On October 27th, 2016, Emily and John interviewed Professor Asher in Welles Hall. Unlike our other interviews, we do not have the audio for our interview with Professor Asher due to a technological issue.
Before I turned the microphone on, Professor Asher began to describe a proposal to revamp the humanities that very morning.
J: So, just to start things off, who goes about trying to make that change? Who was the one proposing that? Do you know?
K: Yeah, the chairs of History and English because they were the ones who felt that they would have the greatest difficulty staffing the class. And it is a burden because people will drop out at the last minute and you gotta then scour around and try to find adjuncts and ideally the adjuncts are supposed to team teach with another person whose done it before, but we’ve just simply reached a point where last semester we couldn’t even get them to team teach—so we just put them in there solo. So I was supposed talked to them and tutor them a little bit. And they’re [administration] not hiring new people. So at the very root, it’s a financial problem that they’re just simply not replacing humanities faculty.
J: But you have to teach the course to every student that comes through Geneseo
A: Exactly. So there are fewer people to teach the same amount of students and its getting pretty tense.
J: I’ll bet. You said that originally you guys were trying to stick Adjuncts with Established professors?
J: Something I had been researching for this project is the use of adjuncts in courses that everyone at the school has to take. And just looking at the adjunct crisis and how adjuncts are treated.
A: They aren’t treated very well at all. They’re horribly underpaid. So ideally it would just be a course taught by full time faculty.
J: Is there any interest to bring adjuncts on full time to teach just the humanities?
A: I would like to do that and make them like quasi lecturers, but there then comes another financial crisis. And the administration sorta goes whichever way suits them in the case—if you hire someone to teach three courses, you’re getting close to a moral obligation to pay them a grown up salary. If you teach them two you can pay them ad hoc per course, so that’s like, I don’t know, 3200, 3800, so they teach two courses and they give them 7 or 8 thousand dollars—its ridiculous. If they teach them three then they’d have to get half a whole year’s regular salary, and they don’t wanna do that.
J: Yeah, and then they probably also qualify for health benefits
A: Yeah, all of that stuff. So that third course creates an administrative expense. Because I asked to that that about a year ago and they said no, and then they went ahead and I think did it themselves this time but they continued to pay the person piecemeal by course and said “oh it was only ever just a precedent that we couldn’t do this.” So they do what they want and come up with a rationale
J: So basically, I guess it comes down to administration and how much money they want to spend
A: Right, the real big problem is the financial. This proposal I mentioned came through this morning about just trying to have one or the other is really just a function of the lack of money because if we could hire people–for instance, the English department hasn’t had a person, a Shakespeare specialist, since 2010, I mean we have people who teach it, but our Shakespeare expert went elsewhere in 2010 and we haven’t filled it. You know, if we can’t even fill Shakespeare?
J: There’s a list of educational goals of the humanities on the Geneseo website—I’m working on pulling them up right now. Are you the one who makes those?
A: Not me personally. We stuck to the original one which was the moral and political thinking throughout the western world. So it was supposed to be moral and political, and that was the original, and that never changed from the description
J: So that’s been around since the inception.
A: 1982 J: I know there’s a lot–I don’t know if resistance is the right word, or just at least, people are upset that its Western humanities and not Eastern or non-western humanities.
A: Yeah, that’s been one of the real points of debate for the last fifteen years or so.
J: So do you have any ideas as to why that hasn’t changed–as to why its stuck to western humanities?
A: Yeah. One of the things that’s been a difficulty is that sort of zero sum game–so in other words, if you wanna put on Confucius then Plato has to fly out. What works are we taking off in order to do that, and then what would the course look like? The other, and to me the bigger difficulty is who is qualified to teach all those things. In other words, we don’t have anybody in Chinese philosophy here. We did at one time but we don’t now. But that would even then just be one person. I’ll give you a really poignant example, that we decided to add a section on the Quran just about a year ago, and now I’m trying to find someone who can actually tutor the Humn faculty in the Quran. And here’s my point of view: I don’t want the global stuff to just become symbolic–“oh look, yeah, we’re doing something”– I think its disrespectful, say we’re teaching the Quran after hearing just one lecture on it, and then sit it in front of the students. So it’s really not out of a conservative western point of view, but really, you have to be academically responsible.. And so we’re negotiating with a history professor to see maybe if she can give maybe three workshops on selected workshops on the Quran, and then if we can limit it to that, made it like a day and expand from there over time, we could do that, but the faculty would then at least be comfortable and knowledgeable enough to do that. So from my point of view its where is the bar on how much knowledge a professor has to have. There are some people on the Humn faculty who would basically just go global and make it an international course. The course as it stands by title is just western humanities. We’ve been trying to, with at least the Islamic studies, branch out a little bit, but how much further we will go and still have it be the same course, and there’s all sorts of other things going on–were trying to revise the whole Gen Ed things. And then what’s that gonna look like?
A: I mean they may, say the gen ed committee which I’m on, “well let’s just have one course, that’s all we can do.” Or have one western hum for hum 1, and then open it up for Humn 2, that would be a possibility. So then you’d have a western hum 1 and a global hum 2, something like that. Just one suggestion. So that’s a lot of tension on the faculty–what kind of change should happen, if any, and so on. But I think the Islamic move toward the Quran is at least a step toward opening up in so far as we can, because before when we would add something we would always have to subtract something. And it becomes difficult–does the bible go out for the Quran? What would it look like? And who would be knowledgeable enough to staff 26 sections of this?
J: This might be a really basic question, but can you speak a little bit to the process of having to tutor professors and what gets taught in the humanities A: Yeah, the way it originally worked was a person would come in and would team teach–although the team teaching was largely listening, it depended on the couple that were doing it, but usually the senior person would do most of the teaching and the other person would listen in and see how the syllabus was put together, and ideally be someone from a different department. So if the adjunct were from philosophy–pair up with someone from English or history so they’d hear the stuff they’re least familiar with. And then after one semester then a person was allowed to teach solo and rely on what he or she had observed. The person usually did half the grading of the papers and the exams and less than half the teaching, just if the person was in English they might do Shakespeare if he was doing Humn 1 and the philosophy professor would do the other stuff.
J: A lot of professors are–they try to instead of just teaching the text as it is, they try to teach applications of the text and how we can use the books in Humn 1 and Plato’s ideas to analyze current events. Is that something that is suggested or pushed in the administrative processes of Humn or is that more of the professors individual take?
A: So for instance, a lot of my best friends will say “oh-ho, that’s just like George Bush or Trump or something.” I personally try not to do that, for a number of reasons. I’m hoping they see some connections, but I try not to get currently political in that regard. A lot of people do. And there’s not anything wrong with that.
J: I was just asking because we reached out to a bunch of hum professors and one of them responded that they were really excited because they try to make the course as politically relevant as they possibly can. And we’re just trying to get a variety of perspectives on that.
E: I know especially with hum 2, there’s a lot of variation with what’s taught. How do you give permission for that?
A: You’re asking a very good question. Originally the Humn thing was fairly set–there wasn’t a lot of variation. There was some but not a lot. And then there was a complaint, this was maybe 89–so we all got together and established what’s called the menu system where there’s a much larger range than there used to be. So if you want to do a 19th century work there’s a list of them that you can choose from–there didn’t used to be something like that. So that’s been an expansion after–this was 1982 and about 10 years they went to the so called menu system. And then they recently–and no one has followed this provision this year, though they have in previous years–someone can come forward and say “I really want to substitute this work for that.” Come forward, make a case and then that person is supposed to come before the Humn faculty the succeeding semester and say how it worked in case anybody else would like to choose that same option. So there is that now extra individual thing where you might say I wanna do heart of darkness but I wanna get rid of something else. Or one specific one, somebody wanted to do Othello instead of Hamlet. One person did the Quran instead of the Book of the City of Ladies. All those were allowed and then the persons supposed to come back and say how it worked So professors have even beyond the menu one more thing to go off the menu for one or two. And that’s–that was used when it was put in place maybe three years ago. It wasn’t this year, not one came forward and petitioned.
A: Maybe it would be helpful if I answer a question I’m asking myself. The original idea was to familiarize students with their own tradition. Also, it was thought to give the students a common sense of being at Geneseo. So the original idea, and this was before I was here—I came in 86, so this was put in place before I got here. That the students in the dorm—I don’t know if this happens they’d all be reading Plato’s Republic more or less at the same time. So they could say “my professor said this, my professor said this” and you’d have a discussion about what was going on and so there’d be a kind of common experience so after you graduated–everybody at least–whether you’re a bio major or whatever—you would’ve taken that same course so there would be something communal it was almost monastic in a way–same people doing the same thing at the same time. And so that was one of the ideas—there’d be a real common experience that tied the students together as well as an intellectual one too, to give them that background.
