Themes, Connections, and Getting the Most out of a Humanities Class

I don't think I ever was a good student.

Themes, Connections, and Getting the Most out of a Humanities Class

To the reader: this sort of thing is always on my mind. How to get the most out of a humanities class? More precisely: let's say the last book you read was a few years ago, and is completely irrelevant to what you want to do in life. What do you do to make a class centered on art, reading, and discussion worthwhile? How is that kind of thing supposed to work, anyway?

A confession: I couldn't have told you for years. Not in my undergraduate studies, not for most of graduate school.

I don't think I ever was a good student.

Maybe one who tried too hard. Maybe a nerd too focused on the classroom, its procedures, its drama.

But a good student? Someone who consistently reads, seeks out resources, takes notes? I know I acted like one here and there, but I didn't make being one a consistent habit.

I don't think I realized until graduate school why this mattered. And graduate school is a beast of its own. It's safest to say "I began to realize why being a good student mattered then," because there were plenty of people with nice, tidy habits whom I couldn't stand. Making lots of scribbles and highlighting passages in a text of Aristotle doesn't mean you understand it.

To that end, I remember a couple in grad school who had people over for tea, played Mozart operas as background music, and were eager to discuss whether Augustine was the originator of Existentialism or what Newton's pursuit of a philosophers' stone meant. They were very good students. I wanted to vomit. I signed up for extra schooling because I wanted to see if I could say anything original, not join a Jane Austen cosplay.


The desire to be original, of course, is a trap. The hopeless nerds listening to opera in order to advance their lame fandom had something right. It really does help to have a ton of notes and highlighted sentences and those Post-It bookmarks in different colors. You can't really be original by declaring yourself punk, a rebel, or self-made.

You need a way of tracking what you yourself do. You need to track your own engagement.

This is where fans of a class can go astray. They've got all the materials assembled... for the goal of getting the grade. Once the grade is had, it's all over.

I think that's why I started waking up to how this was supposed to work in grad school. There, a small voice is more insistent: "can you make this a paper other people learn from?" Or "can you get a better question than the questions the class has been asking?"


I was lucky. While writing my dissertation, I took a few community college classes to see if there was a certificate I wanted. I saw a very different approach to teaching and learning by making myself a student when I didn't have to be one.

The classes I enrolled in featured non-stop talking. Students at this specific community college were eager to introduce themselves and their point of view. I heard many stories about survival and the nightmare it could be. Getting addicted to the things meant to break addiction; dealing with family members whose default reaction is panic; making an author or artist's work personal, as if life depended on it. I don't think I realized until then how much straight lecture courses lacked. How terrible it was to be told everything.

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Good humanities classes have too much to do. They can't walk you through all of Moby Dick line-by-line, saying exactly why each word is important. That kind of thing isn't actually teaching, anyway. The reason why good teachers do this at times is to show how a theme or set of thoughts emerges. To show that a number of ideas have a heritage, a bunch of related discussions, and a whole host of implications. To show that we take for granted the contents of our own mind, what we think truth.

They have one purpose: modeling the potential of thinking and expression.


Nowadays, I use class as less of a lecture and more of a workshop.

My job is to find what "clicks," what resonates and develops. Notes to get an outline, a general idea of what we're doing, help. But what's most important are themes and connections. You need themes, i.e. ideas and questions which define disparate works, such as "Is there an art of leadership?" or "What does it truly mean to have faith?" If you don't identify themes, it's near impossible to make connections. Without making connections, it can sometimes feel our brains are a bad version of Wikipedia. It is possible, for example, to go well beyond describing the plot of a Batman comic. You can talk about Batman as a specifically American, capitalist set of stories, spinning a pro-police narrative, in the context of the prosecution of the War on Terror and America's incarceration rate. A good class on political philosophy would put The Long Halloween side by side with Angela Davis' Are Prisons Obsolete? This isn't to say I dislike Batman, not in the least. (Issue 129 of the Failsafe storyline is out November 1st.) Nor to say that my political leanings are the end of the discussion.

Some will say such connections are trivial. Why aren't you learning Shakespeare? Or furthering fusion power? But I like knowing what's going on in my own brain. Conversation can enable that, but it's a higher sort of conversation. One not judged by grand-sounding things, but in its conduct, establishing one link at a time.