Arts, Humanities, and the Research University: Do They Have a Future?

Share Button

The artists and thinkers who recently convened for a two-day conference at the Penn Museum to discuss “the Humanities and Arts in the Integrated Knowledge University” (HAIKU) probably weren’t expecting to reach any grand, definitive conclusions. But the questions and conversations they sparked turned out to be both stimulating and illuminating.

The conference—the kickoff event for this year’s Penn Art and Culture Initiative—featured a wildly varied crowd: from research-university professors and independent scholars to filmmakers and artists, writers and musicians, translators and museum specialists. Its freewheeling blend of musical recitals, tech-infused artisanship, and high-energy brainstorming sessions was certainly better suited for spinning out new questions. A sampling: Should universities bring pop music into the fold? How do creative-writing programs shape literature and literary history? What can neuroscience teach us about music—and vice-versa? How can we encourage students to accept failure as a productive component of learning?

Organized by Karen Beckman, the Elliot and Roslyn Jaffe Professor of Cinema and Modern Media in the art-history department, the conference offered a smorgasbord of panel discussions, performances, and roundtables. Some sessions emphasized Penn’s ongoing integrated-studies initiatives. “Designing for Creativity’s Critical Turn,” for example, focused on Yasmin Kafai’s project-based curricula in computational textiles—that is, extremely tiny computer circuits hand-sewn into craft projects by middle- and high-school students. Kafai, a professor at the Graduate School of Education who specializes in digital media and learning, develops models through which students learn by designing and coding digital games. Last year, together with Orkan Telhan, an assistant professor in the Department of Fine Arts, she developed StitchFest, a biannual hackathon (an intensive, multi-day computer-programming festival) where college students of all experience levels come together to design, code, and create wearable electronics.

“The Eventual,” created by Matt Neff GFA’05 and Orkan Telhan.

“The Eventual,” created by Matt Neff GFA’05 and Orkan Telhan.

Telhan, an interdisciplinary artist and researcher with a PhD in design and computation from MIT, pushes the boundaries between science, technology, and art. For a project called“The Eventual,” created with PennDesign lecturer Matt Neff GFA’05 for Gizmodo’s 2014 “Home of the Future” show, Telhan developed eerily glowing, bacteria-powered images that combine traditional silk-screening with synthetic biology. Kafai and Telhan both emphasized the importance of risk-taking, freedom for speculation, and failure in the learning process.

“Failure is productive,” proclaimed Kafai, who deliberately integrates bugs into programming problems in order to help students understand that their failed attempts are an important part of the process of “getting there.”

Not all panels had an interdisciplinary focus. Some explored fissures within the disciplines themselves. In “Being a Musician in the Digital Age,” Penn’s Jim Sykes, assistant professor of music, discussed the ambivalence in Western society toward music-making as genuine labor. Pop singer-turned-writer Alina Simone, who teaches writing at Yale, made a passionate case for universities to embrace and support pop music, alongside Western classical music and jazz, now that the economics of digital-music distribution have complicated pop artists’ efforts to sustain themselves. Also, she argued, if we teach poetry-writing in the English department, then why not also a class in songwriting?

The conference featured innovative live performances as well. The Daedalus Quartet, Penn’s resident professional chamber group, opened a discussion of “Neuroscience, History, and Social Dynamics in Beethoven’s Great Fugue” with a gorgeously nuanced rendition of the fugue in question. Members of the ensemble also served as moderators for a discussion among three Penn professors with very different areas of expertise: neuroscientist Mike Kaplan Gr’01; Sykes, a former rock drummer who now investigates Tamil Hindu ritual music in post-tsunami Sri Lanka; and Naomi Waltham-Smith, an assistant professor of music whose interests lie in “the intersection between music analysis and recent Continental philosophy,” and who recently began a project on urban street sound.

Before the panelists launched into their prepared statements, first violinist Min-Young Kim took a moment to define and contextualize the long-problematic Great Fugue for the mixed crowd, which included everyone from PhD musicologists who have studied the piece their whole career to classical-music neophytes for whom this performance was a first encounter. After a brief explanation of the fugue’s history and structural abnormalities—Beethoven originally wrote it as the last movement for his String Quartet No. 13, but it was rejected by his publisher and republished as a single-movement work and is now considered one of the most enigmatic works in classical music—Kim got the entire audience to sing the difficult intervals of the fugue’s first subject in unison on the syllable la. The audience responded with gusto and accuracy, engaged now physically as well as mentally, as the panel discussion commenced. (At this, art-history grad student Roksana Filipowska tweeted: #HAIKUconference and the #DaedalusQuartet are amazing … can every class at Penn have a resident musician or two?)

“Music is about expectations, and Beethoven’s Great Fugue subverts and defies our expectations,” said Kaplan, who teaches in Penn’s biological basis of behavior program. “There’s a sweet spot for how predictable we want our music to be. Too predictable and we’re bored; too unpredictable and we’re lost. This brings us to the biological heart of music: if you can make good predictions, you will survive.”

Waltham-Smith, who identified herself as “the resident theorist,” suggested that the Great Fugue, one of Beethoven’s last works, repositions the composer away from Romanticism and back to the Baroque. “The sonata form is oriented towards endpoints,” she said. Not so the fugue, which subverts listener expectations at every turn. “The classical style is a machine for producing sameness; the Baroque is a machine for producing difference.”

Perhaps the most telling observation came from Sykes, who cheerfully admitted to knowing little of Beethoven’s work. As a result, he said, “the fugue actually doesn’t sound jarring to my ears at all, because I come at it from a different background, as a rock drummer with a background in Eastern music.” The panel thus traced an arc from one interdisciplinary perspective—the neuroscientist’s take on the music’s structure—to a disciplinary, if startling, observation that late Beethoven could be reframed as belonging to the Baroque, to the perception of a semi-outsider from a different faction of the discipline.

As the arts and humanities and even the pure sciences lose ground to STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) disciplines and business, conversations about their place in the universities of the future carry extra urgency.

“I hope that people left the conference with some sense of the need for those of us who care about the arts and humanities to support each other, as well as the high stakes of the conversation and the unique offerings of the liberal arts and science education currently available in the US,” said Beckman. “That, and the rich pleasure and deep provocation to thought that the various arts contribute to our lives.”

—Karen Rile C’80

Share Button

    Leave a Reply