I had planned to write on a different topic today, one that followed up on yesterday’s post which is at BlogHer, but then I read Kristen Case’s article “The Other Public Humanities” in yesterday’s Chronicle of Higher Education.”

The title is unfortunate, for “public humanities” means almost nothing to those outside academia and certainly doesn’t hint at the excitement I found in Case’s words:

“These moments—one of collapse and one of clarity—represent what is, for me, the heart of the humanities classroom. They are difficult to characterize and impossible to quantify. They are not examples of student success, conventionally defined. They are not achievements. I want to call them moments of classroom grace. There is difficulty, discomfort, even fear in such moments, which involve confrontations with what we thought we knew, like why people have mortgages and what ‘things’ are. These moments do not reflect a linear progress from ignorance to knowledge; instead they 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.” [emphasis added]

Just yesterday in my humanities class we began the second of three themes this quarter: freedom. I felt a bit rushed and discombobulated because I did not have with me the photocopied midterm exam guidelines I had meant to distribute as hard copies, so I had to talk my way through them, taking more time than I had planned. This meant that my introduction to freedom was abbreviated and condensed, and I was not at my best.

Teachers know what I mean. There are days when I can look at the students and seem as if by osmosis to know what they need to have explained, when the necessary words and phrases and examples flow from my memory without any conscious effort, when the entire classroom is one as we work towards new understanding.

Yesterday was not one of those days. The words I needed got stuck somewhere between my brain and my mouth. I began to talk about determinism and the different ways in which our freedom can be affected in ways beyond our control: economic determinism, institutional determinism, behavioral economics. The expressions I saw before me were baffling. Were the students tired? Bored? Confused? 

This is one of my favorite parts of the course—poetry by Langston Hughesa photo I’d taken on the sidewalk leading to New York Public Library (below), the marvelous metaphor of Plato’s allegory of the caveand I was botching it.

Freedom

But then I asked if they could relate to anything I’d mentioned, especially as college freshmen who were in the midst of a transition from childhood to adulthood, and their experiences and examples swirled through the classroom like a burst of fresh air.

The got it. Even with my bungled explanation, they got it in the deep and quiet way that introverted engineering students get it. One student spoke about how he feels his personality has changed as he’s grown older but that his family and friends still expect his old self. Another talked about how he has a lot of choices but that they always preclude other choices. A third related how her father’s profession had affected the expectations on her as she was growing up.

That’s the magic—or, in the words of Case, the grace, the epiphany—of “a very unsexy kind of public humanities”:

“…: the kind that involves a classroom, and desks in a circle, and books … a real classroom: the kind you physically walk into, where people complain about the weather and their finals and their lousy jobs before class starts, and to which … people trudge from across town or drive for an hour in the snow to be together for a while and talk.” Read More

I will be sharing Kristin Case’s article with my students today. They will get it.