Pitt Redefines the Humanities to Encompass Contemporary Global Culture
With unprecedented advances in digital technology, social media, and global travel, the world stage is more accessible than ever ... to everyone. A financial scandal in London distresses international stock markets within minutes. The jailing of a Chinese dissident creates a global celebrity overnight for the cause of human rights. An outbreak of bird flu in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta quickly generates anxiety in major cities worldwide. The melting of glaciers in Greenland boosts sea levels on faraway continents.
The concept of a global, intricately networked consciousness is widely accepted in areas such as economics, political science, public health, and climatology. But a similar evolution is also taking place in a not-so-expected area—the humanities. The University of Pittsburgh is at the forefront of exploring a new vision for the study and teaching of the humanities. It’s a vision that encompasses a global, multilayered perspective across time, place, and cultures.
The Wonders of Human Exchange
In 1300, when The Travels of Marco Polo was written, by hand, by an Italian author, it was originally titled A Description of the World, recounting the adventures of Venice’s Marco Polo and his brothers in Asia, Persia, China, and Indonesia. When it first appeared, it became popular among those who could read and had access to the manuscript. Today, seven centuries later, it is referred to by Barnes & Noble as the “all-time worldwide best seller” and is now available on digital e-readers like Kindle and Nook.
A lot has changed, but essential human issues remain dynamic. Would those in the cultures visited by Marco Polo agree with the European perspective presented in The Travels of Marco Polo? How did politics and socioeconomics affect the lives of those he encountered? What was the status of women in these cultures? Was there violence, plague, the concept of human trafficking? Who was in power and who was excluded?
The humanities offer a lens through which to understand and grapple with the entire range of human experience as expressed through disciplines such as art and architecture, language, literature, cinema, music, and philosophy—and the ways they intersect with all of the other crosscurrents of human experience everywhere.
Those at the University of Pittsburgh who are engaged in an understanding of the humanities offer transformative answers about the nature and substance of our contemporary world, and their approach has everything to do with the enriching nature of human exchange through time.
Global Studies: Exploring Human Terrain
The Global Studies Center at Pitt, led by the distinguished film and Russian-culture scholar Nancy Condee, stimulates interdisciplinary, cross-cultural exchanges to foster and advance global competence among faculty, students, and the community at large. The center—a joint venture of the University Center for International Studies and the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs—brings together the University’s many international resources to enrich academic research, education, and scholarship around global themes. Pitt’s Global Studies program is one of only 11 nationally recognized resource centers in international studies, as designated by the U.S. Department of Education.
Unlike many such enterprises at other universities and institutions, Pitt’s Global Studies Center actively involves the humanities rather than principally the social sciences and other nonhumanities disciplines. Typically, says Condee, when people think of Global Studies, they think of economics, political science, international relations, and global health. But it’s rare, she notes, for a subject like the global circulation of literature to be anywhere near the top of that list, even though that’s rich scholarly terrain.
Condee, who is a professor and director of graduate studies in the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures, is working through the Global Studies Center to forge a common language of scholarship that will be meaningful across disciplines, including those in the humanities.
“The humanities thrive on ambiguity,” says Condee, “whereas the natural and the social sciences often struggle to constrain ambiguity. Much of culture is precisely worthy of our attention because it’s ambiguous, because it manages somehow to stir the waters in creative ways.”
In her previous role as director of Cultural Studies at Pitt, she routinely looked for ways to connect people without the typical boundaries set by academic specialization and depth of knowledge in a discipline—and this philosophy now extends to the Global Studies Center.
For instance, says Condee, a young social worker from one of the poorest political enclaves of the world—Lesotho, South Africa—is at the University of Pittsburgh for the fall semester on the Carl Malmberg Fellowship in Global Studies. The social worker, Lindiwe Seotsanyana, is spending a semester here in a series of internships—involving HIV/AIDS, geriatrics, migrant refugees, troubled youth—in partnership with Pittsburgh’s Jewish Healthcare Foundation. As the 2012 Malmberg Fellow, she is also participating in Public Health courses and is engaging with the Departments of English and Africana Studies through faculty who teach Swahili and the cultures of East Africa.
“Suddenly there’s common ground,” says Condee. “There’s a potential set of common interests.” And that’s the commitment of Pitt’s Global Studies—to create connections, to bring people and avenues of scholarship together, toward new levels of global connection and synthesis. “If we could speak about the existence of global consciousness, it is a state of mind that encourages us to connect the dots in unaccustomed ways,” says Condee.