A: I’ll give you some of the ways it hasn’t worked just to be frank. Originally it was intended–and still is actually, to be a foundational course–so the idea was what you get this intellectual timeline and then later on say maybe you take a course and say oh yeah I know what the Renaissance is, I see how Monticelli and all the rest fit in. The trouble is its actually become now for the most part a senior course. And its not because of the lack of good will of the underclassmen—it’s just they can’t get in. There’s just a congestion at the end–for some good and some bad reasons–some people just put it off, they don’t want to take it–or their advisers tell them not to take it till the end. But we have to give it to the seniors or they can’t graduate. So once all those seats are filled by the seniors–and then the juniors, and then there are a few crumbs left for anybody at the sophomore level. So that’s been a problem–it comes at the end rather than where it should. But what surprised me is when I was looking at this–it says you cannot take it before your sophomore year. I guess they just at that time didn’t trust the students to take it any earlier.
E: Was there a writing seminar requirement at that time like there is now? Like a prereq?
A: No, there wasn’t any prereq for it, I don’t believe
J: That’s interesting to me because one of the things I first experienced when I started the English major was that when I was a freshman taking classes with juniors and seniors–they would always be able to make connections to Humn and say “in humanities we talked about this and Freud says this” and I was just kind of sitting in the dark because I hadn’t read those texts
A: And that’s it, it should have given that common background. But it says here [in the bulletin] you can’t take it before your sophomore year. I think that’s a mistake. I started out teaching this at Stanford for 4 years and you had to take it your freshman year. 98-99% of students, there was a rare student who popped in as a sophomore–and no one ever beyond that. They were on the quarter system. It was three ten week sequences—ancient, medieval, and then modern. So roughly the same amount of weeks that we have here. I think what happened when they said you can’t take it in the beginning–then people started to push it off, or advisers said you really should be taking organic chemistry in this spot, this is the logical spot to take it–do the Humn when you’re finished with your stuff.
J: The seems to me to be more a problem that comes out of the science majors, where their schedules are so strictly organized and then with English we take 203 and then we can do whatever we want.
A: Yeah, and I’m not faulting them for that. So I understand how it happens. But of course it leaves no margin for error because it you don’t pass Humn 2 in the spring you don’t graduate–there are no redo’s at that point. It’s a bit risky for some students. I think one of the things that I certainly try to do is create a kind of coherence in the course, so in other words, not just have it be 10 discreet works—here’s this, here’s that–but to really run things through. For instance in Humn 1 I add the Odyssey, then I do the Aeneid. One epic playing off the other, then we do Dante’s Inferno which is required, which relies very heavily on the Aeneid so they see a real sort of spine from the Odyssey to the Aeneid to the inferno. And I try to do the same thing with the political philosophy. I’m really aware of trying to organize the books to make a kind of constant theme to make it more coherent for the students.
J: Going off that, do you also see the humanities as kind of another Intd 105–as another course in teaching students to write?
A: Less so. I know there are some people who wanna try to combine the two. Certainly we value clear cogent writing, but I don’t think of it as a writing course. I try to put comments on my paper I will correct the style and so on, but I’m a little more intent on grading the content. And as far as student interest goes in the course: interesting. I would say the majority don’t wanna be there, would be my impression. They’re there reluctantly. I’d say there are maybe of every 35 which is a typical class size, there are maybe nine who are eager to find out. Then there are others who sort of tune in when they’re interested–like the bible. So if they’re religiously oriented, they’re quite keen to read the bible and so on. And then you get to Machiavelli–and okay we’ll forsever someplace else. So they’ll go in and out. But i try to teach to the student who really are interested. And I shouldn’t say this –I’m on the record here, I think the others are sort of eavesdropping at times. But there is at least a quarter of the class that seems to be really engaged and so on. And it sort of registers when you have class discussions, those are the people who typically will be raising their hands and participating and so on.
A: I think I’m hoping that later on they’ll look back and say at the time, I was a little reluctant–and I’ve had students say that on their SOFI’s, “I wasn’t looking forward to this course, but I’m glad I took it.” My favorite SOFI comment was “thanks for making this course almost enjoyable. I wouldn’t try to make it enjoyable, that would be to frivolous, but I try to make it almost enjoyable.
E: I noticed that humanities fulfills the SUNY requirement for Western Civilizations–do you think it would be more beneficial to allow for a wider range of course like we do for fine arts instead of one or two sets of courses.
A: The SUNY wide things, you’re probably more up on them than I am. Geneseo is the only SUNY that requires this particular course, and Albany isn’t thrilled about that. What they want is a completely transferrable system, where if you take a course and so and so community college, it can go elsewhere–we don’t do that. We have certain agreements with local community colleges where we look at their courses and they agree to teach it the way we want, but that’s just a couple of community colleges. For the most part they have to retake it. This creates difficulties that I had never thought of. This is a slightly separate topic, but SAT scores are going down pretty dramatically if you’ve been following. 2008 it was like 1340ish, now is down to 1220, something in there. Part of the reason I was given when I talked to administration was that because in part of the Humn requirement, our pool has shrunk because some students say well “if I come to Geneseo I’m going to have to stay for an extra summer or an extra semester, I’m not even going to apply there. So the pool from which we select is somewhat impacted by the Humn requirement. So there’s some pressure to go to one instead of two humanities. So there’s all sorts of other pressures from the outside that are not necessarily academic or intellectual concerns–I mean, not directly in terms of content.
J: If we were to go from two to one, do you think they would still offer both Humn 1 and Humn2, and students got to choose?
A: That was the proposal that came over today. The other one could be this: keep Humn 1 in place as is, and then Humn 2 could be much more of a smorgasbord. If you want to do Caribbean women, something like that, you could take it in that direction and find links there. Or you could maybe go off into political philosophy and talk about US presidency or whatever it might happen to be. So one way to do it would be to keep the standard HUMN 1 and take the thread from that and push it internationally. In Humn 2, personally I’m less in favor of taking one or the other–it seems that Humn 1 is so foundational to my mind, that you should take that. If people want to expand for Humn 2 –its interesting because the same thing came up in different form at Stanford. There were 7 ways you could fulfill the course, but they had a common core text. I was in the great works section, but there was also values in a technological society which was more science oriented. You would look at Euclid and Newton and Darwin and so on. It would be something more like that–everybody would read the bible, everyone would read Plato, but they would tilt it toward science. And there were five others with variations on themes so people could suit it to their needs. They called it the track system. I originally suggested that when we had the retreat twenty years ago, but there weren’t too many buyers, so we ended up with the menu system
J: Is there any tension coming from the science department about this course? Or wishing that they could put a science tilt on it?
A: I think those battles were probably fought in 1982, because I think the original suggestion was that there would be 3 3-credit Humn courses, and so they compromised on two four credits–science managed to whittle it down from 9 to 8 and keep it contained to a year. I think the battles were fought then. It’s interesting, on the Gen Ed committee, Geneseo has so many Breadth requirements, I think one of the administrators said that if someone came in with no AP credits, and didn’t double up with any multicultural gen eds, it would be like 52 credits, which out of 120, you’re getting close to half your credits. So one proposal that sort of was floated at the Humn core committee–when you had to requirements, 2 sciences, 2 fine arts, 2 Humns–make them all one. So the sciences then would give up ne and in return you would get only 1 fine arts. But then there are so many ramifications. Here’s something I never thought of–I won’t bore you with all the details–but someone from one of the smaller departments, geology I think, said look that’s how we get ours majors–if there weren’t two requirements, how many students are going to find their way into geology–who comes to college wanting to be a geology major. A few people if petroleum prices are high–I don’t know. They said, because they’re channeled into taking two natural science courses, people will find their way into geology–they’ll say my god this is a lot of fun. I’ve never thought about this. They say, that’s how we get a lot of our majors, if you make it one, the whole department could shrink or evaporate. Any time you change something, there are so many moving parts nobody can envision.
Behrend: My name is Justin Behrend, I’m in the department of history, and I’ve only been teaching humanities the last year. I was mentored last fall, I taught my second course in the spring, and I’ll teach my third course this spring. Although is my tenth year [at Geneseo], I’m relatively new to the humanities
J: Could you speak a little bit to the process [of team-teaching] and what it was like to team-teach with another professor, and how you divvied up the work?
Behrend: I really enjoyed the experience, it helped that professor Rutkowski and I had team-taught a class before. We team-teach a course in American studies—and we’re going to do that again in the fall—so we knew how to teach together. The difference with humanities was that she was clearly well versed in having taught it for many years and I was brand new. And so when we teach in our American studies course, we each emphasize our different strengths, but when I was coming in [to humanities] I didn’t have any strengths. But we divvied things up a bit, she gave me the history topics to cover, and then she stuck to the literature and some of the philosophy subjects. It was great for me because a lot of these texts I hadn’t really dealt with or I hadn’t read or hadn’t thought of or approached the teaching of the text, so it was great to see someone do that that who was well versed in it and had found a set of texts that worked well for her and she was comfortable with. I could then see how they related to each other, and one of the big questions I had in humanities was, how do you connect all of these works and these ideas? There’s the reading list and that gives you a guide—but do you just choose the books you like? Or do you try to create a thread or a theme or an argument through the whole course? Alice was kinda funny about that because she said she just picks the things she likes. But in turn I saw—and I think she saw it to—that there is this central theme because it relates to what she’s interested in and what she thinks should be communicated. It was a positive experience—gave me a good background, source materials—I use a lot from what she teaches. The downside is that it’s a course of 60 students, which is a very difficult dynamic. It means a bigger classroom, it means discussions are much harder to engage with and for that reason it’s not really good for students. It would be more ideal if there was a mentorship process with the normal 35 students, but this gets to what we were discussing earlier, the college desperately needs more sections, they can’t cut back because they already aren’t offering enough.
