May 12, 2010

Whole University

Filed under: Uncategorized — dhi @ 12:43 pm

by Matthias Geiger, Assistant Professor of Art

We are at a critical juncture, a place where crisis is forcing important questions on us as human beings. Which organizational structures can we maintain and which structures do we need to alter and adapt to a rapidly changing world? What are our needs and what are our values? Crisis is a tremendous opportunity to initiate change and let go of systems and patterns which no longer work. For me, change means transformation and art is an amazing tool to initiate transformation towards cooperation within a culture of reverent ingenuity. Participating in art is whole: it engages both our minds and bodies in actions that transform esthetics into meaning. When we participate in art, our experience has the potential to be one of meaningful transformation.

I hold the conviction that we can transform ourselves and the world through play. Play is a form of cooperation and it is at the heart of any experimentation. When we experiment we can’t predict particular outcomes. Scientific experimentation requires the application of creativity and imagination. Art provides this space for playful activity and learning, free of the expectation of specific results and formulaic processes. We can engage with art to transform rather than express ourselves and we can alter ourselves to become more open and more engaged in the world. That requires a willingness to accept experimentation, play and transformation as an inevitable part of art making and life. It implies surrendering control and shifting the meaning of success. For John Dewey, the essence and value of art are not in the artifacts, but in the dynamic experiential activity through which they are created and perceived. Art is a meaningful process of ritual and experimentation and has the potential to blur the boundaries between the self and the world. Art is then brought into the world and nature, assuming all the moral responsibilities of life. It is based not on scientific reason and logic, and the pretense of objectivity, but on presence and subjective experience. The artistic endeavor is to alter consciousness by evoking mystical states. “The true artist helps the world by revealing mystic truths” (Bruce Nauman).

It is at the university where we have the public mandate and responsibility to find new ways to prolong humanity’s existence with the inclusion of all life forms on this planet. It is at the university, a place where rationality, the mind and the sciences are celebrated, where we are in need of a good dose of enchantment, play, free creativity and self-exploration. It is at the university as a place of higher education where we should be able to learn and teach how to bring balance to our minds and bodies. I see art as a vehicle to transport academic research into these territories. Art is the creative impulse that glues experimentation to play. “Imagination is more important than knowledge. For while knowledge defines all we currently know and understand, imagination points to all we might yet discover and create” (Albert Einstein). Magic, wonder and enchantment are here and are accessible, but need to be discovered, learned, studied and brought into our lives to make them whole.

April 15, 2010

Good for the Soul and Other Sound Bites for the Humanities

Filed under: Uncategorized — dhi @ 7:35 am

By Jay Mechling, Professor Emeritus of American Studies

I’ll begin and end this small essay with the same point—namely, that we need to practice saying clearly and succinctly to our students and to the public what value there is in studying the humanities. This seems obvious to us, but the humanities don’t speak for themselves on this matter; we need to speak for them. We need to practice sound bites for the humanities.

Back in 1995 I was chair of the California Council for the Humanities, and that Spring the CCH allied with UC for a massive DC lobbying effort at the annual event called “Humanities on the Hill.” The 1994 elections swept a number of Republicans into office, thanks largely to Newt Gingrich’s “Contract with America,” a set of promises that included eliminating the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts. The focus for that 1995 “Humanities on the Hill” day, therefore, was on lobbying members of the House on behalf of saving the NEH. CCH members teamed with UC professors and administrators to visit Congressional offices throughout the day to speak with California Representatives or their Legislative Assistants about the virtues of the humanities and why the NEH should be saved. Then, as now, the California Congressional delegation consisted of pretty liberal Democrats and pretty conservative Republicans. We knew we could rely on the Democrats to help save the NEH, so the day’s lobbying efforts were aimed at Republican house members, including such well-known conservatives as Sonny Bono and Randy “Duke” Cunningham.  I was teamed with a Humanities dean from another campus, and as the day wore on and as we visited Republican House offices one after the other, it became clear to me that the dean I was teamed with was wholly incapable of making a persuasive case about the value of the humanities to a Republican staff member. If those visits that day helped save the NEH, and I believe they did, then it was because of the case made by the members of the state humanities councils, who could show a member of Congress or a staff member specific humanities programs in the districts and their value. UC faculty and administrators could speak to the value of individual research projects or even of collective scholarly projects like encyclopedias, but these examples made a weak case for public funding.