Another intriguing example of the Global Studies Center’s involvement with the humanities, education, and scholarship comes through the study-abroad venture PittMap or Multi-region Academic Program. Each spring semester, PittMap offers a globally comparative and academically rigorous study abroad experience involving three countries, each on a different continent, with students taking courses taught by Pitt faculty. Each trip varies in theme and sites.
In 2010, the theme was “State Memory, Private Memory,” which looked at the way in which the state, or national government, remembers things differently from the way private citizens remember things, particularly in times of political crisis.
In Buenos Aires, Argentina, how do state memories differ from the memories of family members who lost loved ones, the Disappeared, during the Dirty War of the regime’s brutal oppression and murder of citizens? In Cape Town, South Africa, how does the state’s understanding of apartheid differ from those of the citizens who were oppressed during its imposition? In Beijing, China, how have state memory and private memory diverged around issues of the Cultural Revolution or Tiananmen Square or the government’s human rights policies?
During their PittMap journey, the students and faculty together viewed films, they read literature and poetry, they explored personal diaries, yet they also had to consider issues of political science, psychology, and economics. The students had to synthesize these ideas through cogent writing and discussions, just as would happen during any semester of academic work.
“It’s an example of collegial collaboration that draws on our strengths, puts us in dialogue with each other, and includes a global dimension of contemporaneity that nevertheless demands of us historical depth,” says Condee. “It answers the quest for relevance in the humanities in a meaningful way.”
But, says Condee, integrating these ideas while traveling and living on three different continents is very different from learning them while sitting in a campus classroom in Pittsburgh. “What would a global configuration of my field be, or what are the global implications of the work that I do?” she asks. “You begin to speculate about such questions in ways that, for the younger generation, will stand them in good stead in 21st-century literacy about globalization.”
Tapping into this brainwave is also the point of a new series of 90-minute faculty gatherings hosted by the Global Studies Center on topics that have a global range for people in many different disciplines. One of the first such events focused on the indigenousness of nomadic and migrant people; the participants were drawn from departments in the history of art and architecture, music, Africana studies, sociology, anthropology, and political science. In these kinds of settings, says Condee, you’re going to get people from the Ford Institute for Human Security talking to people from the Department of Music. “That doesn’t happen typically,” she adds, and the hope is that these people will talk some more, after the event, and begin thinking about ways to collaborate.
One of the significant ways that the Global Studies Center builds on this foundation at Pitt is to extend these ideas and experiences and explorations through collaboration with two other Pitt centers, the World History Center and the Humanities Center.
“We look to build in a deep historical base through the World History Center that also allows us to value the work of the humanities differently,” says Condee. “Normally, Global Studies would be heavily ‘present tense.’ Our interaction with the World History Center produces a research environment in which the presentism in much of global studies interacts with a newly expanded humanities, beyond a localized history of literature or art or music.”
The synergistic work of the Global Studies Center, the World History Center, and the Humanities Center offers an expansive way of looking at global connections through time, using a contemporary lens. “That is very productive for us,” says Condee, “and marks us as different from Global Studies centers elsewhere in the United States. It’s a very good collaboration.”
World History Center: Here, There, and Everywhere
Pitt’s World History Center draws on the University’s long and celebrated tradition of international and interdisciplinary studies to address this era’s significant need for global historical analysis. The center—directed by Patrick Manning, Pitt’s Andrew W. Mellon Professor of History—encourages worldwide collaboration in analysis of the global past, also looking for patterns and themes that remain vitally relevant to the 21st century.
The discipline of history at Pitt falls into the category of social sciences. However, it’s clear that there are few boundaries here when it comes to examining the humanities in relation to history. Indeed, Manning is a historian with a focus on Africa, but his research inevitably leads to intersections with issues involving many disciplines. “I’m more a social scientist by training and inclination,” says Manning. “On the other hand, I’m a globalist, so I’m interested in connections among places and issues. I have no interest in losing connection with the humanities.”
Among his many publications, his book The African Diaspora: A History through Culture (Columbia University Press, 2009) deals with the great migration of African peoples out of the continent over time and how those movements have transplanted and influenced cultures worldwide. The issues raised through such study include enslavement, population movement, and a full range of issues in the African experience both at home on the African continent and abroad. The book begins in the 6th century but also looks at parallels and interactions in the 17th, 19th, and 20th centuries. What influences has the African diaspora had, for instance, on American culture through the contributions of African-Americans?
