Italy Journal: The Humanities in an International Context

IMG_4837I’m in Italy for the semester, teaching at the Venice International University. I’m about halfway through my time here, and I thought (belatedly) I’d start writing periodic posts about everything I’m observing and reflecting.

One of the courses I’m teaching is entitled “The Artful Things of Climate Change.” It examines the role of culture in our understanding of a phenomenon that is at once everywhere and nowhere in particular. One of my working arguments for the class is that climate change is an important frame for understanding our contemporary world but also such a large frame it’s difficult to imagine how to apply to experiences at the everyday level. (This is part of a larger research project I’m also working on.)

The students in the class are from China, Japan, Korea, Switzerland, Italy, and the US. The majority are from the same school in Beijing, and are all environmental engineering majors.  The other students are primarily also in environmental studies.  Teaching such a diverse group of students who are from a primarily science background has made me reflect more self-consciously and explicitly about what the differences are between the sciences and the humanities. My approach to teaching this course seems at once to baffle and delight my students (well, at least most of them according to a midterm evaluation I had them fill out).

So I made an effort to be explicit about these differences. As opposed to a science class that can be focused on communicating a precise understanding about what is known about a particular subject, I said, we in the humanities are focused on opening up discussion in creative ways. We are, I said, in some ways more interested in the questions we ask than the answers we have for them.

This reminded me of something I had said before, to another class, about how science tends to be focused on accuracy while the humanities (because we can’t always determine the accuracy of what we are talking about) tends to be focused on precision. This time around, I’ve come to think that is unnecessarily reductive. Of course we in the humanities work with a strong idea of what accuracy means in our field.  And of course the sciences care as much about precision as accuracy. Indeed, the mistake in my thinking here may be in dividing up precision and accuracy so neatly, when they are actually quite overlapping ideas.

So what’s different between the humanities and sciences? As I reflect more on what I said to my students and what I have said in the past, I realize I don’t know exactly. The boundaries between to the two are becoming in my mind more blurry, and in the international context I find myself in, where I can’t assume as much as I might be able to in the US, I’m wonder if perhaps we make too much about these boundaries. What I do know is that what I care most about in my classes is both communicating what we already know about a subject and modeling for students the process of engaging a subject of intellectual inquiry. I am both imparting knowledge to them and at the same time, and perhaps just as importantly and certainly just as excitingly, learning alongside them.