The Liberal Arts Feed Your Curiosity

by Steffi Delcourt

Education, specifically a well-rounded education, has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember, what with two professors specializing in paleoecology for parents and a sister pursuing a career in researching math. As an English and Psychology major, I have united my love of literature with a scientific curiosity that I must have inherited from my parents. My English major was expected: I have loved to read since I learned at age four. Psychology was not: I fell in love with the discipline after my freshman seminar.

Part of what drew me to Emory for my undergraduate college experience was its focus on leaving four years later with a liberal arts education. I could experiment before I settled down into one specific track, and keep experimenting throughout college if I wanted. I developed my analytical and critical writing skills through my English and other writing-intensive courses, but I also honed my ability to identify research questions and problems, as well as make strides toward answering them. These skills, in addition to having knowledge about the world at large, are essential for participating in the global culture of today.

But a true liberal arts education is so much more than acquiring a necessary skillset and being strongly encouraged to take an English class, a math class and two physical education classes before I graduate. Ours is a time where the world can be searched and seen with the right algorithm, where a wireless internet connection for phones is paramount, where communication can happen in seconds and yet thousands of miles apart, where a library can be perused with a ‘click.’ The access to information feels like enough; if everything is at my fingertips, isn’t that enough?

The liberal arts are here to unfurl the world at our feet. It’s not enough merely to look at the information and know that it is there. We must ask why. We are constantly exposed to new information, disciplines, dimensions, cultures, worlds – with all the information at our fingertips, I think we forget to ask why. And that is where the liberal arts excel.

A liberal arts education is active. It is seizing the opportunity to learn from Salman Rushdie, participate in an experiment or organize one yourself, speaking a different language and discovering another culture. It is taking a class with a Tibetan monk, or listening to Yefim Bronfman tickle the ivories. It’s asking the question, “Why is the world the way it is?” and then searching for the answer yourself. The liberal arts feed your curiosity. And the world can never have too much curiosity.

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We Need the Humanities Now More Than Ever

by Natalie Lane Marshman

As our world rapidly changes, technology develops by the nanosecond, and our daily lives seem more focused on how quickly we can access information, rather than on the quality of the information itself, the study of literature seems an archaic and almost hedonistic pursuit. In a world of distractions, ringing phones, beeping e-mails, and Wikipedia entries, the sensation of reading a book and focusing on the language is harder and harder. Yet without it, we are truly lost. The purpose of the humanities is to allow us to explore the human condition and develop our minds analytically. It makes us creators, deep thinkers, analyzers, and above all, questioners. The world around us is transformed through the exchange of language, and being able to express our emotions, ideas, and arguments is the only way to transform our own lives and our own selves.

There is always a debate as to the place of humanities in a college education. Many people view college as a means to an end- as a necessary step to getting a high-paying job and thus choose to major in seemingly more practical areas. However, I don’t believe this is because people no longer passionately care about literature, arts, and ideas. I think in today’s world there is a new panic and fear of not getting a job due to the financial crisis, and this intensely competitive environment has made students doubt their own abilities. The new priority for many is just getting hired, but that doesn’t mean that the development of the mind should be left behind. Through the doubt, it is clear we need the humanities now more than ever- to allow us to read and understand the true power of the individual, and of beauty, truth, and life. The humanities are not an escape from the worlds of business, industry, and science but are a way for us to look at these pursuits with an ethical, critical, and analytical eye in order to better understand their purpose. The problems confronting us today are deeply complex and students who study the humanities have the capability to look at these problems from a variety of perspectives. As the world rapidly changes, business and science continue to require creative thinkers. The humanities are mentally demanding- the thinking is multidimensional and allows the student to become a creative problem solver, rather than a follower of directions or a rubric.

Literature is one of the most powerful and beautiful records of the human race, and studying it can transform one’s academic experience. We read and write to understand, to justify, and to confess, and without this reflection, there can be no internal or external progress. I first became enraptured with English when I was a senior in high school and saw the film “Dead Poets Society” which memorialized the English teacher John Keating and his famous words:

We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for. (Weir, 1989)

More than “much needed office space”

by Deborah Schlein

As a thesis student this year in the department of Middle Eastern and South Asian Studies it was made abundantly clear to me from the very first day of my senior year that my life for the next eight months would be consumed by research, translation, chapter writing, edits, re-edits, and more edits. Though that work may frustrate me at times and drive me crazy, my research this year has been one of the most rewarding and worthwhile experiences of my college career.

Studying in the MESAS department has introduced me to the histories of vast and powerful empires, the religions that fueled them, and the intellectual achievements of their scholars. After much deliberation over sources and possible thesis questions, which seemed to change and switch almost from day to day, I put together a question concerning the agency of singing slave girls, or qiyan, in the Umayyad and ‘Abbasid empires, the second and third empires of Islam respectively. As slaves, these women were some of the most highly valued commodities in the empire. They were trained from an early age in the arts of poetic recitation, music, singing, verse creation, and general performance. It was this phenomenal knowledge of song and verse which they possessed that made them so desirable. My aim is to discuss, through the use of a number of historiographical and biographical texts, the use of their skills as it relates to the attainment of certain freedoms, influence, and social mobility within the caliph’s court.

The undergraduate fellowship at the Fox Center has benefitted me and my research more than I ever thought possible. When I received the fellowship, I was under the impression that I would get much needed office space for my periods of research frenzy. I’ve gotten so much more than just a desk and a computer from this fellowship. While it may seem trivial, the use of the office’s printer has been wonderful. I can print as many pages as I need to without worrying about paying with my Emory Card. I’ve also made great connections and met some wonderful people at the center who have helped me in my research endeavors and with everyday stresses. This fellowship has given me a quiet place to work where I know I won’t be distracted and I can write my endless pages and read through my ever-increasing stack of Arabic texts.