“I tell stories about politics and political exclusion and civil rights and decolonization and so forth. What’s interesting to me is to be able to tell larger stories about this,” says Manning, whose stories include aspects of art and literature and other humanities while encompassing regions such as the Middle East, North Africa, Europe, and India, where Black heritage carries on.
Last year, the World History Center cohosted, with several other Pittsburgh groups, the 6th International Conference of the Association for the Study of the Worldwide African Diaspora (ASWAD). The conference—titled “African Liberation and Black Power: The Challenges of Diasporic Encounters across Time, Space, and Imagination”—brought well-known scholars from a variety of disciplines to campus for discussion and collaborative exchange on this multilayered topic. Clearly, the humanities were a vital aspect of this cross-disciplinary conversation.
In addition, Manning is searching for ways to help graduate students feel more comfortable crossing disciplines. In his course Interdisciplinary Methodology, he brings together graduate students from different disciplines, including those in the humanities, to explore other scholars’ areas of interest. It’s a course that’s geared to help students move beyond their own specific academic terrain and begin to feel comfortable engaging with colleagues who have scholarly interests in many other fields.
Not surprisingly, the World History Center actively collaborates with those in the humanities, including Pitt’s Terry Smith in the history of art and architecture department; Jonathan Arac, who leads the University’s Humanities Center; and Nancy Condee, who leads the Global Studies Center.
“In global terms,” says Manning, “we’re talking now about big changes involving governments, economics, society, even individual psychology. Shouldn’t we use the knowledge that we have about the global past to see whether there are some recurring patterns? Shouldn’t we look at the interplay among all of these different levels?”
One particular aspect of the World History Center’s work offers broad potential for innovation in these collaborations. The center’s World-Historical Dataverse Project is creating a global data resource—through collaborations with other universities internationally—that will offer consistent historical data for all regions of the world over the past several centuries, enabling global studies over time from any number of perspectives or disciplines.
“We’re trying to solve global problems,” says Manning, “and we need global information.” Largely, adds Manning, what’s typical and available right now is national information. Often, too, traditional data sets are confined within disciplines or very specific ranges of knowledge for depth, not breadth.
The Dataverse Project aims to mine large data sets, gathered internationally, as a means to find patterns and themes that are global in scale. One might suggest, says Manning, that it’s another way of revealing humanities’ connections to the world in ways that may not yet be obvious.
Humanities Center: Intriguing Dialogue, Creative Scholarship
The reach of Pitt’s Humanities Center goes far beyond alliances with history. “We create a culture of active intellectual exchange across a range of different departments and disciplines,” says Jonathan Arac, Pitt’s Andrew W. Mellon Professor of English and founding director of the University’s Humanities Center. The center fosters advanced research in the humanities and cultivates collaborative study, programming, and teaching.
A key feature of the center is the award of fellowships to distinguished global scholars in the humanities from a broad range of disciplines. The fellows spend time here, in residence, conducting research and sharing their insights through faculty seminars and, sometimes, teaching of graduate students. There’s a yearlong Early-Career Fellowship, in which the center selects a fellow from a substantial number of capable applicants from around the nation and the world. There’s also a Senior Visiting Fellow who typically arrives for one semester and is someone very highly regarded for innovative research and scholarship.
“One of the things I can say with perfectly appropriate local pride is that when we bring these various distinguished scholars to Pittsburgh for the conversations we invite them to have with us, they’re really impressed,” says Arac.
Fellowships are also offered to Pitt faculty, allowing time for more intensive research and writing, apart from teaching duties. In addition, the center provides grants aimed at fostering research projects that bring together faculty from different departments and institutions for collaborations that enrich campus intellectual activity and lead to specific scholarly results. Among the many other collaborative activities of the Humanities Center is a weeklong faculty seminar each spring in which an exceptional scholar is invited to Pitt for discussion of research that integrates thinking across disciplines.
“It dynamizes Pitt’s intellectual resources by bringing our faculty into active conversation with each other and with others beyond the University,” says Arac. Typically, as many as 10 different departments are represented at these discussions, and it also has been highly productive for graduate students in the humanities. “While it can be difficult for faculty to cross departmental lines, it’s much harder for graduate students to do so.” The center’s mission is to help diminish some of those boundaries, at least in terms of promoting academic discussions and scholarship that cross borders and push limits.
