What You Learn in a Humanities Degree

The more I learn, I find myself with fewer and fewer things to say.

As a humanities student, I studied many “theories.” One theory is historicism, which says that things are the products of their historical settings. Example: At a career mixer, a well-dressed alumnus, class of ’70, approaches a sophomore journalism major. “The first thing you should do once you’re financially independent and you’ve got some money saved up is make a down payment on a house. Nobody will ever stop needing houses,” he says. The advice is a historical artifact, extruded from a certain moment in American politics and a certain set of assumptions about credit scores and work contingency and citizenship status. The student may react with with doubt; her doubt is also historical. It encodes her upbringing, and a different relationship with houses and banks and the word independent.

We could apply any number of other theories to this interaction. There is a theory that explains why the man feels no reservation in handing out unsolicited advice, and another that explains why the student smiles and sips her iced tea instead of challenging him. There is another theory that explains why conversations about what to do with wealth are appropriate at a university career mixer—what the conversation implies about the prestige of the university, the status of the alumnus, the prospects of a nascent journalism career. Given a set of questions about a situation, or “text,” we can use contrasting theories to harvest competing answers to the questions. Then the merits of the theories can stand in for the merits of the answers. (If we are especially cunning, we might presuppose which answers we want to find and then focus on the theory that guides us there. You can bring up this point as a lazy counterargument next time I say I am using an “interdiscplinary approach” to argue for an idea you disdain.)

When I was a student, my favorite theory was what we might call discursivism, a literary theory that says, essentially, that language is simultaneously “about” both language itself and whatever it is that the language at hand is talking about. “Nobody will ever stop needing houses” is not just a phrase, but a catchphrase, an idea whose snappy wording embeds a claim about its salience. The secret message is something like: If what I am telling you right now isn’t true, then how come I can say it so succinctly? Indeed, anytime we raise our voice, we are secretly transmitting a claim about our own act of speech: I am able to put these thoughts into words, therefore they must have some merit.

Theories are quite powerful, because they allow us to convert small amounts of information into large amounts of information. (More words have been written about Shakespeare than Shakespeare ever wrote.) We use theories to put words into others’ mouths. For example, Americans tend to think of themselves as formidable amateur psychoanalysts. It is not uncommon to hear Americans dismiss each other by saying they are “projecting” or “deflecting” or “repressing” something. Psychoanalysis is a theory, a theory according to which we spend life restaging traumatic incidents from childhood in a hopeless search for resolution. Like many theories, psychoanalysis rejects the possibility of objective observation; thus you can talk in circles by telling your opponent, “No, I think you’re repressing!” Without realizing it, we are two levels of abstraction away from the issues at hand, but because culture has made us comfortable with pushing theories around like pieces on a chess board, both parties proceed in the illusion that material gains are at stake. In fact, when we pit theories against each other, what we are gaining is information: about the matter in question, yes, but also about the theories themselves, their breadth and depth.

We cannot break free of theories. Whether or not you have received a traditional education, your thought patterns have been shaped by your experiences of people and your interactions with “texts.” A theory doesn’t need to have a Wikipedia entry for it to color your thoughts. Thus, one of the goals of a liberal education is to equip you with a wide range of theories, so that in an unfamiliar situation, you can try out various theories in succession as a corrective against your default narrative, the hope being that you will test out various responses and select the best one. However, being theoretically versatile—I have called this narrative fluency—is more likely to make us good at justifying our prior beliefs (whether or not they are correct) than at reexamining and overturning them.

Thus, I am finding myself with less and less to say, because I am paralyzed by the sense that if I manage to say something convincing, it will be so only because I have applied a theory in a novel or resonant way, and not because the underlying idea has merit. I have spent so much time playing with theories that nowadays, I sometimes myself testing facts against beliefs rather than beliefs against facts, so that when I encounter a set of facts that resist one of my beloved theories, I search for better facts instead of modifying my assumptions.

In courtroom dramas, lawyers begin their closing arguments by saying, “Let’s let the facts stand on their own,” and then they proceed to enumerate the facts, thereby preventing them from standing on their own. When—not if—the facts are inventoried, curated, rehearsed, ordered, voiced in a measured tone, calibrated for this trial and these jurors, then the facts are being coerced to an invisible theory. We are awash in theories, and the only way to let the facts stand on their own is to say nothing.

