Double-thinking Humanities 101

Though I have never claimed otherwise, I want to point out that I’m an academic imposter. In a literary community dominated by people who have at least completed an undergrad degree, that contains more than a few post-grad students and holders of Masters degrees, and that features a number of PhDs and university professors, I definitely fall below the baseline in terms of formal education and academic street cred.

That lack of formal education has been more a matter of personal embarrassment than legitimate concern for me over the years. I’m reasonably well-read and can pick up most of what I need to know in conversation from context or simple research. I always figured I’d get back to school some day—I wanted the foundation knowledge inherent in a formal education (and maybe a legitimate academic credential).

But that was an eventual goal, not a screaming need—until I joined the ranks of the unemployed and now find that even after twenty-five years in industry, I am struggling to get a resume past HR gatekeepers and on to the hiring managers because I lack that basic qualification. So I called BYU Continuing Education and found out about their online General Studies degree.

Between core requirements changes, resolving transcripts from two colleges, and a somewhat checkered (and outdated) academic history I will need to complete a couple of Independent Study classes before I can even start the degree program. First class: Humanities 101.

I’m now three days into a self-directed class, and it’s been a bit of a surprise to have my chain yanked fairly hard on stuff I though would be fairly easy (I’ve been writing and criticizing texts for nearly twenty five years, after all). And it’s interesting how many of the basic Humanities 101 concepts and questions are still being actively discussed by this august body of people who mostly have university degrees already (with many having more than one).

Just in the first two lessons we’ve touched on the value of selecting new text to supplement or replace classic texts (Enduring to the End), love of learning (Faith and Imagination), and multidisciplinary approaches to presenting symbols (Words as Icons)—and even a form of the sophic/mantic debate (Halakha, Aggadah and Jesus)—in and amongst our textual analyses, good reports, and market commentary. It certainly lends credence to the idea that a liberal arts education suggest a complex reading and approach to any question.

But what’s really had my noodle baking is trying to decide whether the questions presented in the Exploration Exercises (free response micro-essays) are intentionally biased toward/against certain assumptions, or whether they’re designed to tweak the unwary reader into ranting on what the question might prod in the reader’s mind, but that was arguably not present in the question itself—a nice, subversive approach to spur both textual analysis and critical thinking.

An example:

Do you agree or disagree with Alston Chase’s comment: “Students, whose role models are baseball players or rock stars, are unlikely to cherish knowledge. Those reared in the culture of instant gratification have little patience for the often laborious tasks of learning. A land wedded to wealth and entertainment is infertile soil for the flowering of wisdom.”

The clever teenager in me wanted to answer with a simple “No” (the question is presented as a binary query on agreement, after all). The apple-polisher in me wanted to answer with a simple “Yes.” The aggrieved rock music fan in me wanted to answer “Mostly yes, but…”

But the earnest adult in me understood that the exercise was intended to spur critical thought, so I attempted to answer the question and support my reasoning. The problem is that I still wasn’t sure what question was being asked, so I set about the task of answering what I saw as the four major permutations of the question—as generational critique, as pedagogic goad/challenge, as charge against a specific segment (those whose role models are baseball players or rock stars) as opposed to the whole (darn that pesky comma), and as a general truism that points out how a minority of artists keeps those institutions alive despite the infertile (though not sterile) ground of broad interest and public support.

It was a fun exercise that required most of a page of text to respond to (15 pages so far to answer 11 questions over two lessons). Sadly, I still don’t know what question either Mr. Alston or the teacher were asking there, so I don’t know if any of those answers were responsive. Since it’s independent study and those questions are never graded (no one will ever see my long-winded answers but me), I have no hope of ever getting an answer (I think my answers to the first and last permutations were the best).

Ultimately, I suppose it doesn’t matter what the author intended; for me those questions have been fun and useful exercises in critical reading, textual analysis, and structured argument. Just as importantly, it’s been a nice reminder of some of the ideas we have discussed here recently about how both author and reader bring a tremendous amount of assumption into any text, and how those assumptions interact can lead to some very, very interesting conversations if only we will each both raise our own questions and share our answers.


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11 Responses to Double-thinking Humanities 101

  1. I hear you, Scott, about the academic imposter idea, and I have a bachelor’s and a master’s degree, but they’re both in technical areas (math education and mechanical engineering, respectively). Even with my degrees, I find myself wondering what I can say to literary academics that they will even bother to think about listening to.

    But you and I are readers, and we’re intelligent readers, and if there are literary academics out there who think we can’t say something worth listening to, then that’s too bad.

    The thing that worries me is that I may be re-inventing the wheel when it comes to my comments on literature, and that the academics will just roll their eyes and think, “Been there, done that, can we please get onto something new and interesting?”

    Thanks for sharing your experience with Humanities 101. Don’t you wish, just a little, though, that you could find out what someone thinks of what you’ve written in response to those questions?

