‘A static body of knowledge on the shelf’ is how we might perceive the Humanities. But if we were to really look, and examine the questions they confront us with, would we recognise this definition? Or would it encourage us, and our students, to look again?
‘Look,’ I say, pointing out of my bedroom window at a tree that is just beginning to spread its green canopy. ‘Look, Mummy! I can see every leaf!
Her eyes brim with tears. ‘You mean that you couldn’t see them before?’
‘No, not really. Not like this.’
I slide my new glasses down my nose, peering over the top of them experimentally. Then I slide them back up again, watching how the world snaps into sharp focus. Each leaf on the tree outside is perfectly outlined. My place in the world is newly defined.
I think of this moment often, when I’m teaching or marking; that moment in my own life when I began to really see the world for the first time.
Before that moment, things were hazy, indistinct, difficult to pin down. And then everything became clear. It was impossible to unsee the things that are now so clear to me.
This is what we do when we help our students to look at things. Really look at things. Up close and in focus.
By experimenting with new ways of looking and perhaps more importantly, by finding their own lens, they see the world changing in front of their eyes.
There’s that moment when you can actually see things change for someone. That moment from which they can never go back to things half-glimpsed, half seen – or unseen altogether.
This is what we are doing when we teach our students English, History, Creative Writing – subjects that sometimes seem to be lumped together under this title Humanities – but are, in fact, about really looking. About learning how to look at the world in new ways.
By learning to look, we reflect upon what it is to be human. We take the lenses of story and history and we experiment with new ways of looking, new ways of being. We try things on for size. We learn the stories of the past in order to make new stories of the present.
This way of looking – with presence and courage and determination and a willingness to be transformed by what we might see – is at the heart of what we do in the Humanities. But it spreads beyond the classrooms and online spaces and meeting rooms and curricula of our particular disciplines and impacts everyone.
The methodologies of the social sciences – psychology, social work, criminology – and of education and the health sciences, have been changed irrevocably by ways of looking that were invented and refined in the study of the Humanities. The traditions of telling and sharing our stories, of excavating the past to understand the present, and reflecting and writing in order to understand our selves are now used in almost every other discipline across the institution.
The Human-ities are built on stories. Stories go to the heart of who we are.
This is what we know about the Humanities, we who do them every day, we who can’t go back to unseeing.
But how do we project this clear-sightedness into the future? The future – that thing that is always shimmering just beyond us. A future that often feels too difficult for the survival of our subjects? A future where some people just don’t want to see at all?
Our challenge, it seems to me, is to invite others into our ways of looking, to show them how the world opens itself endlessly when you know where and how to look.
When I think of the word Humanities, I think of something as heavy as the stone bust of an Ancient Greek poet, something with the scent of old books and dusty with learning.
But we know that the Humanities are not really like this at all. If we could zoom in, look up close at what happens in a classroom where students are investigating North American politics or Modernist poets or writing a screen play, there is a fizz and crackle in the air that you can almost touch. People are engaged, animated, asking awkward questions, talking and writing together.
So perhaps the first thing we need to do is to rethink the word Humanities – that big word that feels too heavy and moth-balled for how we do the Humanities in the real world – in ways that feel fresh and relevant.
We know what the Humanities are. But how do we help others to really see them?
How can we help people to grasp that what we do is not about learning as a noun – a static body of knowledge on a shelf – but about all the ways that we are making and remaking learning all the time with our students and staff and the community outside the University?
How do we find ways of saying: Look at this? And look again?
Look at what happens when we make the learning together, when learning is infused with new life, spills out of the classroom and into our work and art and meaning-making, wherever we find it.
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