J: I want to transition to the texts you teach in humanities. How did your experience with professor Rutkowski help you decide which texts you teach? And if you could talk about if there are any texts that you teach that aren’t exact part of the menu system—because we’ve talked with other professors about the option to bring a text in.
Behrend: Again, I adopted much of professor Rutkowski’s texts. Part of that was for efficiency’s sake. I just don’t have the time with my other course work and research to actually read through all the other options that are available. The 20th century option is anything. Which is someway wonderful but also sort of crippling—because what stands in for the 20th century? So I’ve used, last semester and this semester, much of what Alice has taught. I’ve added some of my own, and slowly I’ll keep adding new texts to try out new things and to adapt it in my own way. One of the things I switched—she teaches a novel, Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf—and I just didn’t get the book at all, and I’m not a literary critic. But when she taught I could see the value and thought, ‘well this is wonderful,’ but I realized there was no way I could teach it very well. So I substituted in Hiroshima by John Hersey, which is an account of the survivors of the atomic bomb blast, partly because it connects with a prior reading about the experience of Japanese Americans in the internment camps in the United States, which is connected in the holocaust which is connected to the experience of WW2, and in some ways Hiroshima deals with problems with science and the advent of science in the modern era. So I thought that would be an interesting book and the students seemed to connect with that. And another book that I added is James Baldwin’s The Fire Net Time. Baldwin is a 20th century African American author. It’s a short book, and it’s really just two essays that are in there. But it connects with themes that I’ve developed in the course—we pay attention to slavery early on and that replicates my own scholarly interests and that then connects that to the 20th century and issues with race and racism. But Baldwin kind of brings a global perspective to that—about broader oppressions in the global south; he also talks about the nation of Islam. Which is distinctly American but also does connect to the Islamic world in an odd way. And both of those texts are ways of critiquing the west as well. Hiroshima—even though it’s written by an America, the characters are almost all Japanese, so you get a sense of Japanese culture. And some of their perspective and that’s something that I tried to build into the course, that’s not just learning about the west, but it’s also many ways people are critiquing the west. And seeing the west not just as a combination of Europeans and Americans, but as a broader range of people and cultures.
E: You mentioned before that some of the texts you hadn’t encountered previously. What’s the experience of teaching those texts like?
Behrend: Frankenstein is a book that I probably should have read sometime before but I hadn’t. And I did enjoy that. I’m not very comfortable teaching novels, I’m a nonfiction guy. But I did enjoy teaching that. I think there’s a lot of depth in that book. And it’s a story that most everybody’s familiar with even though not everybody has read the novel. So most people could grab on and talk about some interesting aspects of it. Freud was another writer I didn’t have much experience with, but I found Civilization and its Discontents very prophetic in a lot of ways—thinking about what happens in the 20th century. I add a lot of historical contexts, but I see him as helping to understand the origins of WWII and the problems of modern life, I find him very incisive, even today in the 20th century.
J: You started humanities last year. What was the administrative push behind that? Were they just looking for more humanities to teach the humanities? Or did you request to teach it? Are you allowed to talk about that?
Behrend: I’d be happy to talk about it. It was not really a volunteer thing. This gets a little bit back to the history department—the history department, when I came here, the American historians did not teach humanities, probably because in the history curriculum, we have the specialized skills based courses that are four credits and because the source materials, and finding English language source materials, in my colleagues say in Latin America and Asia, because the students don’t have the language sills, you need to find English language documents for those histories. In American history, we have all those documents. So the idea was that we teach those courses more, and the European historians would teach the humanities. It worked that way for a while, but then there were some retirements among the non-Americanists. And the Americanists tend to be a little built younger, so as the older generation retired, the current chair of the department, professor Cope, came up with a plan—it was voluntary—to integrate American historians into the humanities. The last of the American historians is going to start teaching the humanities in the spring. This is because of retirement, and also, it’s harder to get staffing for humanities in general. One of the challenges of teaching the course is that it’s the only course that does not lend itself to expertise. We’re each hired as experts. We got our graduate training and PhD and publication record that’s all in a particular field, and then we teach that. Sometimes we expand out a bit in a general subject matter course or a general history course, bit its always history, and usually specialized history. Then, we’re asked to do humanities. So I don’t have training in some of these subject matters—even though I’m a historian I really don’t know a lot about European history, which the western tradition is rooted in that. And I felt uncomfortable teaching something that I was not specialized in. The idea of teaching humanities is something that I did not object to. But I thought, ‘this is gonna take a lot of work. I’m gonna have to take a summer, maybe two summers to teach a course like this.’ So that’s why mentoring made a lot of sense. So then I just had to get comfortable teaching out of my comfort zone. One way for me to do that was to emphasize slavery issues as a theme I think that is important to understanding the West. I think it’s embedded in many of the texts. And so I chose to latch onto that—slavery and race. So that allows me to build in some of my expertise but still deal with the broad sweep of the humanities curriculum.
J: Something I was researching earlier is the adjunct crisis. We bring in a lot of adjuncts to teach the humanities, and one of the issues with the way we treat adjuncts is that they can’t perform their own scholarship because they don’t have the time and resources to do it. So did you see in this whole training cycle and mentorship, did that impact your ability to do your own research and scholarship?
Behrend: It definitely impacted me—and this is the case really with any new course—it just takes an awful lot of work the first time. So last fall, I was focusing on humanities. Doing a lot of the work and reading and really preparing to be on my own and even the next semester to make it and adapt it to be my own. That’s just the way it is. That’s part of one of the limitations of teaching new courses in general. But if it’s a course outside of your field, it’s even more work. So there are some younger faculty member s that are here that are in the pipeline to teach humanities—they don’t have any philosophical objections to it—partly because humanities was part of their job ad—but they recognize how much it’s going to set them back in a way and that’s a serious concern—it sets back adjuncts, it’s a very intensive course—and it’s not exactly clear that we retain a lot of adjuncts who teach humanities. The data seems to suggest there’s a cohort of adjuncts who teach it year after year and develop a good track record. Then there are others who cycle through it whether they’re moving on with their life or they don’t like it with the salary they get. So that is a problem with the college that puts this sequence at the core of a liberal arts education—if full time faculty are not teaching it, it’s a big problem of relying on adjuncts. And we shouldn’t hold them to the same standards, because the college isn’t investing in them.
E: Did Geneseo’s status as a liberal arts college influence your decision to work here?
Behrend: Absolutely. It was a selling point for me. I went to a smaller college for undergrad, with a liberal arts curriculum. I do think it’s a great way to do higher education. It’s a way to get to know students and have faculty-student interaction. That’s one of the things I was looking for, ideally, if a job like this would come up. The other thing is the quality of students. That was something that, and it’s subsequent to my hiring, and myself being involved with some hiring practices—we use students like you as our selling point. [Potential professors] come in, teach a class, come talk to our students—and that usually goes over very well. A number of my cohorts from graduate school—they got jobs, but if they’re at other state universities that are not liberal arts, the amount of work they can ask of students and the amount of engagement they can have just isn’t comparable, so it’s more intellectually stimulating for me and for many of my colleagues to be at a place like this.
J: Another question we’ve asked the people we interviewed—there’s a large cohort of people teaching the humanities who don’t like that it’s not a global class, that it’s a western class. And this is interesting for you because you’re an American history professor, you aren’t as studied in the European stuff. Do you have any take on this whole issue of western vs. global humanities and ideally how you think it would be taught?
Behrend: That’s a good question because it runs up against the framework of the course which is a set list of readings. Which I think ideally gives a common experience, and I think that’s important. So I have no objections to a globalized curriculum, that would be a good thing. The question for me is, what would I teach? And that’s where there would need to be some workshops or something, and so for me, if I could revise the humanities curriculum, it would be to allow faculty members more freedom in choosing the texts that they best see fit. Trying to hold on to some coherency with the reading list, but allowing for faculty to read outside the western tradition. The thing I found in reading John Locke or Engels is how much they’re influenced by Native peoples in the America’s. The rest of the world is not absent, it is influencing the western tradition. And so even keeping that western cohort, the rest of the world comes into play there. And sometimes it matters whether you choose to be aware of that or not. For me, it’s more important to talk about African American history and the history of slavery, which has, obviously, some more global roots in Africa, as a way to kinda show both examples of western thought but also some substantial critiques that grow out of an opposition to the West but also connect to other global centers of thought and discourse. So I don’t know how much my course would be all that different. There is in the works, a plan to do a workshop in the Quran, and that would be a model for beginning to incorporate that, but I see the resistance from other faculty members who have a set curriculum and feel like they don’t know much about other works or traditions—there needs to be an opportunity for them to learn that.
J: We talked to professor Asher, the director of the humanities, about this growing debate between western and non-western, and his response was that he’s all for people teaching a global humanities, but how are we going to find 26 people to teach that course when we can barely find them to teach the western course.
