Going Beyond the Textbook: Students Realize the Potential of the Humanities in the 21st Century
Too often we liberal arts students find ourselves fielding the question posed by our relatives at Thanksgiving dinner: “What kind of job will you get with that degree?” The humanities are sometimes dismissed as nothing more than studying irrelevant readings with no clear route to career. But the world is a complex place to exist and navigate, and the humanities are fundamental in understanding and propelling human existence and its endeavors toward a better, brighter tomorrow. Cultivating the capability to understand the grey areas of our most challenging social issues and to critique the elements that can be seen as “black and white” offers the potential for nuanced solutions to some of the world’s most demanding problems. This is the work of the humanities.
Take, for instance, issues of immigration and migration. Last year, the College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences at DePaul University launched the HumanitiesX Collaborative.
This program joins faculty and students from DePaul University with community partners from Chicago-area arts, cultural, and civic organizations. Together they work to reimagine teaching and learning in the humanities and demonstrate what can be accomplished — in our classrooms and our city — when interdisciplinary teams apply humanities methods to real-world projects.
Each of the three-year Mellon-funded programs focuses on a designated theme. This year, the topic is Immigration and Migration.
After a rigorous interview process, in January 2022 the HumanitiesX Collaborative welcomed its first cohort of Student Fellows, a cohort of two graduate students and four undergrads, including me.
Being invited to collaborate with faculty and advocates from nonprofit organizations, we were all a bit nervous at the start. Stepping into the realm of course creation was intimidating at first. However, we soon realized that we each brought our own set of experiences, ideas, and passions to this Collaborative. We were called on to contribute to a powerful mosaic utilizing information that we had learned not only in the classroom, but in our own lives.
This is the part where I get to brag about the other Student Fellows:
Laura and Emerson are just both stellar and bring a wealth of knowledge as they are both grad students pursuing master’s degrees in Refugee and Forced Migration Studies. Born in Colombia and raised in Miami as a naturalized citizen, Laura brings personal experiences that can often shed new light on ongoing discussion us Fellows have. Emerson is an expert in the intersectional aspects of immigration and migration, which is an expertise not many possess.
Even though the rest of us are “only” undergrads, I think we’re a force to be reckoned with. Lauren, from Skokie, is our local expert in all things Chicago. Whether its community organizing, Chicago history, or finding a new cultural event to attend, Lauren is a great asset to our team. Yessica is well versed in immigration law and the asylum/citizenship process, which makes her vital when we’re discussing the logistical side of immigrations and migration. As a polyglot, Juliana is incredible at understanding this year’s topic as it effects different parts of the world differently.
I guess that just leaves me! My upbringing in Los Angeles gave me a complex yet expansive view of culture. Whether it was listening to international melodies, trying meals invented in other languages, or simply picking up a book to learn about the myriad of ways us humans define “life”, there was a certain vibrancy that I soon came to cherish when exploring the different corners of the world within my hometown.
For all six of us, the humanities are a lived experience. Our job as Student Fellows is to find the connection point between these experiences, the courses we’re collaboratively creating, the students who will take them, and the communities our partner organizations serve.
Our role is particularly vital within the HumanitiesX Collaborative. We understand that the best ways to teach the humanities are to bring it to life. One thing we’ve all learned is the importance of adapting course material to match the needs of the world around us. In looking beyond the textbook, we’re now helping others to understand the humanities in a social, cultural, and global context. Whether it’s telling the stories of Latinx immigrant activists and communities in Brighton Park, learning about the struggles of the asylum process with the Midwest Human Rights Consortium, or understanding how experiences of displaced Japanese migrants in a post-atomic age are translated through art, our goal here at HumanitiesX is to reestablish the centrality of the human in humanities.
Simply put, the humanities challenge us to apply the values of empathy, logic, and understanding on a global scale. Now there’s a perfect response to our relative’s cynical question about the value of what we study.