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A man and woman at Swarthmore's Percepticon event

Question, Challenge, and Imagine

The ways in which we are influenced by art, literature, the classics, religion, philosophy, music, theater, film, and dance are layered by centuries of storytelling. Together, they build a global meeting place for new and creative ideas. At Swarthmore, innovation is key in teaching the humanities. Explore a sample of the vibrant—and critical—fabric of the humanities on campus.

The humanities inform our perceptions
—and sometimes reshape them

Perception is a mostly subconscious process, says Nadia Malaya ’22, of Moscow. “It’s important to be more aware of what affects it—and to, therefore, have a greater understanding how we perceive the world around us.”

Last October, Percepticon, an interactive, three-room installation created by students and faculty from the departments of film & media studies and theater, ran in Beardsley Hall. Think museum meets escape room—a chance to explore and engage a patchwork of audiovisuals designed to rattle your perspective and shatter the status quo.

The creative team offered “an unsettling immersive experience,” says Amy Kim ’19, an honors English literature major and film & media studies minor from San Diego. Sunka Simon, professor of German and film & media studies, wanted people to see it as a productive challenge. “Not just a brain spin,” says Simon, “but something they will really have to troubleshoot and think about.”

Supported by a Mellon Diversity grant and the Office of the President, the exhibit invited visitors to spend 20 minutes absorbing each of the interconnected rooms.

The material was not just a visual exercise, says Laila Swanson, assistant professor of theater. The exhibit traced back to a fall 2017 workshop on genre and mise-en-scène, held by Simon and Swanson; Logan Tiberi-Warner ’11, former administrative assistant for film & media studies; and Bob Rehak, associate professor of film & media studies. The workshop connected film & media studies with theater and “the analytical and hypercritical with the hands-on application that can often be lacking,” says Simon.

To that framework, Percepticon added the theme of perception and notions of gender, race, class, and cross-cultural thinking. The hope, says Kim, was that each installation would push participants to question and interrogate unconscious biases about race, gender, and sexuality.

The humanities reveal the world through language

Mensa Latina, or “Latin table,” came about from a desire among some Swarthmore students to “vivify our experience of Latin as a living language,” says Tobias Philip ’20, a Greek major from Brooklyn, N.Y.

The group started in 2016 to create an opportunity to practice the spoken Latin language, “engaging with it as did generations before and eschewing the 19th-century practice of sterile textbook learning,” says Philip.

“The ideas and discussions of the ancients are, rather, continuously present and formative to our world,” he says. “Beyond any mercenary objective of improving my grades, spoken Latin is one facet whereby I communicate with the ancient world and its ever-living reception.”

A number of independent student groups read Greek outside of class regularly; this spring, for example, Rebecca Rosenthal ’20 read Euripides’s Medea with fellow Swatties. But Rosenthal notes that Mensa Latina meetings are usually intentionally about less-lofty topics.

“We play board games, talk about pets, or work on our own translations of easy or colloquial English texts,” says the Greek and art history major. “Because the content is lighter fare than reading for coursework, but still utilizes and drills Latin, I find it a really useful way to study and improve without really studying.”

Rosenthal joined to boost her skills and appreciated the exposure to new grammatical concepts. “I also got to build friendships with my fellow classics students who were more advanced than me in Latin,” she says. “As someone who is looking for a career in language pedagogy, it has been great to work with my peers to examine new routes of learning and teaching the language.”

Studying the humanities today is important for the same reason it always has been: “for thinking through your own values, priorities, and what kind of life you want to live,” says Classics Chair Grace Ledbetter.

“The ancient Greek philosophers, for example, thought that the good life—and the happiest life—was a life of virtue,” says Ledbetter, a professor of classics and philosophy and the director of the Honors Program. “They provided us with the tools to investigate these ideas on our own. We still care about these debates; we all still care about leading the best possible life.

“Nothing could more relevant today, or at any other time in history, for that matter.”


The humanities create community conversations

Swarthmore’s dance students learn to situate the performing arts within the larger discourses of culture, power, and history.

The classes that Professor Pallabi Chakravorty teaches—such as Dance and Diaspora, Anthropology of Performance, and Arts in Action—are routinely cross-listed with sociology & anthropology, religion, gender & sexuality studies, music, and other departments and programs.

“These classes, among others, create a conversation between the performing arts and other subjects from humanities and the social sciences,” she says.

“The liberal arts approach combining practice and analytical rigor inspires our students to see the performing arts not merely as abstracted aesthetics, but connected to identity, politics, democracy, and globalization. It also teaches them how to write with clarity and develop their own argument. It teaches close readings and analytical thinking that is in the tradition of the humanities and social sciences.”

Build and collaborate

Students develop programs in and out of the classroom, including these Mellon Grant-funded projects from 2018–19: “Bridging Narrative Through Art and Humanities,” from Kaitelyn Pasillas ’20, Sonya Chen ’18, and Josie Hung ’19, offers a space for community members to engage in meaningful discourses on race and ethnic studies through the humanities and art. “Reimagining Black Narratives: Considering the Dominant Archetype of the African-American Male,” from Cameron Wiley ’19, Sharples cook Donny Thomas, and Louis Lainé ’16, challenges the stereotypes, beliefs, and other limiting implications that surround what it means to be a Black male.