Behrend: Right. It becomes a staffing issue—you have to work with the people you already have. And maybe more people would be interested in teaching humanities if it had a broader global focus, and maybe that’s a selling point, and that would change the existing 26 people. But again, I think at this point, the priority should go into getting more faculty teaching the course and if they want to teach it in a more globalized way—and if that means less of a common curriculum then so be it—because it should be a sophomore level course. It should be a building block from INTD 105 to humanities and then using those ideas in your upper level courses. It’s going to take years under the current model—or never—to actually do that. And thinking about Tuesday’s election results, clearly we’re in an era of constrained resources for higher education, and I don’t see in the future that changing in any significant way, so we’re still going to have to have a maximum amount of students here without a full staff—how do you go ahead and provide enough humanities sections to get people to graduate. That’s a big question.
J: One of the things that we discussed with professor Asher is that the Geology department opposes reducing the humanities requirement to just one course, because that could mean reducing the general science requirement to just one course, and they say they get a lot of their majors from people taking a geology gen ed and realizing that they really like it.
Behrend: I’m involved in those conversations. The provost’s office ran some numbers, and if we reduce it down to one course, in two years it could be filled entirely with sophomores. And maybe even reduce class sizes down to 30. So we could bring it down to its original intent, and maybe even staff it with full time faculty. There’s something like 1100 seats of humanities that have to be offered every year. If you reduce that by half, all the sudden, you can bring it back to where it’s intended to be. But that proposal is to take either one of the humanities—so you lose that sequence possibility, and in some ways that’s diminishing its liberal arts curriculum because its one less course there—you can make an argument after Tuesdays election that we need more liberal arts and more civic engagement than anything. So this is what we’re wrestling with right now. And we’ll see how that goes. We’re gonna have meetings about this over the next few weeks and next semester, and see if we can get a consensus on this, but it is staffing that’s really kinda driving this issue. If we had a gen ed course proposed and we said its gonna be a new gen ed requirement that all Geneseo student have to take, and adjuncts will teach half the courses, I don’t think it would ever get approved. If you say this is central to the Geneseo mission, it should be taught by Geneseo faculty.
J: Something we’ve been asking professors about is on the theme of civic engagement. Different professors try to emphasize civic engagement aspect of humanities differently. How do you try to enact the civic engagement aspect of the humanities?
Behrend: My paper assignments are about engaging with current events—applying the humanities texts to current social issues. Not as an effort to solve the issues, but to add perspective. What can we learn? Last spring I had students write about universal basic income—the idea that everybody is given a salary, 800 to 1,000 dollars a month; there wouldn’t be welfare or food stamps but everyone would get it. It’s seen as poverty relief, some feminists like it because it deals with uncompensated labor in the family. There are some liberal economists who like it, some conservative economists who like it. What would John Locke think about that? What would Mary Wollstonecraft think about it? So write me a paper about this issue that deals with income inequality. Another argument for universal basic income—people say when the robots take over we aren’t going to have enough salaried people to keep up with business demand—people need income to buy things. So it’s very much a current idea: what does the humanities traditions—whatever that is—tells us about that idea. Obviously with the constitution and declaration—that’s all about civic engagement. I think the humanities only works if you’re trying to connect it to the present. One of the things I got from professor Rutkowski, teaching Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Women, I try to bring in some discussions about gender stereotypes that occur in media and so forth. I show a parody video from Amy Schumer. But it suggests in some ways how little has changed and some ways—that’s part of the issue. What has changed, what hasn’t—reflecting on these assumptions, particularly ones we give to women, how they act and look and operate in society
E: Do you find that students are active and enthusiastic participants?
Behrend: Yeah—I’ve had really good class discussions. I try to cultivate that. My goal in the class is to have active discussions. I have some lectures, but lectures are used to set up material, provide context; what I really want is opportunities for students to engage with themselves, in small groups, and with me in class discussion. That’s what I see as the value in a course like the humanities.
E: On a larger scale, in terms of the core general education requirements, including the humanities—do you think it’s enough for a liberal arts curriculum.
Behrend: Is humanities integral to a liberal arts education? I think so. Our liberal arts/general education requirements are probably a little large. One of the things we struggle with in the history department is we’re heavily invested in general education. Perhaps to a fault. We offer a lot of courses for the US history requirement, a lot of our courses count for social science, multicultural, we teach INTD 105, we teach humanities one and two. We did a program review last spring that I wrote about, and 70% of our course offering count for gen ed. And we’re not a small major—we’re a mid level major; we have a lot of students doing school of education as well. So it’s not that we need gen ed, but gen ed has fallen heavily on our department. So thinking about staffing for the humanities is important for a lot of us, but we have to offer a lot of courses for the college, gen ed requirements and INTD 105, and with the other requirements, there’s opportunities for a lot of students to take history courses. So if humanities were not part of the curriculum, there are still opportunities for students to take history courses. I do think the humanities is special though, maybe we just don’t need as many history courses in the gen ed. That might lessen our load a little bit there. But that’s also a college wide issue. And it’s not just gen ed courses. Any lower level courses that are not for majors—students are desperate to get into classes.
Behrend: I think Humanities is an important perspective to understand yourself. I think the Humanities is a good opportunity to reflect on who you are as a person and the world you’ve inherited. And hopefully it allows you to look at that world and look at yourself with different lenses. And that’s one of the ways that I’ve tried to frame it. Let’s look at it with a Marxist perspective. Let’s look at it from a Freudian perspective. Let’s look at it with the perspective of an African American whose been freed from slavery. What does the world look like from their perspective? What insight can we gain from that? It’s not about critiquing perspectives—which is the right way—I’m not interested in that. In some ways it’s the value of empathy and the value of understanding. And I think a good humanities curriculum will emphasize those values.
Joanna Kirk: My name is Joanna Kirk, and I teach for Political Science and International Relations and for Sociology here at Geneseo, and I’ve been teaching Humanities here at Geneseo since 2009. And I also taught Humanities previously in South Asia, believe it or not, at the Associates degree level.
John Panus: Our first question is–because our project deals so heavily with the liberal arts nature of Geneseo, and what we’re really trying to figure out is how the Humanities performs this liberal arts function. The first question is, did Geneseo’s liberal arts status have any bearing on you teaching here? Were you looking for a liberal arts school?
Kirk: Well, my career’s been rather spotty. My background is Humanities then followed by a law degree, equivalent to a J.D., and then I went overseas, and ended up working in development organizations, met my husband, who graduated from Geneseo in 1974. So what brought me to the area, in a way, was Geneseo. But yes, my working at it, it being liberal arts, was absolutely fundamental. I would not be teaching at a college if it were, I don’t know, if it were technical, you know, it’s the liberal arts that interest me.
J: So what is it about the liberal arts that you see as so important to your status as a professor and what you want to do as a professor?
Kirk: Well, I’m, by nature, sort of a jack of all trades, because my background is law and development and I’ve also worked as a journalist, as well, and being in administration I’ve worked in public relations. So I think somebody with that, those skills, those sort of crossover skills, has a place in the liberal arts, alongside the experts who are niched into their specific disciplines. And for the other part of it, how I see liberal arts playing into the lives of the students is, we need to have a strong cohort of young people who aren’t just being trained to perform skilled tasks; You are basically trained to question and to know where we’re coming from and decide where we’re going to.
J: Going off of that, how–this question’s probably going to be two parts–so first, how do you see the Humanities as a whole doing that, and then in your own teaching of the Humanities, how do you try to teach students to not just be performing these specific skills, but to question?
Kirk: So, first of all, the role of Humanities overall, it truly is a history of ideas class–I’m going into the second question already–Humanities in general, however it gets taught, should expose students to ideas, basically, and all kinds of ideas out of which–that’s the perfect launch pad to evaluate them, think about what ideas have not yet emerged and how they might have a role. Okay, how I approach the Humanities here at Geneseo: first of all, you can’t have Western Humanities. You can’t do that, because you can’t have a “West” without having a “non-west.” So, by definition, in order to understand what’s the West, you’ve got to know what the non-west or the non-wests are, and that would be the case even if there had not been significant, shall we say, interaction and intercourse between the west and the rest. But there was; the west in part grew as great as it did because it drew from the non-west in various ways, kind and largely unkind. So although a lot of my texts come from the west, I do have a couple of exceptions, and one of the foci that I have is the–it’s HUMN 2, by the way, what I teach–is colonialism and slavery, and the relationship the non-west, not only during that time, but since decolonization. So that’s my first approach, in questioning the whole nature of what the west is. The second approach is that Humanities only makes sense if you can apply it the modern day, so both in individual papers and in group assignments, the students have to apply the texts, in various combinations, to current problems, and I think without that, you have a history of ideas that’s not going anywhere.
J: Yeah. What you just said is great because it reaches back to the conversation we had with the other person we interviewed–
Kirk: Who was that, by the way?
J: That was Ken Asher. What he said was that, you know, he would love to teach all these non-western texts, and that it’s important for them to part of the curriculum; the problem is that the Humanities, by nature, has a strict set of texts that everyone has to teach.
Kirk: It does; well I’ve only got two exceptions, so other than that I’m with the menu. So it’s not that they’re mostly non-western texts, but I have chosen texts that, shall we say, give insight into west and non-west relationships.
