A Humanities Public Service Announcement (and some thoughts on the feedback it received)

[This is inspired  by a talk with a friend. As I did not have the occasion to elaborate on my point of view, I do it here, in the hope that in this way he might understand my point better and see that there was no harm intended in my remarks.

Furthermore, this post is dedicated to Alexandru Suceveanu, the first archaeologist I have ever learned from. RIP]

As part of a creative writing class, I had to make a PSA (Public Service Announcement) that had to address a relevant social issue. Naturally, I chose the crisis of the Humanities, the threats that are facing our disciplines. The reason why I am sharing it here is not that I find it particularly special, but because the feedback I got is extremely interesting and most relevant for the previous discussions on the value of the Humanities.

I have to say that this was a peer review work (anonymous), with grades on a scale from 1 to 5 (with several points to address). Among my reviewers, there was one from the Humanities area, and one graphic designer. The first one gave me grade 1 for the way this PSA uses text, image etc.to persuade, and an overall score of 2. The graphic designer, for the same things, gave me 2 scores of 4.  The grades are not relevant in themselves, but their motivations are. The humanities student argued “ I am so sorry about this, but your PSA did not show me any social concern until I read the accompanying text. The only thing that did make significant was highlighting Human in Humanities. The dictionary-like look by adding the pronunciation was a good start, but nothing that followed showed any social concern or the need to act on anything. Please help save them is a very general statement. I couldn’t see a course of action, and looking at this PSA would probably not think there was a state of urgency.

The graphic designer said “When I open the new window and see the big word that says HUMANITIES all in upercase get my think in this is a different kind PSA, is not about the poor childrens or the ecology, is about a knowlege, and only for that for that have more attention from me...In this point i think your assignment have a original way to say the thinks because is not a concern of organizations or ONGs, is a concern of the society so you can’t addressing in the same way.” [I kept the original format and spelling of the quotes]

In other words, the Humanities’ student failed to understand the message because, as he/she detailed further, he/she expected some stats or facts to back the statements up, as well as a clear cut call for action. The other one, used to think about the power of images and words, understood that Humanities are a world on their own, with their particular language codes, patterns of mind and creativity, with problems that need a very different course of action than a “Let’s get down to business” rhetoric.

In essence, the reason why I chose to elaborate on this example is mostly due to a problem with  which I am faced with on a daily basis: how can I make my (academic) message understood if my audience doesn’t share my values and point of view of the world? The opinions I got from these students are quite representative for the kind of feedback I usually get- some do not get it, and others, who already share my understanding, like it.

In a discussion I had with a friend recently, on exactly this topic, he told me that there might be employed some pragmatic tactics- to convince my audience that embracing something different might help them with X, Y, or Z (definite examples and ways of action). Even though I am sure this might be a smart option, wouldn’t this fail completely the whole purpose of a Humanistic endeavour? Wouldn’t this be the same as the girl/guy that reviewed my ad and even though (s)he was in the Humanities area, (s)he failed to understand why might there be a problem, especially when hard facts were not presented? I think that the strength of our disciplines is the ability to make one think differently about the world around, to question and to critically evaluate the appearance of things. In the end, the material result of a Humanities project (a text, an image, a collage etc.), its form, should reflect and embed the kind of message that it is desired. In Bruno Latour’s spirit, it should be a “meaning in the making” process, with the reader being taken on a “gymnastics of the spirit” journey.



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