The humanities teach us to see in new ways

The humanities stir our consciousness.

This spring, six Swarthmore students put on an absurdist play in the most absurd way possible: by staging it 24 consecutive times over the course of 24 hours. Shelby Billups ’20, Max Marckel ’19, Arijit Nerurkar ’19, Josie Ross ’21, John Wojciehowski ’19, and Emily Uhlmann ’19 performed Eugène Ionesco’s The Bald Soprano for the Theater Department’s acting capstone. The marathon concluded with a community serving of pancakes.

Swarthmore also bolstered its commitment to creativity and interdisciplinarity with the opening of the MakerSpace & Wood Shop, which became more widely used this year.

The space is open to anyone, for anything. “There’s almost no limit to what you can create here,” says manager Russell Prigodich. With nine student employees trained to monitor both the wood shop and digital fabrication lab, the space invites all students, faculty, staff, and alumni for about 60 hours each week. It provides machines like 3-D printers, a 3-D scanner, and a laser cutter—making it a big hit with engineering and sculpture students.

And it’s been a creative hub for the 16 students who presented their senior art exhibitions this spring, ranging in media from functional ceramics and light sculptures to paintings, prints, drawings, architectural studies, and collages.

The humanities build empathy

As Professor of English Literature Betsy Bolton listened to her students discuss Jane Austen’s work, she observed an increased skill in reasoning, inference, and critical analysis. The students noted, too, when a character, such as Austen’s Emma, fell short in their capacity for empathy, says Bolton. It’s important to see such practices evolving. “The humanities specialize in questioning, challenging, and articulating human values, as well as imagining new possibilities,” she says. “In a world of soaring atmospheric carbon, economic inequality, and social injustice, we need the humanities more than ever before.”

To appreciate one another

Exploring Religion

“The study of religion is vital to the humanities, and the arts and humanities are vital to the historical mission of the College,” says Professor and Chair of Religion Yvonne Chireau.

In one collective project and learning experience, students in Chireau’s African Religions in the Old and New Worlds and Religion and Food courses and Professor James Padilioni’s Decolonizing Religion course co-created traditional altars in multiple campus spaces, including McCabe Library, the Black Cultural Center, and the Intercultural Center.

“More so than any other field, the study of religion allows us to explore the greatest questions of the human experience in its many forms, through languages, histories, and cultures,” says Chireau. “It centers on how humans have made moral, spiritual, and intellectual sense of the world. It teaches profound empathy and fosters human flourishing, creativity, and equality among all beings.”

Understanding Art

In the Department of Art and Art History, students learn many ways of thinking about making art and about what art might be, says Logan Grider, associate professor of art and art coordinator. “As the level of understanding progresses, I move the focus away from observational painting and toward the student,” he says.

“I see my job as a teacher as one where I must first open eyes; second, get out of their way; and then help them get out of their own way in order to make the work they are meant to create,” Grider adds. “They learn to accept their personal artistic nature at this point, and typically this is also the stage where art happens. Art comes in many forms and can mean many things, but ultimately all art addresses a larger bond that links humanity.”

Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot Professor of Art Randall Exon says the studio art faculty at Swarthmore believe the study of art is the study of design.

"Art comes out of our classes, but our pedagogy centers on the elements and principles of design using a wide variety of media," he says. "Through close observation and slow looking, we teach our students how to use the visual world to discover and understand how they see what they see.  We get them to recognize the patterns and shapes that make up the world around us - the sizes and proportions, rhythms and repetitions, tonality and color of each shape.  We get them to see the shapes between objects as a means of better understanding the objects themselves.  The student begins to organize these shapes into patterns and compositions." 

By then, Exon says, the physical object they are making - the drawing, painting, photograph, clay piece, sculpture, etc. - becomes more obvious. 

"In the process the student must make choices," he says. "They understand quickly that they cannot reproduce all that they see. They must simplify and edit.  This is when the art can be discussed.  They choose what to leave in and what to take out.  One student may choose to capture, very accurately, the naturalism of the scene while another student decides to emphasize the more abstract, less identifiable, forms hiding in the same scene.  They are interpreting now and that is when we can measure their level of understanding and creativity. I believe the the most important, recent development in art and the larger campus community is the maker space. Although our department is very dependent on this new facility, the larger community has engaged with it as well. The workshops that have been conducted through out this past year in welding, wood-working, 3-D modeling, casting, and more have been hugely successful and over-subscribed. The maker space brings students from art, engineering, computer science, and just about any department on campus together in the same space to work on projects together and share expertise."  

The humanities foster belonging

Dorcas Tang ’19, a studio art major and Spanish and educational studies double minor from Malaysia, in April presented the photography exhibition Los Paisanos del Puerto: Living Narratives of the Chinese Diaspora Community in Puntarenas, Costa Rica.

While interning in Costa Rica, Tang realized she knew little about the Chinese diaspora in Latin America. A third-generation Chinese Malaysian, Tang felt strongly connected to the descendants of Chinese immigrants residing in Puntarenas. She embarked on a seven-week research trip, interviewing and photographing residents for what became the photography exhibition.

“Through my lens, I wanted to explore lesser-known diaspora narratives and question what it means to belong,” says Tang. “For the community I documented, it was important to them that their stories be visibilized. It was a way that the beauty of their stories, previously unheard, were finally being validated.”