J: Yeah. The thing that Professor Asher brings up is that in order to make a non-western Humanities mainstream or to bring more texts into the course, Geneseo’s hiring practices don’t allow for that, because there’s this certain, he used the phrase “academic responsibility,” that we just don’t have the professors, or we do, but we don’t have enough professors to staff twenty-six sections of the Humanities that know how to teach texts like the Quran.
Kirk: God, I wouldn’t know how to teach the Quran. I wouldn’t know how to teach the Bible, so that’s why I don’t do HUMN 1.
J: Yeah. I guess the question then, and you sort of already answered it, but do you have any comments on that idea of academic responsibility
Kirk: Certainly. And that’s why, I think, also it’s great if there are some HUMN professors at Geneseo who have slightly different approaches, exactly for that reason. I mean, I think it’s my academic responsibility to teach Humanities in a way that applies it to the world today, and although I do do some literary analysis, even the purpose of the literary analysis is to apply it to the modern day. So we do talk about Frankenstein, for example, i teach Frankenstein, which is clearly a western text, but there are applications, there are metaphors you can tease out that that might look at the Marxist analysis of just not the bourgeoisie and the working class, but also the developed countries and the developing countries. But the ultimate–in the end, even though we can be sort of talking about the characters, in the end, what I want them to be able to think about, should we allow genetic research, should we, you what I mean, what do we do with people who have bad experiences and then become bad? That’s not very articulately put, but you know what I mean. You know, rehabilitation or whatever it takes. So it does, in the end, it goes to the politics in the sense of society and social issues.
Emily Buckley-Crist: You mentioned that you teach a couple texts that are kind of exceptions to the general HUMN menu; can you name those and any other texts that are maybe slightly different than what are normally taught?
Kirk: Right. So I’m compliant with the menu; I’ve got ten texts and the two that I had to ask exceptions for, one is actually by a western author, it’s Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, which I asked in place of sort of the Dickens era books. And the other is Frantz Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth, and in a way, although he is a non-western author, he spent considerable time in Paris, his background is psychoanalysis–it’s an alternative to Freud, by the way–what it does, Wretched of the Earth is basically a psychoanalytical analysis of the relationship between the colonizer and the colonized. So you still get to learn the psychoanalytical theory, but it’s applied to that particular circumstance at the point of decolonization. So those were actually the only two exceptions. I did make some choices that I don’t think many teach. For my very first text before John Locke, I have Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko, which is also–well it’s not an antislavery tract, that’s for sure–but it certainly looks at African and western societies and their odd relationships, you know, the triangular slave trade is reflected in Oroonoko and the other slaves from the West African coast, there are the British and Europeans who are there, and then the Native Americans.
E: Are there any texts that you think should be taught that aren’t currently taught or part of the menu, or anything like that?
Kirk: I’m going to start with one that I’m not sure should be taught anymore, because it’s so badly written: Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents, which is why I asked for an exception–well, the other reason was I wanted to keep up this discourse about colonization and decolonization, so Frantz Fanon made sense, also covered psychoanalysis, but I just think Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents is such a dreadful book. What else do I think should be taught? I think if we do offer a global Humanities, then we’re going to have to make sure that we do spread, and we do that in a very measured way. So, for example, if there is a push to keep the religious texts, yes, we’re going to have, you know, the Bible, the Quran, the Bhagavad Gita, you what I mean, all those things. So I think that is for sure–I have know idea where they’re going in terms of the Humanities, but I would hope that there would at least be the option for a global Humanities.
J: One of the things that, when we interviewed Dr. Asher, that very morning, he had gotten a memo from, I can’t remember which department it was, but they said, you know, we have to give x number of professors to the Humanities each semester, and now it’s really cutting back on the classes that we can teach in our department, can we keep HUMN 1 and then make HUMN 2 a global Humanities, and then bring in more adjuncts, you know, people who specialize in that field, so that we aren’t getting all our resources taken for the Humanities. Do you think, if we moved to one Humanities course, do you think that would negatively impact the way we are, “getting students ready to be citizens in the world and preparing them for the social problems they’ll face?”
Kirk: No, I think that one HUMN course is enough. It depends how it’s taught. So I think one HUMN course is enough, and I was, in fact, are you going to interview Rob Doggett, head of the English Department?
J: We might.
Kirk: If you can, please do. He told me that he’s just put in a request to be allowed to go to a one HUMN option, and he’s figured out that it would take a lot of relief off this trying to find adjuncts from off the street, and if that’s what we’re doing, pulling people in who don’t really have experience in the liberal arts, don’t have experience with Humanities particularly, I mean, what’s the point in having students take two classes in which there’s no real analysis or critical thought. Better to have one of higher quality than two that’s lower.
J: I know that the protocol for bringing in adjuncts is that normally they have to co-teach for a semester with someone who has already done that; have you ever co-taught with an adjunct?
Kirk: No, I have not. I had a co-teacher, the first time at Geneseo, which was Wes Kennison. But no, I have not actually done the mentoring, though probably at some stage I should. I know they’re having difficulty though, because, again, the staffing, because once you have co-teaching–
J: Now you’re bringing in two people.
Kirk: Right, exactly.
J: Can you speak a little to the experience of co-teaching and being mentored to teach the Humanities, what that was like?
Kirk: Oh, I’d love to do that for every class, are you kidding? It’s that good. It’s particularly good for the Humanities though, because wherever you get your Humanities studies, it’s always so very different, and you can only enrich. I mean, I’ve also sat in on some other Humanities classes at Geneseo, just because such a wide range, so I like that. And Wes was great as a mentor, he was wonderful. So I would strongly recommend it, and I would have, like I said, every class would have a mentor.
E: Do you find that the students you teach are usually very excited to participate in the class, or more apathetic?
Kirk: You know, I have been lucky in my HUMN class. In general, at least a third of them have had me before in other classes, non-gen. ed., and I’ve also found that moving the class to Wednesday/Friday 8:30 in the morning tends to attract students who are more interested. But even before I did that, when I had a class that was something like Monday/Wednesday 12:30-2:10, I found that the fact that there were students who knew me or were eager did tend to galvanize a lot of the others. And the other thing is that I do teamwork, I mean, they have the three papers and the individual exams and all that stuff, but in addition they each tackle a text, each in a team of four, which is a nice size, has to give an interactive presentation on the text that actually applies to current events. So that keeps them more engaged. I certainly think there’s a lot more interest in applying than just getting a lecture. And there are fabulous Humanities lecturers here at Geneseo, but I’ve still heard students who really like to take part in some stage.
J: So can you go through just a couple of other ways–I know you just discussed the interactive presentation–but what does a typical paper look like? What kind of connections are you looking for students to make to social issues?
Kirk: So some of the options that I give, depending, it’s different combinations of texts that they have, they can choose a specific economic or social issue and actually apply the texts–for that option I usually have them let me know in advance, so I can say you’re really taking on too much. In another case, I allow them to relate two or more texts to specific events in their own life; in other words, sort of that personal or journalistic approach. I’ve also used things like prompts that just sort of, “women are subjugated because…continue,” or something like that. I always offer several options, you know what I mean, “the law of nature dictates that…” and off you go. And they have to, because of the way I’ve slightly adapted the rubric, the grading rubric, so that they do have to have historical context as well as application to current issues.
E: You teach INTD 105 [writing seminar], right?
Kirk: I teach INTD 105, I also teach SOC 100, which is Social Science, SOC 105, which is Social Science and Non-Western [in gen-ed requirements], and International Politics, PLSC 140, which is Social Science. So lots of Social Science and one Non-Western.
E: So as a liberal education, do you think these requirements are too like there’s too many of them, or not enough, or the right amount?
Kirk: I think there’s just about the right amount, possibly could even be reduced slightly. But it’s very useful for students to do and understand the difference in methodology between natural science, social science, humanities, languages, you know. It’s just very valuable. We need some people out there in the world who know how different minds work and who actually have the capacity to cross those boundaries, otherwise I think there’s a tendency to box in. So I think we should keep gen-ed, if we reduce it at all, it should just be, it’s 60 credits, correct?
J: It’s 52, I believe.
Kirk: 52. In that case, no lower than 50. I was going to say about 50 should fine.
J: So then I guess, I think that raises a really interesting question: If we consider the Humanities as the representative of–well, I guess there’s also the fine arts–let me alter that a little bit. If we consider the Humanities as a representative of teaching the methodologies of literature, and of analyzing a piece of art–
Kirk: And political philosophy.
J: Right, and of political philosophy, do you think that the Humanities, as it is constructed right now, teaches those methodologies in the same way that, you know, the social sciences or SOC 100 teaches the methodology of sociology?
Kirk: I think it varies from teacher to teacher. I mean, what I want the students to be able to do is to draw, to tease out what is the political philosophy and economic philosophy and artistic merit out of the texts, that’s what my job is, which is a very different job than I serve in my social science, or my INTD 105 class, you know what I mean? I try to do what I’m paid for. I think it depends on whose teaching it, especially if we are either grabbing people off the street or we’ve got professors who really don’t want to be teaching it, which of course can happen; they get pressed into service. I will say this, though, I think the writing seminar suffers more in that regard than the Humanities. By and large when I talk, I look across whose teaching Humanities and I talk to them, by and large they seem to be into it. The writing seminar?
