We humanists can be a finicky bunch. Our allegiances are often as wide as our talents, and our confidence usually wavers against any lull in opportunity. We study great writers, actors, artists, musicians, all of whom have contributed a great deal to the way we see the world at large. We reflect on how amazing it would be to be them, to be great. However…
Tasked with writing the first in a series of essays on the real benefits of the humanities and social sciences in one’s career and life isn’t easy. To pastiche Dr. John, these fields are often over-loved and under-paid, mal-funded and over-made. Regardless, they do indeed have innumerable benefits. Unfortunately, most of which I’ll not have the space to elucidate here, however, I’ll leave that noble task to those who follow me in this series.
Rather than berating you with statistics and zero-sum quotes against the sciences, I’ll just do my best to relate some humble thoughts on the issue by peeling apart a few stories from some recent worldly wanderings – Vermont for the holidays, a conference in London, and back to work in Moscow – with an Aesop’s fables tinge to the proceedings.
Jeremy Harmer, a highly respected speaker and author in the world of English language teaching, had just finished relating his borderline hatred of the use of large Asian bells on a string to bring an audience to attention after a discussion. We were sitting together at the International House Director’s of Studies Conference. Adrian Underhill, another ELT heavyweight, put his bells down and continued to expound some of the dynamics of a new approach he and Jim Schrivner had hacked out called Demand-High.
“We are 300 yards west of the meridian,” Adrian said. “Now, before you say it out loud,” illustrating what you might do with a student group, “let it replay in your ‘mind’s ear’. Let it repeat it with my accent, with my intonation, the same stress.”
And after repeating it a third time in our mind’s ear or ‘inner workbench’, he asked us to say it as beautifully as possible to the person sitting next to us. Jeremy nearly sang his with excitement before getting his back up again about the bells.
They described the approach as a kind of meme, or most poetically, a “Mexican thought wave.” It’s not meant to replace any methods or processes that have been going on in the ELT classroom all these years, but enhance them with small tweaks and touches. In other words, we should ask more of our students and ourselves, work with the language beyond what we think is possible, pull emergent language into the light and meld it into our mind’s ear. Above all, avoid page turning or the temptation to say, ‘correct, next.’
Listen to yourself and ask more of what you hear. Bells are unnecessary.
Orford, New Hampshire
The annual Bunten family holiday gathering and Yankee swap was finishing up. An older woman who I’d barely exchanged two words with all day, other than to trade some soap for socks in the Yankee swap, caught my attention in the living room.
“You’re Roger’s son, right?” Squinting to see me better she said, “where are you now?” Her green eyes lit up when she heard Moscow.
Originally from East Germany, she had visited the Soviet capital in the 70s. Loved it. Remembered it well. Strong people and character, she said. Beautiful women set against the grey magnificent buildings; Constructivism against the remaining winding curves of the orthodoxy.
Alexander Solzhenitsyn eventually came up. He and his family had lived in Cavendish, Vermont for 17 years while in exile from the Soviet Union. His son played piano and had a small recital once in Vermont’s capital, Montpelier.
“I had to go,” she said. The possibility of meeting his reclusive father was futile to resist for her. He was quite the luminary presence in small-town Vermont.
“And you know what? I saw him fours row behind me. At intermission, he got up and I followed him to the bathrooms.” Her crow’s feet flashed and faded with excitement just recounting her bravery.
She told him how much she respected his literature, and his wish to live without disruptions, and how much she knew he pained to be back home with his own family, his own culture and his own people.
“He looked at me with his deep grey eyes,” clenching her fist to show the intensity of it all, nearly in tears at the thought. “He put his hands on mine,” she took a breath to recall the gravity, “and said, you are my kindred spirit.”
She left that bathroom in tears of joy and sat before me welling up with emotion.
“I’m sorry, I don’t even know your name.”
“Ute,” she said.
We exchanged some further pleasantries. I thanked her for the story, and left with the thought of meeting Solzhenitsyn bouncing around in my mind’s ear.
A well told story is long remembered. Names are optional.
Sitting back in my soviet flat, I’m starring at a pile of words and a yet smaller pile of minutes to work with, listening to my mind’s ear and trying to tell a good story. Below is a heap of half sentences, lost thoughts, entertained analogies, and mixed metaphors. Above are two stories that relate to what I’ll say here. It’s all been planned out. I swear. Just like the benefits you planned to reap from your humanities or social sciences degree.
I might sound nervous about this but don’t worry, I’m a trained professional. I’m just trying to build some tension. I studied for this. This is my place. I belong here. On the page. I’m ready. But actually, I wouldn’t mind a job in sales… Joke.
We humanists can be a finicky bunch. Our allegiances are often as wide as our talents, and our confidence usually wavers against any lull in opportunity. We study great writers, actors, artists, musicians, all of whom have contributed a great deal to the way we see the world at large. We reflect on how amazing it would be to be them, to be great. However, it’s easy to disregard the misfortune, the pain, the loss, the outpouring of emotion, and the often unappreciated lives which lead to them producing a body of work, a story, remembered through the ages.
We are all on an endeavor of greatness, whether we like it or not. We often don’t listen to those telling us it’s not worth it. That could be because we don’t care. We have a dream. Or, that’s simply when we’ve decided to whittle our allegiances down. That’s when we have become something – a teacher, a playwright, a dancer, a craftsman – and not just a teacher with a passion for music, or salesman with a writing hobby.
Disregard what I said earlier. This is nothing you can plan. I actually think it’s foolish to plan it from the start. That doesn’t mean there aren’t any benefits. Just let everything fall in your way, onto the page. It doesn’t matter how trivial. Reflect on it, work with it, give it shape, give it worth, give it life, then submit it when you’re done. But don’t forget to draft like hell to sort all the crap out. What you are left with is here, as in life.
A controversy prevailed among the beasts of the field as to which of the animals deserved the most credit for producing the greatest number of whelps at a birth. They rushed clamorously into the presence of the Lioness and demanded of her the settlement of the dispute. “And you,” they said, “how many sons have you at a birth?’ The Lioness laughed at them, and said: “Why! I have only one; but that one is altogether a thoroughbred Lion.”
The value is in the worth, not in the number.
Editor’s words: The Euroculturer is happy to announce the start of a new series “Why Study Humanities and Social Sciences: The real benefits of the Humanities and Social Sciences in one’s career and life” in an attempt to empower Euroculturers and other humanities and social sciences majors. We thank Alex Bunten, a Euroculturer and the Director of the Humanities Professional Network for opening the series with his exceptional insights on humanity en masse.
The series continues on Why Study Humanities: Confessions of a Humanities Major
Alex Bunten, Contributing writer
Alex studied Euroculture in Uppsala and Deusto (2011) and finished his first degree at the University of St Andrews (2005). He is the current Director of the Humanities Professional Network within the Erasmus Mundus Association, as well as one of the founders of the Humanities Perspective conference series – the next installment due to take place at the University of Groningen. Home is currently in Moscow where he is the Executive Centre Assistant Director of Studies at BKC International House Moscow. When not preoccupied with an obsessive work schedule, he is a keen observer of humanity en masse, a connoisseur of the Russian pine nut, and a black belt in metro reading.