Humanities, when written with a capital H, is a class open to first year students at Davidson College which fulfills the Writing 101; Literary Studies, Creative Writing and Rhetoric; and Historical Thought graduation requirements. During the 2020-2021 schoolyear the course meets from 9:50 to 11:05 am on Tuesdays and Thursdays. The course is divided into eight units, each of which is led by a different professor and explores the theme of the course, the body, through a distinct academic lens. Humanities is co-taught by eight professors (listed in the order of the units they teach): Professor Robb, Professor Green, Professor Fache, Professor Tamura, Professor Bory, Professor Luis, Professor Wills, and Professor Denham. More than these factoids, however, the Humanities is a community of students and professors drawn together by a shared mission to learn from the works which they analyze and their discussions with one another. Important to note, is that while Humanities fulfills various academic requirements, Humanities is not, in itself, a requirement. This is significant as it means that students who take Humanities must independently elect to do so. Consequently, the students who take the course have each chosen to learn from the material, their professors, and one another. Humanities is a group of scholars who hail from around the world and bring with them varying perspectives and life experiences but are united by their mutual respect and desire to learn.
Contrastingly, when written with a lowercase h, the humanities are works which explore, describe, and are a consequence of the human condition. The humanities are what distinguish humans from other animals or aliens. They are the works which we create to imbue life with purpose and meaning. These works convey emotion and experience while also describing the details and reality of human life. The humanities can consist of visual arts, such as paintings, photography, sculpture, film, and collage, as well as written works such as fictional prose, articles, nonfiction, memoir, plays, and poems. However, what specific form works in the humanities take is less relevant than the fact that they are humans’ creations.
In the first four units of the Humanities course at Davidson this past semester our class analyzed and discussed a variety of works from the humanities. In Dr. Robb’s unit we read Plato’s Allegory of the Cave and Frankfurt’s “On Bullshit” among other texts. We also watched Arrival, a science fiction film, and a documentary titled “After Truth.” These works revolved thematically around human communication and the truthfulness and validity of such communication. The Allegory of the Cave is a story written by the Greek philosopher, Plato. It describes a group of people who are chained in front of a fire in a cave. They are positioned such that their only view is of various shadows against the wall brought about by items they cannot see on the other side of the fire. The story symbolizes how the reality of the people in the cave is limited yet they are unaware of such limitations. In the context of the humanities, the allegory represents how people use fictional stories or myths to better understand their view of the world.
In Professor Green’s unit the class discussed various theatrical works in the context of activism. We watched a recording of a short play titled Pipeline. The play told the story of the relationship between a Black public-school teacher, Nya, and her high school aged son who attends a private school, Omari. Pipeline comments on society’s treatment of minority students, especially Black students. The humanities include plays and other works which are meant to be performed. Works in the humanities can also make statements about the society we live in and how it could change for the better.
The third unit, Professor Fache’s unit, was titled Three Black Venuses and surrounded the study of three Black women: Sarah Baartman, Josephine Baker, and Beyoncé. During this unit we watched and read a myriad of works surrounding the lives of these women including the French film Black Venus and Beyoncé’s visual album, Lemonade. Black Venus depicts the adult life of a South African woman who traveled to Europe to perform in an exhibition. The film raises questions about the degree of Baartman’s autonomy in her involvement in the exhibition and illustrates the contrasting ways in which she was treated. She was both regarded as an animal but at other times also as an artist. She often had to perform degrading acts and allow European audiences to touch her body as if she was an animal while simultaneously dressing in regal clothing, riding in a carriage, and being waited on by staff outside of her performances. Black Venus conveys that the humanities can include films and other digital media. The humanities can at times also describe historical events.
In Dr. Tamura’s unit we mostly read textual firsthand accounts of terror and atrocities and discussed these works’ role in social justice. One of the works we read was Suheir Hammad’s poem “First Writing Since” which details Hammad’s experience as an Arab-American woman in the United States in the wake of the terrorist attacks on 9/11. Her poetry conveys both her heartbreak as an American and as a person of Palestinian descent who experienced increased hostility and prejudice from other Americans in the days after the attacks. This work highlights how the humanities can help people empathize with one another and unite groups through shared emotions.
The humanities are a product of human existence: human history, society, religion, customs, myths, theories, entertainment, etc. In a way, the humanities are proof that humans do and did exist. If long after the human race died off, a troop of alien explorers stumbled upon our abandoned earth, the left behind books, films, and art which they wound find, the humanities, would give them many clues about who we are, what we value, and how we live. These works would signify that for a period of history, no matter how short or small in the grand scope of the universe, we were here.