J: That’s interesting. So people don’t want to be teaching the writing seminar?
Kirk: THat’s right. And/or they want to use it as a topic that they’re interested in, but they’re not really teaching writing. We have workshops every semester, and apart the fact that only half of the writing teachers turn up, in that you can see that there’s a split. Some of us are teaching writing, and some of us are teaching a topic that they’ve never had the chance to teach. So I’m not sure HUMN is the most problematic area.
Brooke McCorkle: Hi, my name is Brooke McCorkle. I’m in the Music Department at SUNY Geneseo. I started last year, so I am about a year and a half into teaching here.
Emily Buckley-Crist: Okay. How did Geneseo’s status as a liberal arts college affect your choosing to work here, if it had any influence?
M: Well, working at Geneseo was really attractive to me because I have a really diverse educational background. My original degree was in Asian Studies as an undergraduate, and I worked in Japan for awhile before returning for a music performance degree and eventually a Master’s in Japanese and a PhD in Music History. So the idea of the liberal arts and sort of integrating all kinds of disciplines together as part of the curriculum was really attractive to me, and it’s something I really believe in, especially in a state school. I attended public schools and a state school for my undergraduate work and it’s really nice to be able to kind of give back to that and participate in that.
John Panus: I’m going to jump in real quick then. Because your background is in Japanese Studies, you can probably weigh in on the conversations about the western canon in this school and specifically, you know, our project is based so much around the Humanities courses here, and it’s all western texts. so, I guess, where do you weigh in on that? Do you have anything to say about that?
M: Well, it’s so funny, because I’m teaching a course right now on avante-gardism in music, and this issue came up, or it has come up multiple times, because so many avante-gardists turned to non-western philosophies as sources of inspiration, like obviously John Cage is one of the prime examples of this, and I was shocked to discover from some of my juniors and seniors in the class that no non-western philosophers or thinkers are included in the course. None of them—one of them had heard of Edward Said’s Orientalism— but I had to explain Orientalism to them and I was kind of shocked.
J: Yeah, we had a conversation with another professor, actually the director of the Humanities, and he was definitely very sympathetic towards the people who want a more global curriculum at this school, but he said one of the problems is that when you have gen ed courses like the Humanities that everyone has to take, it’s impossible to staff a class where you’re teaching all non-western Humanities because they just can’t find professors to teach twenty-six classes of Japanese philosophy or whatever it is you want to teach, so it’s just an interesting problem.
M: It’s an interesting problem and it’s a challenge because the school doesn’t have enough funding. So many of the HUMN courses here, I think, are taught by adjuncts or lecturers, not by tenured faculty, and because of that you can’t have a standardized model in which all Humanities courses incorporate not only—I mean, I think there should be a more equal representation.
E: So, sort of related to that, are there any texts that, to your extent of awareness of the Humanities, you think should be taught in the courses?
M: As far as non-western texts go?
M: Well, I certainly think the writings, sort of the condensed writings of Confucius and Mencius should be taught. I feel like there’s essays, if not primary sources on Zen Buddhism, then essays on Zen Buddhism should be certainly part of. Probably Hinduism, I’m sure there’s Middle Eastern texts that I’m not aware of that ought to be recognized. And I don’t think that this is at all, you know, sort of an intrusion on the Western Humanities course—so many philosophers like Nietzsche and Schopenhauer identify their influence being in Eastern philosophy, so it would be totally relevant to the current curriculum.
J: Yeah. I guess I have a question that’s kind of tangential—I’m trying to think of how to articulate this—because you teach primarily Music, how do you see, if at all, music as contributing to those conversations of Humanities, because certainly, our Humanities courses here are based around philosophy and literature, but certainly music could also be the literature that they’re studying. How would you contribute music to that discussion?
M: Well, in a lot of my classes, survey courses to my smaller seminar courses, incorporate discourses of race and gender, especially our understanding of not only how music is performed, but how it’s consumed and what context it’s created in. And of course there’s a lot of music in the western canon that’s a reflection of the philosophies and ideas that were circulating around the same time; like, for example, Mozart’s music is, in many ways, connected to the Enlightenment ideals. Similar things could be discussed about Wagner’s ideology and aesthetic, and the influence of philosophers that I mentioned, like Nietzsche and Schopenhauer, on him. And then there’s also several philosophers from the Frankfurt School in the twentieth century that responded to music of the past and of their times. There’s so many ways that I think music really ought to be engaged with the Humanities curriculum more broadly, and hopefully we’re going to be doing that more here.
J: Yeah, that would be really cool. I mean, it would be amazing if we had a music-based Humanities; that would be a really fun class.
M: That would be amazing.
E: Yeah, I know just in my own personal experience, last fall I was taking HUMN 1 and the first first general survey semester of music history [Music in Western Civilization to 1750], and there were a lot of connections that could be made that would have been really interesting.
M: Yeah, I didn’t even think of that.
J: Yeah, I mean, I haven’t taken a music class here ever, but I took African-American Literature with Beth McCoy, and the oral tradition is so huge.
M: Yeah, it’s so strongly related, and I’m hoping next fall to offer a course on the history of African-American music traditions, and that’s going to be so strongly related to literary traditions, as well as other art traditions. And I think it’s important to recognize that instead of keeping our own little departmental bubbles.
J: So that would be a new course; you haven’t taught that before, have you?
J: Okay. So one of the things we talked about with—we interviewed Justin Behrend, and he said that one of the difficulties that comes with teaching a new course for the first time is that it’s just a lot of work.
J: And it can be really difficult teaching a new course and working on your own personal scholarship. So is there anyway you can weigh in on that?
M: Yeah. As a freshly minted PhD—I’m still kind of freshly minted at this point. So all last year, all new courses; this semester I have two new courses I’m teaching, so one of them’s a repeat. So I’ve developed eight courses in a year and a half, which is quite a lot. But I’ve also managed to stay active as researcher. Part of that is that a lot of my teaching interests coincide with my research interests. One of the great things about Geneseo—at least in the music department—is that I’m given a lot of freedom to develop my own courses; so, for example, last fall I taught a general survey course J-Pop, and it was pretty well-received and I got to explore issues that I was interested in, expose the students not only to J-Pop music, or sort of changed their perceptions of what J-Pop is, but also expose them to the history of modern Japan and the ways different music is used: propaganda music, the way world music is considered and how we think about popular music more generally. And I wound up offering that as an online course this summer, too. So that was really cool. So things like that where I’m able to—and then in the spring I taught a course on Wagner, which was my dissertation topic, so there’s been a lot of chances to do stuff like that.
J: So one of the things we’ve talked about a lot in our project is the mission of the liberal arts education that is to prepare students to be active and engaged and informed citizens in society. So how do you see music as performing that mission, and how do you think we could utilize music differently than we can utilize things like the political philosophies of Humanities? That’s a big question.
M: Yeah, it’s one I’ve been dealing with over the last week, as well, especially. This is hard. I don’t want to say that music is a means of expression. Because it’s not for everyone. But I think by attending to music, and all of the components that go into music, not only studying a textbook but also thinking about the performance of music, the consumption of music, the creation of music, recording music, live settings, different situations and places— I think coming at that from a sort of total understanding can help us not only better appreciate the arts and the role the arts play in an individual’s life, but also help us understand other people in a way that reading a philosophical or political text can’t quite get across.
J: Yeah, thank you. That was great. And I know that’s a difficult question. I think there’s a lot, I think music is a lot more empathic than you’re going to see in any political text.
E: Do you think that Geneseo allows music and the fine arts as a whole to occupy that space in a liberal arts education? Or is that an issue larger than the institution?
M: I think it’s definitely an issue larger than the institution. My colleagues that I’ve spoken with at other places, state schools and private schools—sadly, mainly state schools—have seen a kind of, I hate to say it, but an attack on intellectualism and especially an attack on intellectualism in the arts in a way that people value performance more than they value thinking about art, if art’s valued at all, which, with the growing push towards STEM and the need to have graduates be employed post-graduation, I feel like the idea of these thoughtful world citizens being nurtured in their four or five years here is getting really left at the wayside.
E: Is there anything within the gen ed requirements that you would change, beyond adding more non-western?
M: Yeah, since I’m so new here, I don’t totally know all the ins and outs of the general education requirements. I do teach the general education fine arts courses, obviously my music surveys, and I teach INTD 105, which is the freshmen writing course. And I think that’s a really important course, in addition to the Humanities courses, that really makes Geneseo special as a state liberal arts college. One of the issues—it’s sad, but the thing I appreciate the most about Geneseo is the freedom to teach what I want, but at the same time I feel that there has to be more unity across the INTDs and across the Humanities, because it feel like sometimes here on campus each professor is just in their own little bubble, and we don’t have any unified INTD meetings aside from the first one at the beginning of the semester, probably the same is true for the Humanities professors, so there’s no regular meeting to check in and see how everyone’s doing and what everyone’s doing, because I know—I talk to my older students, and I’m like, “Didn’t you guys learn how to write an academic paper in INTD?” and they’re like, “No, we didn’t. We wrote opinion pieces.” And I’m like, “what?” And I know that just the practice of writing is important, writing in all different contexts is really important. But, so obviously I have a different vision of what INTD should be compared to some professors, and we need to have some more cohesiveness in this, I think.