Although that dean was particularly inept at articulating the general value of the humanities to society, I think he was not alone in struggling with ways to say clearly and succinctly why the humanities need to be at the center of the lifelong education of people in the United States. UC faculty members need to work at this. The course syllabus is a good place to begin, so I want to propose that we use your responses to this POV essay to gather examples of the ways humanities teachers say to their students why they should care about a humanities education, why (for example) a science or social science student should see a humanities course as more than an annoying general education distraction from what “really counts” in one’s education.  Actually, I think the same rationale should be presented to the humanities major and GE student alike. So here’s the experiment: let’s try some paragraph-long (150 words maximum) statements that we do or might put into our humanities syllabi to justify our study of the humanities.

Here’s my stab at this:

“We study the humanities so that we can have a fruitful discussion about what really counts in life, about the shared human search for meaning beyond mere subsistence and beyond just getting through the day. Humans crave larger meanings in their lives and they communicate these cravings, questions, and tentative answers through their expressive behavior, sometimes with words, sometimes with things like visual images, sometimes with music and dance and performance, sometimes with collective ritual or festival. The humanities examine big questions, such as ‘who are we?’ and ‘why are we here?’ and ‘what do we owe each other?’ Why is there suffering, and why is there beauty? How do cultural differences, honed by history and experience, shape particular expressions of what it means to be human? Can we learn from others across time and space the skill of living a most meaningful life, as individuals and as a community?”

There—that’s a try. I do not claim anything special about it, and I could tinker with it forever. I could have added that “studying humanities is good for the soul.” I wrote that once in an essay decades ago, and I still believe it. We don’t talk much about “the soul” at public universities, but perhaps we should. I received my undergraduate education at a small, church-related, liberal arts university, a setting unafraid of making claims about what’s good for the human soul. At Stetson University we learned to pursue knowledge and “truth” (whatever that meant) as profoundly ethical undertakings; we came to understand that we sought knowledge in order to acquire wisdom, and we came to understand education in the service of values. We UC humanists tend to avoid anything resembling religious rhetoric, but I think that sanitizing our discourse is a mistake. Studying the humanities is good for our souls.

I am eager to hear how others justify the study of the humanities, and perhaps this exercise will encourage teachers to make these claims in their syllabi and in front of students. We are “professors”; let us “profess.”

April 5, 2010

Actor-training: A Truly Transformative Vision

Filed under: Uncategorized — dhi @ 3:28 pm

by Bella Merlin, Professor of Acting, Theatre and Dance Department,

Back in January, I responded to Chancellor Katehi’s call for responses to the UC Davis Transformative Vision document. I wanted to take personal responsibility for the way in which I felt the Theatre and Dance department takes daily, active institutional responsibility for the transforming of young people’s lives.

From the moment I arrived from the UK in September 2008, I was struck by the way in which UC Davis’s fundamental Transformative Learning and Teaching Model was absolutely and excitingly integral to the very blood-and-guts of what I teach – actor-training. Here’s what I mean:

Step 1: Acting students learn through each tutor’s particular meaning schemes. Those schemes may be, for example, my own specialism in psycho-physical acting systems, or my colleague, Dr Jade McCutcheon’s Body Energy Centres (BECs).

Step 2: Acting is inherently creative. That creation involves students assimilating the various ‘meaning schemes’ with which we provide them, then inevitably adding their own individual understanding. This process is ‘inevitable’ as each student’s body, intellect, imagination, psychology, and experience are unique; therefore, they inextricably ‘add’ to the knowledge with which we as tutors have supplied them.

Step 3: The transformation of those meaning schemes is also inevitable, as each student’s idiosyncratic physical and psychological landscapes serve as filters through which the material of our pedagogical systems and techniques pass.

Step 4: By engaging with different roles, plays, performance pieces, media, creative processes, the students challenge and transform their own perspectives, as they incarnate Prince Hal or Clytemnestra, seeing the world through those characters’ differing social, political, cultural and historical lenses. The students, in turn, transform our world view as tutors, through the way in which they interpret our meaning schemes and systems, and through the creation of their own works (be those informal in-class improvisations or scripted pieces).

A truly transformative learning experience is most likely to happen and to be most effective when all aspects of the students’ beings – intellect, imagination, emotions, spirit and body – are working together simultaneously. And this is exactly what happens in the realm of the Humanities and Arts, and even more specifically in actor-training. Acting engages the students’ entire psycho-physical instrument in a truly holistic process. They’re not sitting in a lecture theatre or a lab. They are completely embodying the knowledge – and transforming with it, in their learning of it.

