Like many people across the world this spring, I sat and watched Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey. As a non-scientist, I was not only awestruck by what I learned, I was heartened by this program’s appearance on network television. Beginning with Carl Sagan thirty years ago, scientists like Neil deGrasse Tyson have made public communication central to the scientific life. They call themselves science communicators. At a time when a large portion of the American public does not trust the scientific community when it discusses evolution or global warming, scientists have taken it upon themselves to find and gain the public’s interest and trust.
We need similar projects. We need humanities communicators. The role of the humanities may not have the urgency of global warming to push it into the public eye, but the necessity of deep understanding of the humanities has its own set of urgent issues. How are our fellow humans going to understand the loss of net neutrality, and how it connects to every other time in history corporations have gained an advantage over us? How are our children going to understand themselves and others when our disciplines are pitted against STEM rather than trumpeted alongside them? How are our fellow citizens to become mindful of and understand the bewildering change brought about by digital technology and the internet? At the same time when we as humanists are talking in specialist periodicals about how important our studies are, who is going out and telling the rest of the world? It is our duty to educate society about the importance and necessity of the humanities. To do so, we must engage with humanity.
We must find ways into the public awareness. How do we get into newspapers, on radio shows, television, and online media to spread the word about the humanities? What other ways do we have to bring our disciplines into others’ lives?
The answer is that we must expand the scope of our pedagogical ideals. Critical pedagogy asks that we explore the world with our students outside of the boundaries of our disciplines, brick-and-mortar classrooms, and personalized Google searches. It is only a short step to expanding our classrooms to include the world. Indeed, the world must become our critical classroom.
I pay close attention when my own subject, music, is featured in the media I consume. Interesting examples proliferate in how public discourse considers music. A recent favorite of mine is from On the Media. Laura Mayer tells a story, speaking with television music scholar John Burlingame, about how music in reality television shows manipulates us. They discuss how music functions in a television show; its way of pushing around our emotions. Burlingame says, “Music can help you understand where you are in terms of time and place. It can help propel the action along by speeding things up or slowing it down. But, mostly music in television is designed to elicit an emotional response from the viewer and the listener.” Although there is no discussion of music’s inner workings like you might see in a music theory journal, this story outlines wonderfully how a scholar can discuss music intelligently in the media without throwing around academic jargon.
Another example shows some of the pitfalls of media examination of our dearly held disciplines. A couple of years ago, National Public Radio’s All Things Considered piggy-backed a story on a Wall Street Journal article about Adele’s chart-topping “Someone Like You.” They wanted to know why this song makes us cry. The article and the radio story both relied heavily on scientific studies that focus on a single musical phenomenon: a nonharmonic tone called the appoggiatura. As I’m sure my scientist colleagues would agree, the musical techniques and effects that relate to emotional reaction are complex. However, the resulting news coverage was reductive, silly, and even incorrect.
Luckily in the end, enough listeners complained that they did a follow-up where they asked a music expert, Rob Kapilow, to fact-check for them. This was a welcome choice. Kapilow helpfully played examples and answered questions succinctly to show how a single, dissonant note can make someone’s spine tingle.
We, as teachers, know how failure is bound up in successful learning. These NPR journalists beautifully modeled this process in action. They found an exciting story, but made a misstep. And then they reconsidered their work, and, through their interaction with a public scholar — a humanities communicator — NPR showed how media can best inform public radio listeners.
Let us grab hold of this larger world classroom available through the media. Journalists won’t always come looking for us, nor will they allow us to speak and write in our comfortable, academic norms. As Rebecca Schuman notes, “a lot of “public” writing by academics is self-censored, over-equivocated, bogged down in data analysis, and thus unreadably boring to a non-academic audience.”
How do we address our world classroom and make ourselves heard? Our traditional media are great places to get the word out: newspapers, public radio, and television. But translation from academic language to popular discourse is always a problem. Tyson tells a story about being misquoted by journalists for the sake of a good sound bite. His solution? He decided he had to learn to craft sound bites himself. And that’s what it comes down to. We have to craft our messages for public ears. This means learning and teaching another style of writing. With effort, we can use our experience with various media — such as how non-academics speak on Twitter and Facebook, as well as journalists’ soundbite style — to create a jargon-free, new academese. After all, as Steven Pinker laments, “Why should a profession that trades in words and dedicates itself to the transmission of knowledge so often turn out prose that is turgid, soggy, wooden, bloated, clumsy, obscure, unpleasant to read, and impossible to understand?” Like journalists, we are wordsmiths; we should aim for buoyant, clear, direct, and generous prose.
With our new writing style in hand, we need considered action and collaboration to create a society that values the humanities as deeply as we do. The classrooms in which we are imbedded are only a beginning. This kind of change can and should start with our students, but to expand to our world classroom we need to move along Kris Shaffer’s third line of resistance: stepping outside the university. Our advantage as digital humanists is in our technology. We have blogs, podcasts, and social media at our fingertips. We use them as effectively in our classrooms and in discussions together as we can to deliver our ideas and ideals to our fellow human beings.
Years from now, I can imagine the impact of our work together in ensuring the humanities’ place in our society. Our efforts can land us in a world where politicians and businessmen value a liberal-arts education as much as they value job training and technology. Then public education will no longer be a land of austerity measures and over-assessment, but of full-throated support and expansive growth. All of the things we value as critical and hybrid pedagogues are applicable on this larger stage, and require our investment and participation to create a world classroom filled with the living humanities.