J: Yeah, that was actually—I can’t remember who…
E: It was Joanna Kirk.
J: Yeah. I’m having trouble recalling what she said, but she had a very similar sentiment.
E: Yeah, she said that some professors teach a topic that you write about and some professors teach how to write and then there’s a topic with it. She had a similar sentiment.
J: Yeah, she said a lot of people use INTD to teach a class that they haven’t been able to teach in their major and they don’t focus so much on the writing.
E: In terms of access to performances of music and then other art forms, do you think Geneseo provides a sufficient amount? In terms of art forms that you might not be able to access otherwise?
M: No. Obviously, I have high standards, and I feel like we might as well shoot for the best and then see what we can get from there. I’m really disappointed about Geneseo’s decision to quit funding the Finger Lakes Opera, because I think, as an opera scholar myself, teaching an opera survey course this semester, I thought it was a really great tool to engage not only students but the community. Our TA performed in the Finger Lakes Opera, so it was a really nice way of students that aren’t in music being able to see how this is part of the education experience here. I wish we had greater access the arts in Rochester, and I wish Geneseo had more ties—I don’t know, if we could do field trips to Rochester so people could actually see professional orchestral concerts, because I know not everyone here has a car, necessarily. That’s something that I think should really be more promoted and is not, and I think there needs to be more community involvement, like the university engaging the community and how we can combine forces to provide different kinds of arts. Not just in the classical realm, but, like, another professor, Jim Kimball, is performing basically every weekend and a lot of weekdays in the Irish and folk music circuit, and I feel like there’s much more we could be doing with that as well. And the String Band here that performs at a lot of community function, they’re the real face of the Geneseo Music Department among the community. We need to nurture that and be more supportive of all forms of art.
J: Why do you think, or do you have any idea as to why, when it comes to teaching the arts at school, there seems to be a much bigger emphasis on literature as an art form rather than music?
M: Yeah. Well, the easy answer to this is that you can touch a book, you can point to words, everyone knows what the words mean, generally; whereas in music, it’s much more complicated, especially in the general education courses, where you might have someone who that read music, or you might have someone who’s never taken a music class in their whole life. And so music—and the terminology we use is in a way, I think, a little bit off-putting to the non-specialist student, because we can talk about music in very specific ways, like harmonic structures, but we don’t have to. But then where do we go? And even musicologists who have been writing about music for decades have this problem: how do we use words to talk about something that’s kind of the opposite of words in a lot of ways? It’s music because it can’t be put in words. So it’s challenging, and I think that’s why it’s not as formalized as, say, literature is. We do have some art historians here, and I feel like even art history, because there’s this history of culturally privileging the eye over the ear, so art history, where you can see things, and even in film studies, I’ve taken so many film courses and the professors never mention a thing about music or sound. I’m just like, “how can you not talk about sound in film?” But it just doesn’t occur to them, because it’s such an ocular mode of interacting with art. But we do our best.
Emily Buckley-Crist: Okay, so to start, if you can please please state your name, your major, your class standing, and your graduation date.
Katherine Zaslavsky: Okay. Katherine Zaslavsky, Sociology and Music Performance, I’m a senior, and May 2017.
E: Okay, so how did Geneseo’s standing as a liberal college affect your choice to go to school here?
K: I was undecided when I first was looking at colleges, so I only looked at colleges where I’m able to change my major, and then I decided to apply to one place where I wouldn’t be able to change my major once I got there, and then I ended up not going there specifically because of that. So I wanted to pick a place where I could have a lot of flexibility because I basically new that I didn’t want to major in the natural sciences, and other than that I had no idea what I wanted to major in, so I needed to pick a place that’s pretty good at everything that I was thinking about majoring in.
E: So as far as the general education (gen ed) requirements, as they currently stand—I don’t think they’ve changed a lot in the last few years—do you think they’re sufficient for a liberal arts education? Or are they too much?
K: So when I came in, I brought in AP credits, I know a lot of people do that, so I didn’t have to take a lot of the classes I didn’t really want to take, like I don’t like natural sciences, but I took a APs in high school so I didn’t have to take those any more. But I feel like if I did have to take those, they would probably come across as kind of excessive. Especially once I picked my major, because once you pick your major, then some people are going into the major in the way that they don’t want to concentrate in that specific area of study for the rest of their lives, but right now I’m looking at doctorate programs for sociology, so everything that I do has to relate to sociology in some way if I’m spending my time wisely, if I want to get into the top-ranked universities, because they expect that you’re spending all of your time on sociology. So I think that would have been pretty cumbersome, if my academic trajectory were the same but I also had to include the gen ed courses; so I don’t know, from my own experience I don’t know if it’s too much, because I didn’t have to take all the courses, but first of all, I definitely wouldn’t have been able to be a double major—not with music, anyway, that’s a lot of credits—
E: And time commitment.
K: Yeah, exactly, it just takes a lot of time. I mean, I can’t remember the last semester when I’ve taken less than twenty credits. So I think, retrospectively knowing how busy I was, I don’t even know if it would work, for me to have taken a lot of the classes I took and then doing the gen ed things. I think it works because so many people bring in credits from other places, but it can be a lot. But I’ve heard that Geneseo’s pretty standard—you’d know more than I would.
E: In terms of the SUNY system, it’s extra, especially with the Humanities (HUMN); it’s very unique within the SUNY system.
K: I mean, I don’t know much about that, but I just have like a general idea that a lot of colleges, even outside the SUNY system, that are liberal arts colleges, are similar.
E: Yeah, for liberal arts. I think, from my understanding, we’re the only true liberal arts college in the SUNY system.
K: Okay, that’s interesting.
E: So there’s SUNY gen ed requirements, which we adhere to, then we have extra on top of that.
K: So HUMN is extra?
E: Yeah. Well, there’s a humanities requirement, but we’re one of the few, if not only, schools where it’s like two specific courses that everyone has to take. I didn’t look at the entire SUNY systems, but I looked at a few different schools, and they have humanities but it’s like choose one of these whatever number of courses, like we have for the rest of our requirements, as far as I know.
K: That’s interesting. Yeah, I guess that makes sense because HUMN is so broad and depending on which professor you take it with, you can get a really different experience. Like I know some people are starting to teach it more as “World Humanities” instead of “Western Humanities,” which I really like, because I know we have one class which is “Non-Western Culture,” and that’s it, and all the rest of the classes are either very specialized in their academic areas or if they have to deal with culture, it’s usually western culture.
E: Yeah, in a couple of our other interviews we’ve talked about that because we interviewed Ken Asher, who’s the director of HUMN, and he said that there’s been some movement to try to make HUMN more world or non-western specific.
K: I absolutely agree with that.
E: But one of the issues he pointed out is what he called “academic responsibility,” like how can you make sure all of the professors can teach the Koran properly?
K: I just think that teaching any Humanities book would take about as much time as teaching— I mean if we’re talking about classic texts, like the Koran, there’s a bunch of resources that you would use to be able to understand it, and that’s the same way that it is with Faust or Shakespeare or anything like that. You’re more likely to have run across these texts in your education of you’re a professor, but to me, especially being in HUMN 2 right now and realizing that pretty much everything we’ve read has been written by a white male—I mean, I’m just kind of tired of hearing that viewpoint. Also, since I’m a sociology major, this is actually a pretty big issue of contention in in sociology, the issue of viewpoint and the fact that if you only get information from what are seen as “legitimate viewpoints” then you’re actually cutting out a lot of things that are seen as illegitimate not because they’re unreliable or because they’re not verifiable or anything like that, they’re illegitimate because they don’t come from traditional sources. And that’s a huge problem with education in general, and I mean, even sociology, when I talked about it in sociology classes we talked about it in terms of sociology and how a lot of sociology came from the same old rich white men, and we should expand and we should make sure that other methodologies and other subjects are able to be covered.
E: That sounds very similar, as an English major.
K: Yeah, definitely.
E: A lot of the same issues. So you said you’re in HUMN 2 right now.
E: So I would assume that you’ve taken HUMN 1.
K: I have.
E: So right now, and when you took HUMN 1, was there a particular emphasis placed on either a certain aspect of the course, like philosophy over literature or something like that, or on current events?
K: Yeah, it was really interesting, so in both of my courses—can I say who I took them with?
E: Up to you.
K: Okay, yeah, I’ll say. So I took Dr. Tze-Ki Hon from the History Department for HUMN 1, and then HUMN 2 I’m taking with Doug Owens; he’s a German professor. So, anyway, both of them have a really strong focus on current events. Dr. Hon, it was really surprising for me, because he’s a history professor, I thought he would be more about facts and history and that kind of thing, but he was actually very literary about it. Like, he would have us discuss the passages that he assigned and he would pick out one line and he would say, “Let’s talk about the language, let’s talk about why the author used this word here,” and there was a lot of that. There’s a lot less of that with HUMN 2. So in both of the classes we connect the texts to current events, but in HUMN 2, it’s more about getting the general idea of the text as a whole and then right away getting through that general idea and starting to connect it to things that have happened either in the past or media or our experiences, things like that. So that’s been my experience. And I guess it probably has a lot to do with the particular professors.