Toward this end, the Humanities Center also sponsors a weekly Colloquia Series during regular semesters on topics such as the politics of children’s literature, Europeanization and the migrant debates, transnational melancholia, and humanities and inhumanities. In addition, the center organizes or supports at least five larger conferences each year that expand this panoramic vista of cross-disciplinary exchange. Some examples, each organized by faculty from different disciplines, include: Anglophone Asian Novels, 1945 to the Present, which attracted scholars interested in China, Hong Kong, India, and Singapore; The Nexus of Literature, Politics, and the French Nation in the Medieval and Early Modern Periods; and Queloides/Keloids/Scars: The New Afro-Cuban Cultural Movement, which offered an exhibition and discussion of related, controversial artworks.
All of these currents of thought and scholarship are also reflected in the periodical boundary 2, an international journal of literature and culture, edited by Pitt Distinguished Professor of English Paul Bové, who cultivates ties with the Humanities Center. An annual editorial meeting on campus brings together up to 30 scholars from 10 or more disciplines internationally. The most recent issue of boundary 2 offered a collection of documents from the 2011 Tunisian Revolution, gathered and largely translated by Ronald Judy, fluent in Arabic, in Pitt’s English department.
“It has always been possible to have a conversation across disciplines at Pitt,” says Arac, “but the Humanities Center is a place designed to make that possible. It’s a place that invites people to come here, physically, and exchange ideas. And that is very crucial.”
Art, Architecture, Aftermath, All of It
Terry Smith, a leading global thinker on art and culture, is well versed in ways of seeing. He is widely known for his innovative ideas about the world in which we live. He also is Pitt’s Andrew W. Mellon Professor of Contemporary Art History and Theory in the University’s Department of History of Art and Architecture. But Smith’s views of art history are not encased in the past. In fact, they live in the present yet encompass the future and the past. This reflects the fact that the study of art and architecture at Pitt has few limits or boundaries.
Works of art, says Smith, are full of visual information that connects to all sorts of other things. “They’re the most complex and reflective forms of visual information you’ll ever get,” he says. The whole perspective, he explains, is not just about the contemporary, but it has become much more global and much more to do with art from all over the world and how it connects with us all.
By the end of World War II, says Smith, many of the great value systems had either betrayed people and disillusioned them or had simply disappeared. Now, he says, the situation is even more complex because there is a sense of building an individual self, but in the context of very large, competing narratives, ideologies, or sets of beliefs, many of which are incompatible with each other, but all claiming to be universal. “Artists are constantly making artworks about the nuances of these relationships,” he says.
And sometimes a shift occurs that’s far beyond nuance.
Among Smith’s many publications is the book The Architecture of Aftermath (University of Chicago Press, 2006), which was written in the wake of 9/11—a day that changed not only Smith’s worldview but also the perceptions of many others globally. “The implosion of the World Trade Center towers had a huge effect on my thinking,” says Smith. “Architecture itself evaporated. The implosion demonstrated that even the most enduring images from our collective identity can disappear instantly.”
Today, an implosion in one place may well have effects in many other parts of the world. But this also involves different perspectives, different ways of being in time at the same time. Contemporaneity, says Smith, is thinking about all of these things in terms of how they move and change through time.
“These are the very large questions that artists and architects deal with,” says Smith. “You can’t just talk about artworks as things that are in museums or on the wall or quiet little objects over in the corner.” To fully understand art and architecture, says Smith, one must understand how it has agency, how it has energy and it changes things, how it connects to contemporaneity through time, and how it relates to things like ritual behavior. “These are all qualities that art has had forever,” says Smith. “These are the reasons why art is important in the world.”
It’s not surprising, then, that Pitt’s Department of History of Art and Architecture is structured to encompass such big ideas, placing it at the forefront of contemporary art departments worldwide. The department is organized to ensure that faculty and graduate research occurs in a highly collaborative and interdisciplinary environment, related to six overarching “constellation” visual knowledge, agency, identity, mobility/exchange, contemporaneity, and environment. The development of this innovative approach was led by Professor Kirk Savage. As envisioned and implemented by the department, these constellations don’t replace the depth of specialized knowledge in individual disciplines but rather connect them in more imaginative ways. Through these connections, innovation is stimulated and new knowledge is discovered.
According to Smith, most art history departments are committed to teaching the history of artifacts as they become works of art from the most ancient time to the present in as much of the world as possible. But, says Smith, if art has any of the qualities suggested in the department’s six constellations, it’s no longer adequate to do things only this way.
