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Learning “Humanities”

I’ve been having a perfectly wonderful time grading exams today. No, really. I mean it. One of the courses I teach is called, for lack of a better term, “Humanities.” I require students to attend or see ten “cultural events” or objects (paintings, sculptures, buildings, rock concerts, car shows, dance performances, opera, etc.) and to (1) compile a portfolio in which they comment on what they’ve seen, using the terms applicable to that field, (2) make two oral reports to the whole class on what they saw, using those terms, and (3) write, at the end of the semester, an extended essay about the impact on them of those experiences. (This of course invites what they call “sucking up” or saying what they think the teacher wants to hear; but there is a genuine quality in many of their papers that encourages me to believe it isn’t all sucking up.) Most of my students come from the working class. Most are, by US standards, “poor.” That’s why they’re attending community college. They had little exposure to art in their childhoods; their school teachers were busy teaching them to pass multiple-choice tests, not how to see the world around them. Most of them had never been to an art museum or a live theatre performance till I forced them to do it. Here’s a sample of what they’re telling me:

I have always felt tattooed with the stereotype of a mean-looking Hispanic “gangster,” but I’ve always been secretly in love with the arts. I know a 6’1” 270-pound guy should be playing football, not visiting museums and going to plays, but taking this class has given me permission to be passionate about art, especially photography, which really lights a fire in my belly.

Being assigned to go to different venues and talk about what I saw gave me the feeling that I had permission to be at places that I would have otherwise felt uncomfortable going to. I went to the Alley Theatre, to the Museum of Fine Arts, and to the Miller Outdoor Theatre. I would never have gone to those places if I hadn’t been forced, because I always thought they were not meant for people like me. I took my husband with me, and he had a great time, too. Now that we’ve been to these places once, and we figured out how to get to them and what to wear and how to park, we’ll go back. It’s not intimidating any more

Before I took this class I watched movies and went home. Now there’s so much more in movies for me. I watch the movie, but then I have to get the DVD, turn off the sound, and watch it again to see how the director uses jump-cuts, tilts, pans, shot-reverse-shot, and angles. I’m able to figure out whose gaze I’m looking through, and that’s cool.

At first when I found out we were going to have to give two oral reports and then listen to everybody else give two, I thought, “Oh God, no. This is going to be so boring.” But my classmates’ cultures and interests have absolutely broadened my views. For example Matt gave his report on David LaChapelle’s photographs. I had never seen anything like that, and I was shocked at first, but I was able to see the beauty that Matt saw. I never took comic book art seriously till Chris and Robert made their presentations. And Christina taught us what to look for in Japanese animé. I got so I couldn’t wait for the days when we had oral reports.

I used to think artists were just crazed people who got inspired and dyed their hair funny colors and expressed themselves, but I didn’t think they were important to me in my life. Now I see that every artist speaks a whole language they have to become educated to know; some of them say what I would like to say if I knew how.

I have always been a very artistic/creative person, but this course has sparked a hunger for more art, and different kinds of art. Our classroom has such diverse outlooks; some of the statements I heard from other students really changed my perspective on things I never thought about before—like belly dancing, art-cars, and drapery in sculpture.

Now I notice the architectural detail of my house, and when I go to San Antonio to see my boyfriend, I notice the architectural detail of the Alamo. It was always there, but I never looked at it till I had words for it. Now, even while I’m driving to school jamming out to the Goo Goo Dolls, I’m thinking about their lyrics and the dynamics of the sound. Now I see life as one big humanities class.

Before this class began, I had planned to see the Red Hot Chili Peppers in concert. I always enjoyed their music, but I never really listened. This semester I went to their concert and took into account the crescendos, decrescendos, harmonics, the speed or tempo, the rhythm, and the context. I noticed their costumes, the lighting effects, and the staging. I also listened to the lyrics and realized the songs were actually saying something. I got a lot more bang for the bucks I paid for the ticket.

I always loved Batman, and I’m a visual artist, but till now I didn’t give comics the respect they deserve. In comic books, the drawings, the colors, the sequencing of events, the angles, the composition, the focal point, the plot—everything matters. Something as simple as a drawing in a comic book can inspire a young boy or girl to greatness. Popular culture changes people’s lives, and I don’t look down on it now, nor do I fault myself for enjoying it.

Now when I look at my house, I see more than a huge box with rooms and a bathroom. I see a piece of architecture that took training, thought, and craft. I look at the materials that were used, the method of construction, and the architectural decoration and design. When I’m in my house doing my thing, I see what I never saw before.

When I went to the Museum of Fine Arts, I hated it. It bored me. Rich people stuff. But then I saw this bronze sculpture of Hercules upholding the earth, and it blew me away. It made me want to work out. I saw the shape, the lines the sculptor used to emphasize his abs and his muscles. I saw the diagonal lines, and the strength and balance, and I saw that the whole thing looks like it’s moving. I had to blink my eyes to see for sure if it was standing still. I think that statue is a masterpiece.

My views have changed greatly because I knew nothing of the humanities before. I saw paintings, and I had to read poetry in high school, and of course I watched TV and movies, but I never appreciated any of it. I dreaded this class, but now I’m thankful I stayed, because I see so much more now, just in my daily life, than I ever saw before. I look at billboards, monuments, churches, and TV shows, and I see how much training and effort went into making them. I even look at food packaging and see color, line, composition, shape, and graphic design. The world has come alive in a way it never was before.

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