Since my arrival at UC Davis, I’ve been developing a course called DRA 10: Introduction to Acting. This is designed as a freshman course aimed at non-acting majors, predominantly from the Sciences. In reality, it attracts all years, all ages and all specialties. Many of the students don’t have English as their first language, or come from cultures where eye contact, physical contact or even voicing one’s thoughts are not second-nature to them. That all changes in DRA010.  I informally call this course ‘Introduction to Being Human’. It’s taught in the studio spaces by the MFA Actors, and we focus on trust, communication, risk-taking, cultural diversity, internationalism, empathy, compassion, collaboration: the fundamental core values that resonate through UC Davis’s ethos and Principles of Community.

The transformation that students undergo during their ten weeks in DRA10 is truly inspiring and deeply touching. Anyone who might for one instant question the validity of teaching Acting on an historically agricultural campus should feel free to drop by any time.

There’s a well-known adage that the Sciences produce knowledge and the Arts help everyone else understand that knowledge. The true knowledge that the Arts produces, from my ‘POV’, is self-transformation and, consequently, social transformation of the highest order. Whatever the history of UC Davis as a campus, I wholeheartedly believe that the means of the embodied and embedded transformation of society, culture and humanity ultimately lies in the Arts. I invite every student to undertake some basic actor-training: their lives will be transformed, not to mention their (imaginative) vision.

March 3, 2010

The Humanties: It’s not Rocket Science

Filed under: Uncategorized — dhi @ 1:56 pm

by Ari Y. Kelman, Assistant Profressor of American Studies

To wit:  A recent “Education Life” Section of the NY Times, where the cover article is called:

Making College ‘Relevant‘. I appreciate the quotation marks in the title, but the article seems to focus primarily on how to translate a BA into a J-O-B.  The implicit question is one that students in the humanities and social sciences ask with some frequency.  And rightfully so; our students deserve answers about the “relevance” of their studies and about our scholarship.

The New York Times’ implicit question confuses relevance for marketability.  It’s an obvious mistake that speaks pointedly to the humanities.  I’m not going to argue for the marketability of humanities degrees here (frankly, the economies of degrees, universities, and actual jobs are far more complex than simple “relevance” can explain). Instead, I want to ask a different question: why is it often so difficult for those of us who work in the humanities and social sciences to explain the relevance of what we do?

So, I’ll begin with some incredulity:  Relevant?  You want relevant?  What could be more relevant than investigating classic liberalism within the context of the health care crisis?  What could be more relevant than investigating radio regulation in the 1930s as a way of understanding questions about the internet.  What could be more relevant than developing a more rigorous account of race in America, especially now that we have a President who is often referred to as “the first black President?”

The relevance of what we do seems so obvious that it often goes without saying.  What we do seems so obvious because we work with our students to (1) develop the tools and resources to locate themselves socially, culturally, historically, and (2) to make sense of the forces that shape their lives.  So why is it so hard to explain the relevance of what we do?

Maybe the problem is that its too obvious. Maybe, because we study old books and popular phenomena, ideas and histories, it looks like anyone can do it.  We study things that people know — or think they know — which can make it seem like we in the humanities just do fancy versions of what other folks do at cocktail parties.  Maybe its harder to explain our relevance because our subjects seem to be too apparent, too obvious, and too easy.

The key word there is “seem.”  The classic American refrain for explaining that something should be possible is “C’mon, it’s not rocket science.”  Rocket science?  Try American Idol.  Try Hamlet.  Try Saccharine, Olestra, the suburbs, gender, of the idea of freedom.  The United States put a man on the moon in 1969, but I don’t think we’re any closer to understanding the Bible or Shakespeare than we were in 1969 or 1769.

Rocket science (with all due respect to my colleagues) has rules and formulae that at least partially govern mass, gravity, trajectory, acceleration and so on.  The humanities have few such rules and I’m not even sure if there is general agreement on what a human is.  Were life like rocket science, it would feature a lot of people moving along relatively predictable pathways.  But, we know that life is much more complicated than that and that’s precisely the point:  we are engaged in discussions  about what it means to be human, and we know when we enter that discussion that it cannot and will not end with our two cents.

That doesn’t mean that we should stop having these discussions, and that its pointless to engage in questions without answers.  Instead, that’s precisely the reason that we need to keep having those conversations — in order to better understand that the world in which we live is more complicated than we can comprehend, and sustaining a sense of curiosity and engagement enables us to continue participating in social, cultural and political life.

