“What Do You Do with a B.A. in English?”

I believe I have said here or elsewhere something about the importance of the relationship between the humanities and the physical sciences: While the arts need the sciences for the sake of utility in the “real world,” the arts provide for the sciences a conscience. The sciences teach us how to experiment and examine the world as an outside observer; the arts teach us how to examine the world from within ourselves. Scientists work with their heads and their hands; an artist’s work comes from the head and the heart. While these examples are gross over-simplifications of these disciplines, they do illustrate the symbiotic relationship between the hard and the human sciences, a sort of codependency that is demanded of the individual who is studying them. And yet…

There remains a constant need to justify the equality of these fields, particularly from the humanities side. As an English major at a STEM-heavy university, sometimes it feels as though there is a perpetual chip on my shoulder, as if I must always remind everyone else about the relevance of my skills and my discipline. The pressure is not only pervasive in academia. Every family visit results in someone asking “So, what exactly are you going to do with your degree?” as if I am some dewey-eyed hippie, whose only future path is to live on a commune with huts made of tires, spending my days reading and writing poetry, telling stories, and living a frivolous life of frolicking through tulips, smoking a peace pipe, and generally being a disappointment to my ancestors. My response (somewhere in the ballpark of “Um…teach, hopefully…” “Well, if you do what you love, you never work a day in your life” and “Excuse me while I go nail my eyelids to the front deck in order to avoid having this conversation again…”) is never satisfactory. Besides, and perhaps most importantly, what role would I have in the event of a zombie apocalypse? While others with more practical skills would be building shelter, tracking weather patterns for safe travel, building farms, and finding a cure for the accursed zombie virus, what would I be doing? Soothing the undead to sleep with the sultry sounds of my silver-tongued recitations of Wallace Stevens’ “The Emperor of Ice Cream”? Fighting off a flesh-eating horde with my hardcover copy of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, Unabridged, wiping bone matter and pieces of half-rotten corpse off of the dust jacket every few minutes? I was beginning to feel like the character in that Avenue Q song:


But of course, all of this is ridiculous. Even though the market seems to value certain career paths over others, that’s not to say someone couldn’t live a perfectly satisfying life working in a humanities field. After all, there are some universally practicable skills that aren’t learned in the science classroom, such as reading comprehension, public speaking, clear and effective writing skills, visual literacy, crafting a well-reasoned argument, etc., etc. Part of the reason why I feel so strongly about interdisciplinary practices is due to my liberal arts background, where each field is appreciated for its particular contributions in creating a well-rounded classroom full of jacks-of-all-trades. This ruined me. Now I can’t favor one discipline over another without feeling a twinge of guilt as though I have failed in academia by not being some sort of mutant renaissance man. I do not have strong math skills, and though much of it eludes me like so much effluvium drifting above my head just out of reach, I am still fascinated with mathematics as a field, to the point that I feel compelled every so often to brush up on some of the concepts which I had previously forgotten. I say this not to brag–only to illustrate the state of mind that I’m in regarding academia, and, really, life in general. If we live in a world where we are able to not only appreciate other disciplines, but to utilize their skills for our own work, we will be expanding our potential–exploring and discovering nuances in our own disciplines which had previously remained elusive.

And, should the need arise, we will be much better equipped to kill zombies, which should make us all sleep a little sounder at night.

Freire’s “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” in Today’s Classroom

We’ve learned about the banking concept of learning described by Pablo Freire in his book Pedagogy of the Oppressed as ” knowledge is a gift bestowed by those who consider themselves knowledgeable upon those whom they consider to know nothing.” For Freire, this is problematic for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the assumption that students “know nothing,” that they are empty vessels who are provided with appropriate knowledge at the behest of their instructors. There is a power dynamic at work here that mirrors much of the structure of colonialism, which is Freire’s point. In a gross simplification of this point, the oppressor comes into the learner’s environment claims it as his/her own and bestows upon the oppressed people knowledge that he/she deems necessary for the oppressed to function as the oppressor sees fit. This makes sense when we consider the fact that the traditional classroom is based around power dynamics: the instructor has all of the power, standing at the front of the class leading a lecture or assigning work and the students all face the instructor as knowledge is passed in a 1-1 ratio–from instructor to students.

What we can learn from Freire is to open the classroom up a bit, to not force the oppression of that power dynamic on all learners for all subjects in all contexts. That is not to say that lecture is inherently bad or that instructors must relinquish all power in the classroom. In fact, if we’ve learned anything from this class its that lecture is very appropriate in a specific context. But the point is to be able to find a balance of teaching approaches based on the needs of the learners. Students should have some agency in how they learn, and part of the instructor’s job is to be able to show students how to find that agency. For me, as a composition instructor, I try to make it imperative to get to know my students personally, to build and foster a trusting relationship.  Writing is so tied to personal experience, that it is important to not only get to know my students, but also to provide them with a comfortable space for them to produce there best work. In this, we can see Freire’s influence.

I would be interested in seeing how Freire’s teachings take form in other disciplines. Fee free to tell me in the comments below.