The final project for my PHI 261 Myth and Culture class is an attempt to fulfill one of the trickier academic objectives in the course catalog: “Projects of making mandalas, masks, drawings, poems and dream accounts are included.” Although most of the course material is designed to expose students to a sociological, anthropological, and psychological study of world myth, that last sentence has always reminded me that I need to raise awareness of how myth touches everybody’s life. It’s one of the few explicit phrasings in the catalog that addresses what all humanities objectives should, at least in my mind: “Hey kid, this is the real stuff of human life, and you’re a part of it, so you better learn a thing or two about it and be able to talk sensibly about it.” I know I preach about that ad nauseum, how humanities is actually real life and not its polar opposite as many assume — how the way we work, communicate, vote, sit in a jury box, spend our resources, attend a house of worship, and perhaps greatest of all judge ourselves and the people around us simply cannot be taught in a STEM course no matter how cutting-edge, “real-world,” use-it-at-your-job-tomorrow those courses can be. It kind of makes me laugh how many family-values folks have yelled at me over the years for not teaching their kids anything worthwhile, like money management, instead of Shakespeare. Last I checked, the word “values” (plural) actually only appears in philosophy, sociology and psychology course descriptions. Let us not equivocate over the “future/present value concepts” in ACC 202 Intermediate Accounting II.
Anyway. They have to do this project, and it has to be personal. It requires them to engage with mythic concepts or questions in a personal way, usually expressively — heraldic crests designed to represent themselves or their families is a perennial favorite. I get cool stuff. I give it back. (Eight years of projects would definitely earn me a spot on Hoarders.) I’ve been moved by them, sometimes to tears. I still have a copy of the Hercules coloring book, the video clip of the original piano performance, and here is one page of my favorite of all time:
I think it’s the “Cinderella’s stepsisters cut off their toes or heels to get the shoe on” that gets them, or maybe it’s the Little Mermaid disappearing, soulless, into the foam of the sea. No, I know — “She threw the frog against the wall, splat, and behold it became a handsome prince.” No kiss? Now seriously. Faced with a giant frog in your bedroom, you:
a) kiss it;
b) splat it against the wall.
(The one time Maggie-Dog brought me a frog-present in from the backyard, and left it under the kitchen table, blinking at me, I flipped it out the back door with a piece of cardboard. This had no magical effect; merely stunned it.)
This year one of the written assignments began with a sentence which I’ll paraphrase, “First of all, this is the first time I’ve gotten to write a paper using ‘I’, so awesome.”
I had to pause. Really? In this age of blogging and twittering and supposed self-absorption in all forms of communication, this student has never been given the opportunity to write (for school) in the first person. Good God, how did his teachers ever know if he were learning anything, or merely becoming a textbook echo? I mean, of course I give assignments in which “the academic voice” should be used, and the present tense, and the literary terminology, but still, it’s a pronoun, ladies, get over it.
Then another thing happened; as this is graduation week, there have been a lot of speakers talking to the students, acknowledging their achievements, and encouraging their forward progress. Good stuff for the most part. I noticed, however, that already two of them (and we’re not done; five more speeches at least on Saturday!) made a point that they were not going to talk about themselves. “This is not going to be a speech full of ‘I’,” they both said. On my count: fifteen first-person singular pronouns in the first speech, twenty-seven in the second.
I’m not condemning. I say “I” all the time. If it weren’t for “All right,” it would be my most frequent utterance in the classroom. After all, one of my favorite verbal pauses is “Do you know what I mean?” and there “I” am. But at least I am honest about it. I have never, ever once said that it wasn’t going to be about me, that this is all about them, or all about the course material. Just saying it wouldn’t make it so, and it would feel contrived; even pandering. Instead I model the behavior. I talk about me all the time because humanities is about humans and I’m a human. So are you. So talk about yourselves, please. Use the personal pronoun. Tell me your dreams, draw me your pride and fears, question your values, doubt (with Ben Franklin) a little of your own infallibility, but, kid, live in the humanities, don’t stand next to them and answer questions about them all the while trying to justify to your parents that English and philosophy are too majors.
We wonder; we imagine; we dream; we struggle; we cry; we suffer: I’ve done a great deal of that this past year. In some disciplines, or in communications which I swore were not going to be about myself, I’d have been handicapped by my personal pain, and perhaps forced to bury some of it, to remain professional and aloof. I’d leave the room feeling like I’d had to pretend that the biggest thing on my mind at all times right now was in fact not on my mind at all. And some people would applaud that; call it “strength.” But I know that I would feel like half a person I love my job because it allows — no, it requires — my humanity to come through. The personal stuff that we’re constantly afraid that no one wants to hear is in fact the very stuff of the humanities: the doubts of Descartes; the dreams of Newton; the memories of Proust; the outrage of Marx; the grief of Didion; the power of Lolita in Tehran; the sublime horror of Oppenheimer; the rage of Achilles; the wily Odysseus; The Things They Carried; the Cry of the Children; the banality of evil; the mind/body problem; the passion of the sonnets, the justification of God’s ways to Man, either via malt OR Milton.
I’m with you, kid. Awesome.