Aretha and Brad

I have been measuring the leaves of my houseplants.

It is surprising how normal these distributions are.
I’m putting my stats notes here.

Invitation

Bringing the reader to the author, bringing the author to the reader, at the risk of serving and of betraying two masters: this is to practice what I like to call linguistic hospitality. (Paul Riceour, On Translation)

In walks a new customer, a foreigner, and he looks like a teacher, with a laptop bag full of papers and his hair combed unironically over. I take my time in positioning myself behind the register—straightening out condiments, scribbling on a notepad—so he’ll have time to parse the menu. I should put an English version up one of these days. It would look more inviting, no?

Caramel macchiato, he announces. Odd, the sound of our phonemes in his mouth.

“Hot?” I ask, summoning the word from somewhere.

Hot, he confirms in my language.

I tell him the price, reiterating it with four extended fingers, but he has already extended his card. It’s from a local bank. Maybe he’s been through this before. I give him two sticks of sugar, just in case.

Vengeful Spirals

Even though you’re not supposed to do so when the A/C is running, I’ve cracked open the window here at Coffee Bay because I have a secret affinity for the K-pop that drifts in from the car wash, the way it mocks the eclectic playlist of British rock that this barista has spent at least a year trimming and perfecting. Just now I discovered that a bee had found its way inside, and I knew that it the responsibility fell to me to get rid of the insect before it antagonized any other customers, so I used my paper water cup to trap it against the glass. My plan was then to gently guide it towards the opening and freedom, but as soon as I captured the bee, I felt the cup buzz with the frantic electricity of a drone bee whose stinger is fully capacitated. It’d be precarious, now, to try to let it out, so I slid a piece of paper between the cup and the glass and set the confined bee down here on my table, where it sits now. Will his hormonal rage subside if I simply let him be? Or will a bee, once aggressed, deploy its dose at all costs? I will now find out; it’s been three minutes and the cup seems quiet.

When I decanted the cup out the window, nothing fell out, and I peered reluctantly in to discovered that the bee’s wings had adhered together. It turned out there was a little water left in the cup, which the bee must have run into while rehearsing its close-range maneuvers. I had to really tap hard to get the guy to fall out, and once it did, a panic jolted its wings again into motion. I swiftly closed the window and watched it tear away in vengeful spirals.

Maybe it wasn’t even a bee. Maybe it was just a very muscular fly. I guess that can happen. I wouldn’t know unless it stung me.

In my journal this story is preceded by thoughts on the difference between character and “character,” but I always liked the unexplained parables better.

Using Data to Understand ELL Students

In August, I surveyed my students about their motivation for learning English, their opinions about our class and my teaching style, and what resources they were using to study English outside of class. By analyzing the results using some of the statistical tools I’ve taught myself this year, I came up with some effective strategies for reaching the disengaged students in my classroom.

At the moment this post goes up, I’ll be giving a presentation about that project at Fulbright Korea’s fall conference in Gyeongju. Here’s a digital version of the talk:

And here’s a detailed write-up of my survey design and results.

Budget Update

I wrote thirty snail-years ago about my budget strategy, which is to pay myself a weekly allowance that I track using a spreadsheet. I input my bank balance every two weeks, and the spreadsheet does the rest.

All I pay attention to is this graph, which shows the balance of that virtual allowance account. If I spend exactly my allowance and nothing more, it stays flat. In general, it has roughly the same number of negative and positive points, which is our goal.

I’ve made only a few changes to the system since I last wrote about it:

  1. I upped the allowance by twenty percent since I’m cooking for myself and paying my own utilities instead of living with a homestay family.
  2. Instead of updating the spreadsheet on the 9th and 24th of each month, I’m doing it every other Tuesday, which makes it easier to remember and mitigates interference from my tendency to spend more money on the weekend and less on weekdays.
  3. If I discover that I’m significantly ahead of budget on a check-in day, I go ahead and zero out my allowance account (actually, I usually make it slightly negative) to discourage myself from impulse buys. Later on, if I decide to make a major purchase, I can then discount it against those corrections. If I didn’t do this, the graph wouldn’t be very illustrative on the week-to-week level. You’d just see it go up and up and up, then tank every six months when I take a vacation.

This method of budgeting works pretty well for how little effort it requires. On the worst day, April 23, I was down ₩96,974, or about $80. not bad!