The study of art and architecture, says Smith, ought to reflect a rich sense of history and change through time and a deep sense of what art can do. It should, he says, “take on those qualities that art and art history have and then connect them with all of the qualities of the present and the ways in which art and film and visual imagination are profoundly relevant to the world in which we live.”
As a graduate student at Columbia University, with an undergraduate degree in literature from City University of New York, Lucy Fischer was increasingly drawn to the visual image during the heyday of the New Wave film movement. She was reading widely but was also enticed by the films of Jean-Luc Godard, Francois Truffaut, and many other directors working beyond U.S. shores. She spent hundreds of hours watching moving images in the dark of Manhattan cinema theaters and many more hours discussing film with friends and colleagues. Eventually, after teaching at a New York City high school, she turned her passion for film viewing into a career as a film scholar, beginning with a doctoral degree in cinema studies from New York University.
Today, as a Distinguished Professor of English and Film at Pitt, Fischer guides graduate students through a maze of issues related to film history, theory, and criticism. She also works to bring the complexly varied perspectives of films into the lives of undergraduates, graduate students, and the Pittsburgh community.
“Film can be extremely useful in making cultural issues more concrete,” says Fischer. And it’s particularly valuable, she adds, for making such points in short-term versus long-term study. A film, for instance, can vividly express human experiences involving poverty, migration, social injustice, loneliness, the quest for self.
At Pitt, those issues are inextricably intertwined with global issues, just as cinema—arguably the first global modern art—has been since its beginnings in 1895, when the Lumière brothers projected the first moving images for a paying audience in Paris. One year later, these same images had been projected in many countries around the world.
Now, in an environment where many film studies programs look primarily at Hollywood, the University of Pittsburgh is a premier university for research and teaching across the range of cinema, experimental to popular, and in original languages. In fact, a course in world cinema for Pitt undergraduates who specialize in film studies has been a requirement since 1980, and in 2011 Pitt instituted a formal PhD degree in Film Studies with a strong international focus.
Pitt is unrivalled in its global cinematic reach, with cinema taught by faculty who have immersed themselves in the film cultures of many countries and regions: Mexico and Latin America, Brazil, Britain, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, Russia, Spain, France, Italy, Germany, China, Japan, India, and much of Africa.
“The global theme is a continuation of what has long been an international focus of the University and of film studies here,” says Fischer, who emphasizes the highly interdisciplinary expertise of film-studies faculty. “The extent of our international global profile is unusual,” she says. Faculty aren’t appointed to the Film Studies Program at Pitt, but rather to individual departments within the humanities. This, however, enables the Film Studies Program to draw upon a particularly rich range of cultural knowledge and scholarship in film.
“In terms of global connections,” says Fischer, “these faculty are fluent in the languages of their disciplines, and most of them have spent time living in the cultures in which they’ve been hired to teach the language, cinema, or literature.” Drawing from this milieu of expertise, the Film Studies Program offers a number of courses that develop an understanding of human experience from multiple, global perspectives.
Each year, Pitt’s International Film Series draws students, faculty, and the public together with local ethnic communities to digest and discuss a variety of films from diverse nations, regions, and points of view. Often, the films raise transnational issues involving migration, human trafficking, discrimination, sexual identity, and cultural conflict. There’s a separate Russian Film Symposium and an Israeli film festival each year, as well. And sometimes graduate seminars are run in conjunction with a film series.
In 2010 the Film Studies Program sponsored an international conference titled “Film and the End of Empire,” organized by Pitt’s Colin MacCabe, a Distinguished Professor of English and Film. This drew to campus scholars who not only studied British film but also Indian, African, and Sri Lankan film—from any of those places that were once part of the British Empire. MacCabe, a former head of research and education at the British Film Institute, has recently been involved in a huge project to annotate, catalog, and digitize more than 6,000 films around the theme “Colonial Film: Moving Images of the British Empire.” The completed archival project includes an Internet portal and online catalog, accessible widely to a global academic community (www.colonialfilm.org.uk).
While a focus on international film has always been the case at the University of Pittsburgh, study and discussion in recent decades has been influenced by the larger trends of postcolonialism, multiculturalism, race studies, and the inclusion of emerging nations and regions, not primarily developed nations. All of this, of course, has been influenced by the pervasiveness of new technologies, especially the World Wide Web.