E: Yeah, definitely. Do you think that emphasis on current events is the best way for the course to be taught?
K: I think it’s necessary for the course. Because none of us have had the experiences of the vast majority of the writers that we’re looking at, and the texts, like none of us have had those actual experience, we didn’t live in those times. So I think that whatever we get out of the text, there’s no way to really know what that means without translating it into some kind of real experience that we’ve either lived or we’re very familiar with. So even if we haven’t actually lived a current event, it’s something that we know a lot about. Some people will know a lot about ancient history and that kind of thing, but still, it’s a different experience understanding a concept on its own or in its own time and then being able to take out the main idea of the concept and take it out of the context of time and apply to a different situation. So that’s just a different skill and in my understanding, that’s the point of Humanities, to teach those concepts rather than teaching the specific experiences that are used in the text to demonstrate those concepts.
E: So are there any texts in the particular sections of Humanities that you’ve taken that were taught that, as far as you know, aren’t commonly taught or required within the course?
K: We read Twelve Years a Slave. I thought that that was interesting because it’s this verified factual account of slavery written by a free man who was forced into slavery. It’s that same issue of him having diminished legitimacy as an author because he was put in this position and some people think, “Oh, he’s exaggerating what happened to him,” but because it was verified by so many accounts, then that was a really powerful statement, because he had to undergo horrible, horrible things, and it’s even worse than the movie. And so based on that, that’s just a really powerful experience to be able to read about. So I think that most HUMN courses don’t teach that—most HUMN 2 courses don’t teach that; I don’t know if yours did.
E: We read Douglass—a speech.
E: I’m assuming there’s some sort of slave narrative requirement.
K: Yeah, yeah. I don’t think we did anything on slavery other than that. We did Kingdom of This World, which is on the Haitian rebellion and the revolution, so it was a novel by someone whose ancestors were part of the Haitian rebellion, I think. So we read that. We read—actually, Professor Owens has probably done a really good job of bring in other viewpoints, because we read this account of a nun in the conquistador time who grew up in Mexico and she obviously wasn’t a nun her whole life, but she specifically became a nun so that she could study, instead of having to get married and being that kind of person. So she ended up publishing a lot of her works, as much as she could.
E: That’s really cool.
K: Yeah, it was. And I think still, most of the things we read, like Hobbes, Locke, Freud—we just talked about Freud today, he’s an idiot—a lot of them do come from the stereotypical white man. But yeah, so I feel like the texts that didn’t come from white men, those are the ones that are different in the course. And I don’t remember all the texts we did in HUMN .
E: That seems to be a little more standardized.
K: Yeah, I think because there’s so many things that they have to cover. You have to cover the religious texts, and you have to cover something that has to do with Greek times, and Roman times, and that kind of thing.
E: So either within those texts or anything else you’re familiar with, are there any texts that you think should be required or taught a little more frequently?
K: That’s a good question.
E: Or even just topics that aren’t really covered.
K: So definitely stuff that isn’t written by white males. Just a variety of authorship, and I think if there’s less of a focus on just “Western Humanities” and more of a focus on people around the world—like we learned about civil rights in the United States, but there’s so many similar movements around the world that we could also read about—
E: And connect it to—
K: Exactly. And it doesn’t have to be a whole book on each of them, but even just knowing that these things are happening, like learning about the Arab Spring. Because in America, we’re so fortunate to not have lived through any of these things. But at the same time, we don’t have any primary experience and yet there are people who are living right now who are undergoing things that we’re studying about conceptually but since they haven’t occurred in the western world for a really long time, there’s no connection to current events or we can make a connection but it’s not in our own world. So I think studying things like that, like current events that are happening around the world that cover the same topics and relate to the same topics that we’re covering, that would be really valuable.
E: Agreed. So, as a gen ed course, Humanities is meant to enforce the “liberal arts” aspect of a Geneseo education. According to the Geneseo website, this means that “[students] should be prepared to participate ethically and intelligently as informed citizens of the communities in which they live and work.” Do you think the course currently functions as such?
K: I don’t think Humanities courses have anything to do with ethics. I understand where they’re coming from because they show you different systems of ethics, but I don’t think in a modern world we can just read texts and say, “well, this is what one person thought was ethical, or this is what one society thought was ethical, and therefore I’m going to balance it out with what this other society thought was ethical.” I think that we have to make decisions on ethics based on our own lives and based on our own experiences. I think that with HUMN—I understand that that’s the intention, but I don’t think it can ever have anything to do with ethics. I think that we can know about the world around us—
E: Just like exposure?
K: Exactly, yeah. We can know about the different options for morality and for ethics, and we can know about the world around us and know, just information-wise, what kinds of actions lead to what kinds of consequences, and then base our morals on those things. But I don’t think—I mean, I wasn’t really raised with a moral scale because I wasn’t raised in a specific religion. I know if you’re raised in a religion then that’s usually where you get your morals. So when I was figuring out what’s right and what’s wrong, I based it on what my mom said was right and wrong. And a lot of things she wouldn’t even talk about because they had nothing to do with my life. So I made my decisions based on what I saw in the world around me and what happens when people make certain decisions, like you know certain decisions are going to hurt people, so you don’t make those decisions. And then if you have to balance out what to do if you’re not sure what to do, that’s a very personal decision that you have to make on your own. I don’t think that reading texts can ever give you that context; they can never provide you with a foolproof answer.
E: Do you think there are any changes that can be made to the course to improve this, or is just simply a matter of exposing and then you need to make your own decisions?
K: I think in general, a liberal arts education can use more components of understanding the world that we live in right now—I don’t know if that’s really the job of the Humanities courses because they are supposed to take you through history and show you classical texts, so I think that they do do a good job exposing us to many different ideologies and ways of thought.
E: Mostly Western.
K: Yeah, I know, Western ways of thought, exactly. But I think that if they were to change the curriculum at all—I don’t know if I’ve ever taken a course, or if I was ever required to take a course that had to do with understanding the current state of the world, and I think that that could be very valuable, because on the one hand, you can look at news sources, but those aren’t going to give you a full story of any given issue, they’re not going to give you a straightforward story of any given issue, and a lot of people don’t know and don’t have the time to go and look up accurate, complete information about these different issues that are happening. And they don’t know that they don’t know how to get complete information, so they’re working on stuff that they heard in the media or in one instance. I think a more complete coverage of that would be very valuable. If they’re trying to work on our morals, that’s what they should do. But of course I understand the whole point of Humanities is to make you a moral person who contributes you to society.
E: Or tell you what those morals could be.
K: Exactly, yeah. I know that that’s even beyond Geneseo, that’s just what people think is that Humanities makes you a more ethical and aware person. And I think it could, but it really doesn’t have anything to do with your decision to do that.
E: So now, to switch gears for the last couple questions, you’re a tour guide, correct?
K: Yes, I am .
E: Okay, so as a tour guide, how do you present the liberal arts to prospective students?
K: Usually, I mention that Geneseo is a liberal arts college; depending on the size of the group, if there’s only up to three families, then I ask them how much they’ve heard about liberal arts colleges and the requirements, because you never know when you’re getting these people in their stages of looking at colleges. And I ask them about this at most stages in the tour, and just tell them, “Hey, I can give you more information on anything you want, but I’m not going to overload you with a bunch of information that isn’t going to stick with you.” That’s a lot of what tours are, just giving off a bunch of information and I don’t want to overwhelm them. So I just usually say, “Geneseo’s a liberal arts college. Do you know much about the liberal arts requirements?” And then I give them a quick sampling, I don’t list all of the courses, I just say, “So the idea is that you have to take a couple social science courses, and a couple fine arts courses, and a couple of natural science courses.” Part of the way that they’ve structured the tour is that they suggest, or in the past they’ve suggested that you talk about liberal arts and the gen ed requirements and you use that to kind of segue into—you can use it to segue into a couple different things. I use it to segue into the Music Department, and talk about how you can do a performance ensemble for three years and basically take a class that has no homework that you would be doing for fun anyway, and if you take it for three semesters in a row, then that’s the equivalent of a fine arts credit. And then also, when I’m in Newton [Lecture Hall], at one point they suggested that when you’re in Newton, you could talk about the fact that the only time you’d ever be in a classroom this big, in a lecture hall this big, is if you’re taking a gen ed course that’s an introductory level biology course or theater course or something like that, and then once you get into more specialized courses, you don’t have to take classes that big. So I kind of use it as a segue into those things, and then if people ask for more information about it, then I list off all of the courses that you need, and then I tell them just to be to check in with Admissions. And no one’s really had a lot of questions about that kind of thing, because I think it’s pretty standard.
E: Yeah. So does HUMN ever come up?
K: I talk about two Humanities classes—I think sometimes people have asked what Humanities classes are, and I just say, “They basically cover literature and events that have happened from a long time ago, from like ancient times, from Ancient Greek and Roman times to the present in western society. And that’s just part of a balanced liberal arts education.” And they don’t have any questions about that; they probably have more questions when they’re not being dragged around campus.