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Humanities Charts Fresh Course

Inspired by the voluntary exile of the writer James Joyce and her own emigration to the United States, Professor Agata Szczeszak-Brewer charted a challenging new course for the humanities in the 21st century as she delivered the 35th annual LaFollette Lecture on Friday.

“In the nomadic future of the humanities, business owners, nurses, and local artists join college students in poetry slams and book clubs,” said Szczeszak-Brewer, who became a U.S. citizen in 2011 and is the author of Empire and Pilgrimage in Conrad and Joyce. “In the nomadic future of the humanities, scholars of sub-Saharan literature collaborate freely with visual artists and computer science experts on projects that would attract students and the general public. Our brilliant philosophers of gender, race, and class leave the campus regularly to engage middle-schoolers and high-schoolers in the life of the mind, leading discussions about the issues that affect them.

“In the nomadic future of the humanities, we prove that literature is not only for the elite few, that the beauty of the written and spoken word can move everyone, and everyone can try to articulate why.”

Szczeszak-Brewer answered critics who claim “the humanities are a luxury few can afford.”

“The humanities have never been more in tune with reality,” she said. “Talking about issues of political violence, injustice, betrayal, friendship, gender, poverty, racism, miscommunication between generations, war and peace, or our fragile ecosystem—all these complex topics embedded in literature of all ages—can indeed equip our students with the tools necessary not only to thrive on the job market but also to be compassionate and informed leaders.

“It is in the humanities classroom that young Wabash men can approach and try to understand the mind of a conscientious objector instead of condemning him on the spot as a coward; to empathize with a gay man dying of AIDS rather than dismiss him as immoral; to share the outrage of a woman turned away from the Oxford library because of her sex. Such empathy is not just a job skill. It’s a life skill.”

Teachers of the humanities, she said, have a responsibility to be a bridge between their subject and today’s public.

“If popularizing the humanities, the hard work of bringing them out in the open, is derided as a job of a traveling salesman, the humanities will lose public support, and along with it, the resources necessary to thrive.”

And as today’s student arriving in class as "digital natives" with more experience on the computer screen than the printed page, Szczeszak-Brewer defended digital humanities, calling “both printed books and computers complementary and important to our field.”

Last year’s LaFollette Lecturer, Professor of Rhetoric Todd McDorman introduced Szczeszak-Brewer as “a world citizen whose life experiences have influenced her work as a scholar, are translated into her approach as a teacher, and are reflected in the advocacy of her service.” Born in then-Communist Poland, she “grew up in a family of teachers, journalists, and artists. Her mother an English teacher, exposed Agata to classic literary texts at an early age.”

Those kinds of texts, Szczeszak-Brewer said, can be a catalyst for what University of Maine Professor Kristen Case calls “moments of grace” in the classroom.

“There is difficulty, discomfort, even fear in such moments, which involve confrontations with what we thought we knew,” Case has written. “These moments… describe a step away from a complacent knowing into a new world in which, at least at first, everything is cloudy, nothing is quite clear.”

“We do not aim to confuse in an English classroom,” Szczeszak-Brewer said. “We do aim to complicate. We aim to explore the complexities of human emotions and decisions beyond numbers and statistics. We aim to empathize. We aim to discover the beauty of language.”

In her defense of digital humanities, she recalled the late Professor of English Tom Campbell’s LaFollette Lecture “The Virtual Manuscript” and his work with Wabash students.

“Tom proved time and again that a humanities professor’s commitment to technology and sometimes risky explorations of the new can go hand-in-hand with the kind of careful analysis of literary tradition that Wabash has cherished for almost two centuries,” she said. “We are teaching ‘digital natives.’ Let’s teach them how to use the tools they have at hand effectively. Let’s discuss openly what’s lost when they pick up a Kindle edition of Walt Whitman’s poems. Let’s experiment with both mediums. Let’s give our students the kind of skills they will need to navigate all kinds of texts, most of them digital, once they graduate from college.

“I am not advocating for replacing real books and real, face-to-face, challenging, often messy discussions of literature or philosophy with 21st-century technology,” she said. “The true value of liberal arts education lies in the intimacy of the classroom, not with corporate-driven electronic learning platforms. The true value of the humanities lies in searching and wondering.”

Szczeszak-Brewer cited specific recent projects as she praised many of her Wabash colleagues for moving the humanities into a more promising future, but added that “it would take a more systemic shift to make all this possible on a larger scale.”

Recalling James Joyce as “a voluntary exile, a wanderer, a seeker” who always came home,” Szczeszak-Brewer said that “the humanities will have to open up and venture out without the fear that we’re undermining some primeval principle of what it is we should be doing as scholars and teachers.

“Pretentious, intentionally obscure, and insular humanities will soon face decline,” she concluded. “But the humanities that boldly leave home—and yet always remember home—the humanities that are not afraid to take a risky detour, the humanities that are not too aloof to leave the campus from time to time and engage pressing issues with clarity and empathy—this is a field that will survive any crisis of confidence.”