And what could be more relevant than that?

February 4, 2010


Filed under: Uncategorized — dhi @ 3:10 pm

by Timothy Morton, professor of English

Think of a perspective painting: it has vanishing points that tell you how to look at it. In some sense, the attitude the painting wants you to assume is already “in” the painting. In the same way, all statements (ideas, images, whatever) come bundled with implicit attitudes.

That’s the trouble with ideas in general: they code for how to think about them. Getting rid of one is harder than people think, because the attitudes they convey are not “in” your head—they’re hardwired into stuff “over there” like the shape of a Coke bottle or a language proficiency test.

We humanists (see, I used a bad word already) are in the business of making explicit the attitudes that come bundled with statements.

Once you have made an attitude explicit, it becomes something you are thinking about—in short, an idea. This idea then codes for attitudes of its own. So it looks like we have a job for life.

You can call the business of explicating attitudes many things: ideology theory, dialectics, archaeology of knowledge, memetics—whatever you like. We can argue about whether it’s counter-revolutionary, progressive, contemplative, praxis … Each idea about making attitudes explicit also has its own set of implicit attitudes.

For my money, a good dissertation is as explicit as possible a rendering of the attitudes that come bundled with the ideas under investigation, as little subject to time and brainpower constraints as possible. This is why a dissertation isn’t a book. A book is a product that must perforce be shapelier, and thus somewhat more implicit, than a dissertation. A dissertation is like a well loved teddy bear, covered with old vomit and with the stuffing sticking out of its ears: a well used transitional object that turns you from a student into an expert. The product is you, not a nice shiny book-like thing.

No one likes it (including us) when you mention the unconscious, so we don’t get paid very well. And we sew together these nasty looking teddy bear things. And we ourselves (let alone talk radio hosts) have a lot of resentment about our job and our position. We are also likely to suffer from the side effects of explication, such as thinking that we have seen through everything and no longer suffer from any side effects. But we should be proud of what we do (“Who is this guy? Has he no shame, no sense of irony?”).

It’s a bit old fashioned of me to quote William Blake: “I must create a system or be enslaved by another man’s.” Blake was on to this explication thing when he wrote Songs of Innocence and of Experience: Shewing the Two Contrary States of the Human Soul—or, in my terms, attitudes that come bundled with things we think. Blake’s “experience” isn’t about knowing more things—“experience” is an attitude of disillusionment and cynicism that might be even more troubling than any particular idea it’s thinking. That’s why I always tell my students to put Blake’s songs in quotation marks: it makes it easier to decipher the attitude implicit in the lyrics.

We are also constantly told—by Them, whoever They are (sometimes They are us), that what we do is insignificant, in particular because it isn’t like science. This statement is of course a vector for a certain attitude: scientism. We should be in the business of studying scientism, and rigorously distinguishing it from science as such. Science means being ready to admit that you might be wrong, so scientists are prone to be on our side more often than not, as David Simpson’s post argued in another way. Even science and scientists, however, can be afflicted by scientism.

Humanists should therefore immediately:

1) Receive remedial math and science lessons to get them up to speed with Einstein, quantum theory, evolution and genomics (and so on).

2) Propose research projects to scientists. Don’t just study science, start telling scientists what to do!

1) will enable 2) to be well formulated, and it’s jolly good fun—and amazingly like the most non-essentialist humanities stuff out there. Come on in, the water’s lovely. And it’s too good to leave to scientists who like all of us are prone to carrying implicit attitudes around.

Humanists would make ideal framers of science research projects, just like Columbo makes a great detective because he asks irritating questions. This is precisely because humanists appear not to have anything to do with things that science discovers—things about shiny little ping-pong balls that exist outside your mind, over yonder, right? Humanists are all about subjectivity and nonutilitarian things, no? Isn’t our reflex on hearing such tripe—“Wait! Who ever said empiricism and utilitarianism were hardwired into reality?”—isn’t that just the right one for formulating a really good science research project? Put it another way. If you know how to ask an exam question that will get undergraduates to talk interestingly about Beowulf, you already know how to formulate a science research question.

We are in the attitude explication business, remember. So our questions will be designed to do just that. Here’s the one at the top of my shortlist:

Is consciousness intentional?

If I get a crack at doing another post I’ll tell you why it’s number one—he said, not very explicitly …

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