I am so grateful for the space, the atmosphere, and the general support I’ve gotten from this fellowship and I’m excited to see what this semester will bring in the way of new research and thesis madness.

Enjoyable Evening at the Response Forum

by Hannah Kim

Last Wednesday, I had the opportunity to participate in the twelfth annual Faculty Response Forum hosted by the Fox Center for Humanistic Inquiry. This year’s theme was “Experiencing Difference through the Humanities,” and there were nine different discussion table set up. Some of the tables that most interested me were ones named “The Past is a Foreign Country: They Do Things Differently There,” “What’s Different about Poetry—and Does Poetry Make a Difference?” and “Humanities, Difference and the University,” and I ended up signing up for the last one because I thought discussing humanities within the broader context of the University might be interesting, especially given the latest departmental cuts.

After the welcoming speech delivered by Professor Brownley, our table began with humanities scholars’ tendency to become defensive about the nature of their works—especially regarding questions of relevancy and usefulness— and how we could best address the perceived need to continuously convince the university and the public of their value. The Center for Ethics was mentioned as an example of a university institution that could appeal to the humanities regarding practical issues, but a philosophy faculty member pointed out that philosophy departments across the nation tend to be rather uninvolved with ethics centers. Perhaps the gap between moral philosophy and applied ethics was a bigger one than we thought?  This discussion eventually led us to question whether a purely contemplative and theoretical pursuit of humanities could be justified (or even ideal), a question I had often wondered myself. Could research that is entirely conceptual, divorced from any explicit relevancies such as policy implications, still hold value and meaning? Though I don’t think we came to a conclusive answer, for me the answer is an unequivocal “yes,” given that it was literature’s unique ability to offer consolation that first attracted me to the humanities.

The forum was my first time mingling with faculty and administrators in a setting where the implicit teacher-student hierarchy did not dictate the norms of social and intellectual interaction. Instead, every person sitting around the table was considered equal contributors to the discussion, and in fact, there were moments when the ability to speak as an undergraduate student helped me provide a unique perspective. The evening, replete with good food, good conversations, and an even better reminder of why we love what we do, was a thoroughly enjoyable one.

Faculty Response Forum XII

by Zachary Domach

All the Fox Center fellows quickly adapt to their new lair, delighted by the pleasant workspace and familiar conversation topics (including that one pervasive question: “Where can I find funding for the humanities?”) Every January, however, the fellows emerge, drawn back across North Decatur road to the Carlos Museum’s reception hall by rumors of a cultured dinner. There’s a catch, naturally: to get the food you have to navigate small talk, an over-zealous photographer, possibly an icebreaker or two, and at least a full hour of intellectual conversation (but for academics, that’s often more attractive than the dinner). After you’ve raided the buffet table you face another hour of talk, if not more, before some brave soul announces those suddenly all-important words “It’s getting late” and ventures to end the discussion. Only once it’s over do you realize that the discussion, and not the dinner, was the evening’s highlight. This remarkable evening is, of course, the annual Faculty Response Forum. This year’s Forum centered on the theme “Experiencing Differences through the Humanities” and featured nine discussion tables, each revolving around a subtopic related to the theme. Some tables used a subject area, such as drama or poetry to anchor their discussion; other topics were more abstract. My table, for example, explored the broader idea of “Humanities, Difference, and the University.”

Mark Risjord (Associate Dean in the Laney School of Graduate Studies and Professor of Philosophy and of Nursing) and Lisa Tedesco (Vice Provost for Academic Affairs–Graduate Studies and Dean of the Laney School of Graduate Studies) facilitated our discussion which, over the course of the Forum, ranged considerably. We initially examined the perceived divide between the humanities and pre-professional studies at the undergraduate level, and its parallels at higher levels. There was little doubt that medical, legal, and, especially, the business world need more contact with the humanities; it’s even possible that we could learn from some exposure to them as well. It quickly became apparent to us that much of the gulf between the two worlds stems from the focused, even narrow, mindsets of faculty and students about the role of each. We concluded that – given time – the gulf could be bridged, but only if there is a willingness by both parties to have that conversation.

The humanities often come across as too theoretical, while the health sciences, legal, and business worlds seem to edge too far in the opposite direction, emphasizing application to an extreme. In some cases it might not even be best for a bridge to be built, but in the many situations where it is beneficial to both parties that conversation needs to be a true dialogue. The academic practice of reading papers and focusing on a select audience, even in interdisciplinary seminars, is probably not the most conducive way to build a dialogue; something a like workshop format is ideal to engender a conversation across the humanities and the areas of study which are traditionally considered to be more applied. We looked at initiatives such as the Emory Center for Ethics that use a subject found across numerous fields to create such dialogues. While there will always be certain tensions associated with something so interdisciplinary (after all, what is the philosophy department supposed to think when its ethics courses are suddenly commandeered by an upstart new center?), it nevertheless provides a platform to forge some common ground.

Following a recess for dinner (with such excellent selections as grilled salmon, chicken marsala, several vegetables, and, of course, a variety of cookies), our table considered the role humanities in the digital age. Using the PBS’s program “Downton Abbey” as an example, we discussed how didactic (and more often pseudo-didactic) enterprises are successfully being intertwined with entertainment. We also explored changes in the classroom experience such as initiatives such as Coursera, the online course system out of Stanford University. Finally, we reviewed the cultural impact of the humanities over the last several decades: what had changed and how the humanities may have played a role. By this point in the night the photographer had vanished; with him gone there was no one to document our departure so – once those magic words “It’s getting late” were uttered – we called it a night.