Category Archives: humanities

Wigging Out in Class

The semester is drawing to a close. And as it closes, I think about the revising and revamping my courses and the day to day workings of the classroom.

One thing I am working on is trying to make the most of class time, especially when my big plans take less time (for whatever reasons). To this end, I am focusing on developing a stable of activities to use in class when there is still time after whatever major goal is accomplished.

Cue the appropriate mood music

On Thursday the morning class had some extra time. I asked them to use that time to create some wigs using the Design a Wig site from the Victoria and Albert Museum. Now, I didn’t do this just for the sake of fun. It fit in the class. We’ve read some 18C novels. The students have been working on their longer argumentative research papers and are gaining a more nuanced understanding of the time period. Right now- we are reading Royall Tyler’s The Contrast. The edition that I am using features primary materials that deal with fashion and include some cartoons featuring insanely preposterous wigs.

My Wig

Behold: A wig I made

On Thursday morning I asked students to take a look at the wigs featured in the primary sources of our textbook. Then I asked students to visit the Design a Wig site and create their own wigs by collaborating in groups. They were already in groups- so that made sense. The Design a Wig site is fun. It is also educational. It does provide a few snippets of historical information as it walks users through the tutorial for using the site features. Well, if that doesn’t sound like the  kind of video game tutorial that makes a pedagogy of video games appealing to many people?

On the spur of the moment this worked well. If I planned this out I’d make a few changes. Perhaps have students explore a larger sample size of wigs, design a wig, then ask students to write a collaborative group reflection paper. However, there is something to be said against making something fun and creative become an extra piece of work for the students and the instructor.

Just one more thing. This wasn’t completely out of the blue. I knew I wanted to use this site at some point. It had received a lot of attention over the past few months. I also knew that I’d use it with The Contrast because of the primary source materials. I just hadn’t thought of the actual implementation of using the site in class.

I leave you with the wigs from Thursday.






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Filed under history, humanities, teaching, Uncategorized

Not your typical University Commerical

The genre conventions for a 30 second TV spot used by major colleges and universities, especial R1 institutions with bigtime sports, are rather conventional. Nondescript inspiring music accompanies well-known images of the campus, vague highlights of award-winning research faculty (often in science and technology), and students often enjoying life far from the classroom. And there are sports.

Last night I saw a university commercial that exploded nearly all of these well-known higher education advertising conventions. This commercial for the University of Minnesota aired during their game against the University of Michigan:

The Minnesota commercial features Keith Mayes, a scholar of 20C African American history, at Minnesota. It is clear from the opening words that this commercial is going to do something different. The commercial opens right up with a big, bold claim. It is certainly a claim familiar to many scholars of American history and life, but it lays a foundation for an argument largely unfamiliar to the general public. This is not going to be your typical university commercial. It is going to have substance. It is going to have an argument. It is going to keep going on this line. And it is going to pack a punch in 30 seconds.

Given my usual audience I’m not going to go into detail with this advertisement. Watch it yourself.

This particular ad from the University of Minnesota is from a series of similar ads. Many of them feature tough issues ranging from global warming and the environment to medical research. However, for me at least, this one stands out for how it focuses attention on teaching while it also highlights race, social justice issues, and the achievement gap. And, of course, the humanities, especially our relationship to history, has a prominent role.

I think this commercial will resonate with many of you.

The University of Minnesota did a good thing for all of us, especially humanities scholars at bigtime research and sports institutions. The ad provides an example to help ask the question to departments, school divisions, and administration of why the PR department doesn’t create advertisements like this.

I think the ad also raises a larger question. The work done by Mayes represents a nexus of history and curriculum development designed to ensure the long-term academic success of minority students. We often advocate for the ability of the humanities to do relevant cultural work that matters today.

I am not a fan of “the humanities matter argument” because it rings as a rather vapid platitude. I think the best way to defend or justify the humanities is to not talk about it, but do it. But how many of us in the humanities do scholarship that could be featured in a commercial like this one? I think that is question we need to grapple with and not rely simply on the claim that humanities matter.
PS: I watched last night’s game on my Xbox via the ESPN ap. The world of commercials works differently in that context. I do not know if this commercial was broadcast on cable or satellite feeds. However, millions of people have cut the cable and watch ESPN online. I still imagine a significant population saw this advertisement.

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Filed under academia, higher edcuation, history, humanities

Saving the Humanities, whatever that means

It is impossible to miss the various calls to save the humanities. And, yes we hear those calls because many of us are in an echo chamber, but let’s skip that for now. Case by case we know what it looks like (maybe) to save individual elements of the humanities: a place, a museum, the local civic orchestra, or protect state or local budget funding for a local projects. But what does it mean to “save the humanities”? I am not proposing any solutions in this post, only some ideas, observations, and musings about the phrase “save the humanities” and its rather confused meaning given my field of literary studies.

What does it even mean to “save the humanities”? The phrase is used in a variety of contexts whether it is a museum, funding, a field (like the study of literature), and a host of other things that you can fill in here, too. Case by case we can see individual endeavors of saving the humanities (perhaps), but as a rallying cry the phrase doesn’t mean anything and is a catch all slogan. It is a phrase that hangs out there and often prefaces potential limited solutions to one slice of the difficulties faced by the humanities. “Save the humanities” works like a meaningless phrase that can be appended to a sentence jokingly like “that’s what she said” or a fortune cookie’s “in bed.”

The biggest problem I have with the phrase “save the humanities” is that it serves as phrase swappable with “save the field of literary studies,” a short-handed code phrase for the study of the field of literature in colleges and universities. That coding or euphemism is one thing that needs to stop because it lumps together equally the problems of the field of literary studies and the problems facing the humanities (art, museums, music, and so on). I am not saying that literary studies and the humanities, don’t share many of the same problems, but a great deal of what faces the study of literature and the humanities are very different and beyond the issue of funding, appreciation, and support. The wretched state of the field of literary studies, and I’m thinking mostly of the economic, teaching-load disparities, and the job market situation as symptoms, is a decades old mess created by a host of factors.

Breaking up the overlap of saving the humanities and saving literary studies is important because with regards to each, a saved humanities is very different and that brings me to the next set of questions:

What does saved humanities look like? What does a saved humanities mean?


What does a saved field of literary studies look like?

What does a saved field of literary studies even mean?

Most likely, I think, a saved humanities, in the case of literary studies, is one that is awash with cash, but trucking along just like its old self. I don’t think it means fixing the problems that brought it to a crisis situation. For the larger humanities I’m more optimistic because museums, operas, orchestras, etc. have talked about doing new things to widen appreciation and audience and have acted on them in a way that my field hasn’t done.

What do you think the phrase “save the humanities” means? What might a saved humanities look like?

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