“Different technological devices suddenly make the world smaller, right?,” says Fischer. She cites the evolution of new media from VHS, to DVD, to On Demand digital viewing on TVs, computers, and smart phones. Now, Bollywood films are available everywhere. Now, people can go to Ebay France and purchase a French film that hasn’t been distributed in the United States. Now, there are tribute sites on YouTube to little-known cult actresses. “How can we be unaware of these influences?” asks Fischer, who is the author of nine books and many other publications about film. “We can’t be unaware.”
Fischer, who travels frequently to lecture internationally, is also involved in a venture to expand opportunities for Pitt students studying abroad in London, where she is working to augment the academic film-studies component and establish more internships in the film industry. A lot of students who have higher aspirations feel that it’s a plus on their résumés and as job applicants to have experience with other cultures, she notes.
Pitt’s Film Studies Program is offering that opportunity not only on campus, but also beyond. Like most other humanities disciplines here, the program has links to various other University centers that stimulate thought, discussion, and research about human experience and exchange through time.
One upcoming project in progress, still in its infancy, is the Global Cinema Project, in collaboration with Pitt’s Global Studies Center. The venture will bring together the annual film programming of several different international communities in Pittsburgh and support and promote them as they occur throughout the year. The project may also approach organizations like Amnesty International or groups like the GLBT community to participate in wider discussions that examine global themes. It’s another way for film studies, as part of the humanities, to express its many connections and intersections with the world at large.
Music, an Expression of Culture
It’s like the opening of a door, says Professor Andrew Weintraub about how his undergraduate students respond to a fuller understanding of music. He is an ethnomusicologist, a humanities scholar who uses the tools of social science to understand the nature and cultures of music.
As an undergraduate student, he became intrigued by Indonesian gamelan music, which originated on the island of Java. The music blends the sounds of gongs, chimes, xylophone, and drums in what has been described as haunting, chant-like melodies. “I wanted to know a lot about music, and it was my own curiosity that drove my explorations,” says Weintraub. He was so intrigued that, as a college student majoring in music, he visited Indonesia for the first time and fell in love with the archipelago nation, which encompasses more than 300 different ethnic groups and about 700 distinct languages. Since then he has lived and studied in Indonesia for more than six years, becoming a well-known scholar of the region’s music and cultures.
In addition to gamelan, his research interests include Sundanese performing arts, Wayang puppet theater, the music of Southeast Asia, popular music across cultures, and music and cultural theory. Currently, he is involved in explorations of the social relations of power and music, music and the formation of nation-states, and gender and popular music.
Weintraub, a Pitt professor of music and acting chair of the music department, shares his profound understanding of music and culture with both undergraduate and graduate students. He even directs the Gamelan Ensemble, in which students from across the University learn and perform traditional gamelan music; part of the educational experience is that students must imagine and empathize with a Sundanese musician from Indonesia. “They have to take off their shoes to play the music, and they have to move their bodies in a different way. It’s all about embodying a different culture,” says Weintraub.
Underlying the whole process, he explains, is the concept that students should be involved in thinking about the world not just as musicians or composers or scholars, but as human beings. “They should be aware of the world, and what’s going on, and their place in the world, and music helps teach us that,” says Weintraub.
Pitt’s Department of Music focuses on four areas: ethnomusicology, historical musicology, jazz studies, and composition and theory. Students at both the undergraduate and graduate levels get exposure to all of these areas. And, in addition to the more traditional opportunities to study and perform music—in the University Orchestra or various choral groups—students also may become involved in ensembles, like the University’s Gamelan and Pitt Jazz ensembles. The Department of Music at Pitt also offers courses in which students learn to play and perform the music of Africa and of Eastern Europe.
The department has a long history of immersion in the music of other cultures. Professor Nathan Davis, an ethnomusicologist, jazz musician, and scholar, began exploring the relationship between American jazz and African music four decades ago. Using this example of jazz as an African American art form, Weintraub says one can’t just look at the music itself but also must consider who created the music, the conditions of their lives, where they came from, what kinds of problems or what kinds of solutions they created for themselves in various environments, and how that’s reflected in music and expression. “Those are the kinds of issues that are presented in courses and in our research agendas,” says Weintraub. “You have to collaborate with people in other fields and read the work in those fields to understand how to deal with those issues.”
