By Jason J. Gulya
Way back in my pre-COVID days, I designed an advanced composition course around the topic of social media and technology. I thought I was cool. I joined together articles from The New Yorker and CNN, games and videos on the topic of fake news, trending stories from Twitter and Facebook, the television show Mr. Robot, and the movie Her. I felt like I had created a cross-cultural and cross-medium mosaic. I felt good about myself. Then, the world broke when COVID-19 hit. Then, it broke again when George Floyd was killed. Then, it broke again and again and again. Then—in perhaps the weirdest paradigm shift of all—it became clear that the world had been broken for a long time and that the fact that everything seemed to suddenly break was itself a symptom of my own privilege.
No matter how I looked at it—whether the world was falling apart, had already fallen apart, or had never really been functioning properly—I found myself in a bind. How could I keep teaching without becoming the embodiment of the “This is fine” meme, which features a dog drinking coffee in a burning building? What did it mean to encourage my students to read, write, and think within this newly afresh context of chaos? Now, in a way that I had never been quite as cognizant of before, my “cool” stories, movies, television shows, and New Yorker articles smacked of the frivolity usually reserved for readers of romantic novels. And my grammar lessons felt, at the best, somewhat unimportant and, at the worst, extensions of the language-controlling power structures that my students and myself were becoming increasingly skeptical of.
I teach at a small, career-centered college, so justifying my discipline is nothing new to me. But somehow this felt different. The kind of panic that had riddled the humanities for years was suddenly widespread. It was no longer a matter of convincing students to slow down and read a story carefully. It was now a matter of convincing students that any sort of slow and critical analysis was worthwhile. My students had been thrown into a constant state of deciding between, on the one hand, thinking about a story I had assigned or, on the other hand, thinking about some of the defining moments of the 21st century so far. I could hardly blame them for choosing the latter.
The choice, here, boils down to digging in or getting out. Either, as a professor of literature and composition, I insist on the renewed importance of reading and writing within the context of this chaos (and not simply in spite of that chaos, since that belittles the chaos itself) or I allow my teaching to become irrelevant. I have decided on the former option, not only because my job depends on it (though I love my job) but because I believe in a model of teaching that forces and coaxes our students to come in touch with their own humanity. The humanities put our students in a position in which they must grapple with the ambiguity and uncertainty at the heart of the human experience. And what could be more ambiguous, more uncertain than a peri-COVID world riddled with a renewed sense of its own unfairness and prejudice?
The humanities have a long history of wrestling with ambiguity. They are a place where students lean into their own humanity, in direct opposition to the methods often implemented by education (standardized tests, multiple choice questions, rubrics) that treat “humans” as a monolithic category. If nothing else, the humanities teaches our students that life and art are complex and subject to interpretation. Ambiguity can be frustrating and demoralizing. It is also beautiful, valuable, and an inevitable part of human life.
I come to a renewed appreciation of the humanities’ capacity every time I engage in communal reading and discussion with my students. For example, in one of my courses I recently taught Guillermo Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth (2006). For those who do not know or remember how that story ends (spoiler alert!), Del Toro sets up the final few minutes of the film so that we are unsure whether it ends with Ofelia being brutally shot to death by her stepfather or with Ofelia being reunited with her deceased parents in a fantastical world where she is a princess. In an interview Del Toro refers to the film this way: “The movie is like a Rorschach test where, if you view it and you don’t believe it, you’ll view the movie as, ‘Oh, it was all in her head.’ If you view it as a believer, you’ll see clearly where I stand, which is it is real.” The movie, in toggling between objective and subjective storytelling, makes it difficult for viewers to decide what actually happened. As a “Rorschach test,” it tells us more about the interpreter than the narrative.
In my discussions, I asked students to avoid the temptation to land on one option over the other. I pointed out to them that—as interpreters—we often fall victim to over-relying on our own assumptions and past experiences. We might be inclined to say that the scenes when Ofelia is ushered into a fantastical dimension are delusional simply because of our worldview; but the trick is to rely only on what the story gives us. If we are interpreting the movie responsibly, we need to spend as much time as possible in the gray area.
My students’ responses to this assignment were interesting and varied. I had several students who jumped right in and thought about how the movie was a self-reflexive analysis of interpretation itself. I had others who were unable to live in the gray area at all. In fact, one student even wrote to me directly about how ambiguous stories are cop-outs and that any story worth telling needs to deliver to its audience a clearly identifiable moral. I replied with a lengthy explanation of how, in my opinion, the strongest art follows life: our lives are riddled with ambiguity and gray areas, so it appears almost strange that we expect our art to avoid, or even fix, that ambiguity.
The different reactions to the movie’s ambiguity was actually evidence that the assignment worked. It forced the class to think not only about ambiguity, but about the temptation to resolve that ambiguity quickly and confidently.
The humanities’ relationship to ambiguity gets even more complex when we add to it the notion that the humanities, as a discipline, are facing an ambiguous future. Regardless of where we teach and in what kind of institution, humanities professors are used to constantly explaining why our discipline is important. I do not know how many times I have had to explain my position that critical reading and writing skills are essential to student development, even if the student is an engineering or marketing major. But I also believe that this constant need to explain my discipline’s existence has made me a better teacher. In a strange twist, the humanities are most effective when they operate with a consciousness of how others question their relevance. We operate best when we are acutely aware of how our discipline may be discounted by students, other faculty members, and administrators. This has been true for years, and we all know that the humanities have been “in crisis.” Now, it comes to realizing that the humanities are uniquely prepared for thinking about a world in crisis.
I write this in the context of ever-decreasing budgets and uncertainties about future enrollment. Many colleges and universities will feel pressure to cut or shortchange the humanities. But we do this at our own peril, since it is in these classes that students practice grappling with the uncertainties and ambiguities that now—more than ever—surround them.
Jason J. Gulya, Ph.D., is Professor of English at Berkeley College and is an expert on literature, composition, and pedagogy. He is currently working on a larger project on college-level instruction and how it intersects with questions about free speech, code-switching, and power dynamics. He welcomes any feedback on his writing and this overall project, as well as opportunities to share their insights.