Humanities is a broad term used commonly within the world of academia and often refers to a category of subjects like literature, history, and philosophy. In his work On Definitions, Dr. Robb explains how this kind of strictly defining something as it is used is called a descriptive definition. As the name implies, this type of definition purely states what the object does if one were to use it how most of society uses it. So what exactly are the humanities? Saying literature, history, and philosophy scratches the surface but doesn’t really answer the central question. We could extend our list, adding subjects like writing, religion, linguistics, and maybe even sociology, but again, this tells us members of the group not (as Dr. Robb recommended to seek in his mini-commencement lecture during Sapère-Aude) what they have in common. Dr. Robb also suggests four elements unique to the humanities: normativity, interpretation, essential contestability, and empathy. 
Normativity is the idea of examining what should be the case and not just what is the case. A good example of this is Dr. Fache’s discussion around Saidiya Hartman’s piece “Venus in Two Acts” in which Hartman discusses the difficulties of telling the stories of black women because of the lack of historical evidence about them. Dr. Fache helped instruct us in what is true about the archives but also challenged us to consider how the issue could be fixed, in other words, how it should be. We were similarly challenged by Sarah Bellamy, who presented us a moving story of George Floyd that begged for justice to be done and who showed how to take the first steps in racial healing by example of her theater’s work. Normativity is these kinds of topics, driven for answers of how to fix what is broken.
The second tendency of the humanities is interpretation, specifically that the humanities is about interpreting people and their assumptions and is more qualitative than scientific interpretation. An example of this analysis is when we viewed and discussed the Baldwin-Buckley debate and Dr. Robb taught about conceptual schemes. From this unit, we learned how opinions about reality are influenced by other opinions and beliefs a person has. Buckley, for instance, drew his conclusions about slavery based on his worldview as a white male in America. Baldwin, a black male in America, had different experiences that shaped him and made him come to a view of the world that contradicted that of Buckley. To understand each debater’s argument, we had to investigate the assumptions about life they were making and how those presuppositions resulted in the stance each debater took.
The third and fourth tendencies of the humanities are somewhat interrelated. One is essential contestability, the category of questions that, by nature, are impossible to prove by empirical or philosophical evidence. The other is empathy, relating to the feelings of another individual. I want to talk about these two ideas together because I find that often one will occur while exploring the other. An example of this takes place in Professor Green’s unit in discussing Anna Deavere Smith’s Twilight: Los Angeles. Smith expertly voices several people to create a narrative of the events of the riots, and in doing so, she invites the viewing in to experience a bit of what the people during that time felt. We have the opportunity to practice empathy by seeking to understand how these events affected people. We are compelled to feel angry at an injustice and sympathetic with those who suffered from it. We see people, not so different from us, in a situation we would never want to be in. And yet, towards the end of her production, Smith tangles things by playing an Asian women whose husband’s store, their livelihood, had been destroyed by rioters protesting the police killing. Now, we as the viewer are forced to consider where to place our empathy. We want justice for the black community, but does the Asian community not deserve to live safely as well? How much does what happened to one group justify its actions towards another? I have an idea of where I stand, but I also think many might come to a different conclusion, so a good answer still seems out of reach. We are compelled to be empathetic and yet repelled at the same time by our inability to decide what is the best way forward.
Another example of this duality comes from Professor Tamura’s unit, discussing the Rwanda genocide. The accounts we read in Stories from Rwanda forced us to examine many different people in difficult situations. We see elected officials betraying those who trusted them. We see lifelong friends turning on each other. We see violence of a concentration rarely seen before, all propagated by the fact that there was a difference of a single identifier on a card. Again, we want to empathize with the victims but are confronted with a question: how? How can we understand what Tutsis in Rwanda went through, if at all? Can we truly relate to such a horrific event? I don’t know, but I think we have to try. We can practice with some methods, like the haikus we wrote. We can work to look deeper and deeper into words of others, but is this enough?
I think the humanities is about these last questions: how do we truly relate to and represent the experiences of others? First, we have to learn how to study people’s cultures and habits so we can see how they view the world. We have to consider their assumptions and their beliefs. Then, we have to try to put ourselves in their place, which gives us more information on their perspectives. Then, we can start to feel what they might feel, and now the cycle restarts. We study, relate, feel, and repeat. Then we get to a wall. We come to a point where only being that person can give us more than what we have, but we keep trying, because we care about how things should be, not just how they are, and we fight against the essential contestability because that fight is one which all of us face and therefore one that can create empathy between us all. This is the humanities: the struggle to know each other well and the ability to recognize we learn much more from our struggles together than we would from finding the answer alone.
. On Definitions, Dr. Robb
. Sapere Aude lecture, Dr. Robb
. Dr. Fache, Unit 3.1, 22 September.
. Sarah Bellamy, evening lecture, 13 October.
. Sapere Aude mini-lecture, Dr. Robb
. Dr. Robb, Unit 1.3, 25 August.
. Sapere Aude mini-lecture, Dr. Robb
. Dr. Green, Unit 2.6, 20 October.
. Dr. Tamura, Unit 4.4, 12 November