. It also teaches you about unreliable narrators, genre conventions, and how to get at meaning below the surface in order to help you ask the right kinds of questions. In doing so, we develop a better appreciation for persuasive argument, and we aren’t so easily duped by unsettling, controversial, or unconventional writing.
Written by Holly Boud, HC Intern