The humanities are vital for Maine today

By Liam Riordan and Michael Socolow, Special to the BDN
Posted Sept. 23, 2011, at 5:18 p.m.

Have you read a good book lately? Perhaps you’ve hummed a favorite song, composed a sketch or just contemplated the coming of Maine’s fall colors. Maybe you’ve taken a friend to a favorite fishing spot, jogged in the backwoods or discussed memories with an older relative. Perhaps you purchased this newspaper and debated local politics with a neighbor.

All of these activities share a commonality: They define our shared humanity through curiosity, creativity, expression and introspection.

We are preparing to begin Digital Humanities Week at the University of Maine. What are digital humanities? They make up the essence of the humanities — thinking critically and communicating clearly about our experiences and aspirations — expressed through the novel forms of new media.

Traditional humanities might mean the recitation of a sonnet by Shakespeare in English class, learning about the Civil War in a history lecture, or discussion of Plato in a philosophy course. The digital humanities open up new possibilities to deepen our understanding of the human tradition; communication and collaboration through websites dedicated to poetry, the visual arts, music and local history as well as the exchanges furthered by discussion threads, chat rooms and blogs are all making the power and pleasure of ideas more relevant and accessible than ever before.

Even Oprah’s book club, where conversations about modern and classic literature started with friends over coffee, has moved online and is part of this new world of the digital humanities.

Some think of the humanities as frivolous or isolated in an ivory tower. But in reality, we all love to read, reflect, listen, contemplate and share. How often do you recommend a good book, a good band or a good movie to a friend? And what language do you employ to express your delight in such moments?

The humanities speak to us directly, reflect our experiences and help us to create a better future. They inspire us to live consciously and to notice the world that surrounds us. Life is about these moments. It doesn’t matter whether you graduated from high school, are incarcerated or possess a college degree. What matters is your engaged mind and how you use it to solve problems and maximize your potential.

The humanities are crucial. Yet we who teach the humanities assume too often that our craft speaks for itself. It does not. We must persuade those who support us — our students, taxpayers and philanthropies that might fund our research — that we remain vital and necessary today.

Engineers and mechanics, doctors and scientists, all must communicate with the public in different capacities. We specialize in teaching modes of communication and connection — whether it’s learning how to write with clarity and purpose, how to speak a second language to function in our globalized society or how to offer compassion to somebody who is very ill.

These are utilitarian and essential skills for the future of our state and nation.

The sad fact is that the humanities are increasingly devalued in our bottom-line society. Our education system increasingly is told to emphasize vocational and technical priorities. Literature, folklore and understanding the past are now, amazingly, considered a luxury.

This is all the more surprising given Maine’s magnificent heritage in the humanities. Maine is, after all, where writers from Thoreau to Edna St. Vincent Millay and artists from Winslow Homer to Edward Hopper produced some of their finest work. Maine’s solitude and isolation, its beautiful coast, lakes and mountains, have inspired the world’s most respected humanists for centuries.

Think of our impoverishment without Stephen King’s amazing work that was nurtured by faculty and classmates in the English Department at the University of Maine.

This week we hope to engage our colleagues, students and the public in beginning to rethink the value of the humanities through new media. We’ve invited scholars and practitioners from around our country and our state to discuss how their work transforms the humanities.

You can learn more and contribute to an interactive website at DigitalHumanities.NMDprojects.net. Digital Humanities is about opportunities, interaction and lifelong learning. We hope you can join us — by asking questions, offering your thoughts, and joining the conversation. Whether it’s blogging, posting on Facebook, or even just responding to this commentary, your voice and your mind matter.

Liam Riordan is an associate professor of history at the University of Maine and a board member of the Maine Humanities Council. Michael Socolow is an associate professor of communication and journalism at the University of Maine.

http://bangordailynews.com/2011/09/23/opinion/the-humanities-are-vital-for-maine-today/ printed on December 18, 2014