Ethnomusicologists like Weintraub and other music faculty conduct fieldwork. They immerse themselves in other cultures; they participate, they observe, they interview the people involved, they analyze and write about their experiences. It doesn’t only involve music on the page or in performance; it also involves the exploration of literature, theater, art, history, anthropology, political science, sociology, psychology, and so on.
One of Weintraub’s recent books, for example, explored the popular culture of Islam—TV shows and other media, fashion and style, music, and more. Titled, Islam and Popular Culture in Indonesia and Malaysia (Routledge 2011), the book examined aspects of what it means to be a Muslim in the contemporary world. In another recent work, he grappled with music and cultural rights—how music becomes caught up in debates about human rights and social justice. In the age of the Internet and the ease of digital reproduction, he’s also interested in the global problem of piracy of music, something that involves the links between politics, economics, and culture.
All of these issues illuminate the ways in which the study of music at Pitt extends far beyond traditional views of music scholarship, instead requiring a familiarity with many forms of knowledge and exchange globally.
“Ideally, students will see these opportunities and be able to synthesize and interpret the information that they have access to, and we can teach them how to do that,” says Weintraub. “We can teach them different ways of seeing things.” That’s true in music, he adds, but it’s also true in areas such as literature, art, and philosophy. “We can provide the context to think about and understand the global connections and influences reflected in humanistic ideas, beliefs, values, and practices.”
Creating Global Citizen-Scholars
“In my classes, I’m seeing a movement toward students who are thinking more about becoming global citizens,” says Todd Reeser, a professor of French at Pitt. “They want to take courses that reflect the notion of what it is to think about their particular disciplines in dialogue with the globe.”
As the inaugural associate director of the Humanities Center, Reeser also is aware of a general movement, intellectually, toward the breakdown of disciplines. “As a scholar and teacher, you can no longer just think about French studies or French literature without putting it into dialogue with a whole bunch of other contexts from around the world and, therefore, with all kinds of other disciplines.”
This past spring, Reeser was involved—along with Jonathan Arac, Patrick Manning, and Nancy Condee—in organizing an experimental gathering of faculty to consider new ways of thinking about global study. In a one-day seminar titled “Narrating the World: Global History, Global Literature, Pedagogy,” Pitt faculty brought together by the Humanities Center, the World History Center, and the Global Studies Center grappled with similarities and differences in their approaches to global scholarship and teaching. Where are the intersections of themes over time and settings and human narratives?
Literature scholars offered perspectives on history readings, and history scholars analyzed literature readings, all spanning global studies. As the day lengthened and the discussions continued, more and more faculty found common ground and significant intersections for future dialogue.
For instance, says Reeser, in his own field of French studies, what would happen if dialogues arose where France wasn’t even involved—say, instead, between the cultures of French Indo-China and West Africa—and what issues of human experience would that raise, such as migration? And how are those things experienced, written about, thought about, put on film?
Or, in the field of translation studies, how does one deal with the notion of the “untranslatable,” concepts that simply can’t be translated from one culture to another and therefore are objects worthy of study for that very reason?
These kinds of questions reveal rich new terrain for exploring complex aspects of the human experience—and the questions are endless. A major goal of the seminar was to foster more such discussion and, ideally, stimulate faculty to begin organizing new research clusters on their own, which might then be supported by the efforts of the three Pitt centers and, potentially, by external funding sources. Such clusters might involve themes that have intriguing possibilities for wide-ranging study within a global framework, such as gender and sexuality.
Another aspect of the seminar, given the discussion about global thinking in research, was: What are the implications in the classroom? How might specific courses be given a global perspective, and what are some of the techniques that could be used to import that approach into other humanities classes and beyond?
As it happens, Sharon Kinoshita, the Humanities Center Senior Fellow in spring 2011, offered an example from her own teaching experience at the University of California, Santa Cruz. She had her students read segments of narrative from The Travels of Marco Polo and then compare them with texts written within the cultures Marco Polo visited by people living in those cultures. Systematically, the point was to compare what Marco Polo was perceiving about his experience in Culture X versus what people from Culture X were saying about their own experiences there.
There are all kinds of ways to focus on themes that transcend time and place and culture. Those who study the Middle Ages, or the Renaissance, or the Enlightenment, or colonization, or the relation of gender to sexuality can all find valuable intersections that have the potential for discovery of new knowledge.
A university is a place where people think about the most difficult questions that humans face and then seek solutions, which are most likely to come from the human impulse to share and exchange. The humanities at the University of Pittsburgh are vital in that journey.