As an undergraduate fellow, I understand my involvement on this platform to be, in part, a representation of the student experience and perspective. My peers have been especially articulate in fulfilling that role (recent posts on artistry, career, empathy, and spirituality feel like a decent spread of humanist thought!). But as I recently survived another week of final exams, closing the door on my penultimate semester at BYU as an undergrad, I can’t help but question my efficacy as a student of the Humanities. I remember Bryan Stevenson talking about his senior year as a philosophy major, feeling like he ought to be sitting on a hill somewhere pontificating and opining, only to realize that it’s not likely anyone is going to pay for him to philosophize once he graduates. That seems to map onto what I’m feeling quite accurately. With genuine interest in law school, Teach for America, and the foreign service, I sometimes worry that I’ll lose my connection to the material I’ve spent four years engaging with here at BYU. When there is no longer a professor pushing a grade, will I continue to formally analyze the art that I find compelling? When there is no longer an institution asking me to contribute to their blog, will I continue to record my thoughts in writing? When there is no longer a diploma motivating my learning, will I continue to seek out art criticism and theory, the history of Southeast Asia, or a structured study of language? Am I even representative of the outcomes espoused by my college, department, and course faculty?
Perhaps I’ve caught a severe bout of impostor syndrome, an apparently common malady among students. Fortunately, I may have found a mental lens that has reassured me of, if nothing else, my desire to develop a worldview that incorporates the humanist curriculum of my years at BYU. I’ll refer to this as the pedestrian reading. Contrary to the close reading informed by textual, formal analysis, or the distant reading composed of digital corpus data and computational inferences, the pedestrian reading is defined not by scope, but by attention. And unlike the scholarly, academic reading or the casual, lay reading, a pedestrian reading is not limited by its density, literacy, or depth, but only by whether or not the subject of the reading has merited the focus of the observer. In essence, I propose the pedestrian reading is the interpretation of the passerby, the newcomer, the visitor, who knows that they may never come this way again, with only a moment to pause, take a second glance, and wonder on the nature of what lies before them.
For those who feel like pretenders or doubters, the pedestrian reading is a chance to test our impulse to understand, unpack, and uncover deeper meaning. It offers a space to check the urge to explicate, the will to believe, and the passion to appreciate. Maybe I have simply coopted the sensation experienced by Impressionists or Thomas Cole, who left their painting studios andtried to frame themselves within the art they worked to observe. Personally, this mode of interpretation has increased my confidence in what the humanities have always professed to teach. Freed from the anxiety of present word counts and the foggy occupational future, I’m reminded that I cannot walk by an incomplete, wooden gate in an industrial park, or a stranded, broken figure on a neighborhood staircase without asking why this mark of craft was abandoned. I can no longer view a snowy trail turning through the damp forest, or weary, embedded footsteps in library stone, without longing to hear the stories of all those who have gone before me on the path. I’m immediately invested in exploring the claims to truth archived by a plaque next to a Hippocratic tree, or an empty alcove where a forgotten, historical statue might once have stood. In these artifacts—short stories unto themselves—human expression is communicated across registers of time and language. What holds true for film, novel, or sculpture, is true for any subject of a pedestrian reading: meaning is realized through material left behind. But for me, different from words on the page, images on the screen, or working of molding, the aesthetics of the moments I’ve described above are operating not as evidence of authorship, but as proof of a reader. A reader who feels a connection to the someone and the something mediated by these spontaneous instances and uncommon objects. These potent experiences, and the lens with which I can choose to remember them, form a poetic antidote to the fear that I was an impostor all along.
Perhaps you too have encountered something that once caught your eye, where you were least expecting it. Whether in between classes, on your commute, or just down the street, whatever it was, it might have seemed the stuff of poetry. You may have your own artifacts that have undergone a pedestrian reading. I welcome any comments sharing such experiences. Impostor syndrome or not, in whatever way my love of the humanities manifests through the years to come, I hope to find myself stopping along the way as often as life permits. And I will always attribute that yearning to the curiosity cultivated in me by my opportunities as a humanities student.
This post was written by Garrett May, Humanities Center Undergraduate Fellow.