  2. Jonathan Langford says:


    I sympathize with your desire to deconstruct the question itself. There’s something about that string of blithe Olympian judgments that sets my teeth on edge, even though I suspect that I agree more than I disagree with much of what he’s saying.

    Back when it was my job to help entering college freshmen learn how to deal with essay prompts such as this one, I probably would have counseled them to focus in on one specific link in Chase’s chain of reasoning and focus on agreeing or disagreeing with that part. Of course, that was in a setting where students’ timed writing was going to be evaluated.

    I suspect the kind of experience you’re having now is one that many of us could profitably undergo. I think, though, that I would find it immensely frustrating to put the effort into expressing my opinion and then not have anyone who was reading and responding. But then, I have a distinct tropism toward interesting conversation — even when I should be working on other things. (Darn you for introducting me to AML-List all those years ago…)

  3. Wm Morris says:

    Bad examples, on Mr. Chase’s part. Baseball and rock produce baseball nerds and rock nerds who cherish both knowledge and tradition.

  4. Scott Parkin says:

    I have to admit that I figured as a 47-year old who’s been writing fiction for nearly 30 years (and publishing for nearly 20), writing pop literary criticism and review for more than 15 years, and who’s been performing music for more than 35 years (went to BYU on a music talent award), I figured the freshman survey class would be a snap—I already have the core critical thinking and writing skills; the rest is just a modicum of study.

    Which is why it’s been so fun to observe two key ideas—

    First, the same basic questions offered in the class are precisely the same core questions we tend to discuss here—sure, the details change, but the basic questions tend to be restated regularly here.

    Second, I tend to question the questions far more often than I used to. I tend to doubt the authority of statements and argue the ideas instead. I know I go over a lot of old ground (as Kathleen suggested), but the exercise of plowing that ground by my own methods and with my own effort is useful in formulated qualified opinions.

    The challenge of independent study (as opposed to classroom instruction) is that there is little opportunity to have those conversations with the instructor or other class members; I spout into a vacuum with nary a counterargument in sight.

    It’s fun stuff, and I think everyone would benefit from taking that freshman survey class on the humanities. The effort to systematically work through core ideas, concepts, and theories is useful in any pursuit—and especially interesting for those of us who already feel strong connection to a fundamental component.

    And whether I agree with Mr. Chase’s observations or not, the act of parsing the question, formulating ideas on both the broad idea and the specific examples, and formalizing those ideas as a structured response turns out to be both fun and useful.

    • Well, since, as you say, we tend to discuss such things around here anyway, I wonder if we can’t provide a little of that missing conversation and counterargument for you.

      Any chance you can share at least bits and pieces of the questions and your responses here, for further discussion?

      • Scott Parkin says:

        If there’s interest I would be happy to. Since I was writing for myself, I probably fell victim to more straw-manning that I normally would, so it would be interesting to have those constructs challenged by a critical audience (interesting for me at least, if not for the group at large).

        So the questions are 1) interest and 2) logistics. As everyone has noticed, I tend to wax lengthy pretty much all the time. That means posting more very long blocks of text. Would those be replies to this thread, a new thread, or a link to an external blog? Would I do them as a series here, or as my monthly posts for the next five years? (11 question in the first two [out of 16] lessons.)

        Are people here really up for that? I’m game if you are.

        • I’m game, but I can hardly second my own motion, so I’ll have to hope that others will speak up.

          If not, I would certainly vote for your starting a blog on “Double -thinking Humanties 101,” Scott. You may not get any responses from anyone in the Humanities department, but you should surely get some from the peanut gallery. :)

          And the peanut gallery is “where it’s at,” right?

        • Jonathan Langford says:

          I like the idea, and in fact had thought about it even before Kathleen mentioned it. Don’t know how often I’d be able to participate, but I think it would be really interesting.

          While any of those options would work, I think the one that would work best would be to post here a link to an external blog. That would allow you to post things in more or less real time and give you both more control and more ability to structure the discussion. Then for your monthly posts here, you could include an update, focus in more depth on some aspect — or write about something else entirely; whatever your preference.

          Likely downside: it’s likely that you wouldn’t get as much traffic. On the other hand, you might also be able to direct some respondents there who don’t care that much about AML, but have some kind of relationship to you…

  5. Lisa Torcasso Downing says:

    I’m impressed you actually bothered to answer questions — in writing, no less!– that won’t be graded or seen by a professor/instructor. Three cheers!

    • Scott Parkin says:

      The theory is that to learn you have to do the exercises whether they’re graded or not. It’s been fun not because it’s teaching me to think differently, but because my fundamental mistrust of the exercise questions themselves is far more pronounced than I ever expected. I’m becoming quite the curmudgeon in my old age. Fun stuff.

  6. Scott Parkin says:

    For those who are interested, I’m going to go ahead and post selected questions and answers on my personal blog, The Scotted Line.

    I’m still new at administering a blog so I apologize for any pain associated with either reading or commenting; yell at me and I will do what I can to fix it.

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