Monday, August 09, 2010

Out-of-field learning

Some of the reading and rereading I've been doing this summer has made me think about a class I took in college--one I've long regarded as the most influential of the courses I took outside of my major.

Spring semester of my senior year I took a history class (cross-listed with at least two other departments) entitled "20th-Century European Intellectual and Cultural History." It was taught by a brand-new assistant professor, and it was even more overloaded than that mouthful of a title suggests: running from about 1880 to about 1980, focusing primarily on France and Germany but also their influence on British and American culture, the course included philosophy, poetry, political theory, a couple of novels--as well as optional weekly movie screenings (M, Metropolis, Triumph of the Will), slide shows (of art, architecture, furniture), and so much more. It started with Nietzsche, Freud, and Baudelaire, and ended with Arendt and Cixous.

I took some amazing literature classes, of course, and they, along with a couple of classes in Early Modern history, led directly to my eventual chosen profession and my subfield within that profession. But I think about or draw upon the things I learned in 20CEICH probably nearly every week, though it's not in any obvious way related to anything I work on. Only one other out-of-field course I took in college even comes close to it in terms of its influence (Post-War American Political History, if you wanna know).

I have a couple of theories as to why this class or these two classes proved so intellectually important to me. But first, I'm curious: what are the most influential classes you took in college, outside your major field(s) of study, and what has made them so enduringly important?


Annie Em said...

Great question, Flavia!

1. Cultural Anthropology, with a focus on 19-20th century material culture: it taught me that critical analysis of things was as fascinating as analysis of words.

2. Intro to Women's Studies: for anyone in college in the early 1980s, this class was still mind-opening....

I'd say these two courses influenced how I approach literature, to this day....

Withywindle said...

For my research interests, a grad class in English where I read Habermas and Ong. For introducing me to things I love, a modern drama class in college.

Moria said...

1. 'Murder and Adultery: The French and Russian Novel', spring of my frosh year. I failed it, along with two other courses. I failed out of school entirely, in fact. But I learned to close-read like nobody's business, and the professor, a wild Slavist, went on to become first a cherished mentor and then a cherished friend.

2. 'Critical Perspectives on the State,' a theory-leaning anthro course in the fall of my senior year, with the fiercest woman I've ever encountered. The Engels and the Foucault and the Agamben were great, yes, but more importantly, that fierce anthropologist taught me how to combine ferocity of spirit with intellectual honesty, how to never be satisfied, how to value difficult problems over simple solutions.

(Also, why the eff does clicking on your blog's comment link bring up a pop-up ad that asks me, 'If you died, who would take care of your family?' ... Is that a threat, Flavia? I mean, I know there was that issue with the coke in Shanghai, but I really thought we'd moved past that. Would you settle for breaking my kneecaps?)

Flavia said...

Loving these comments so far, but--say what now, Moria?

Has anyone else seen pop-up ads? I'm sure not authorizing (or getting paid by!) any advertisers, and I've never seen any such thing in Firefox, Explorer, or Opera.

Lemme know, folks, if this is some kind of persistent problem.

Axia said...

I studied accounting in university.

I took a class called comparative economic systems in the economics department.

We learned about about the economic development of Russia and China - how they differ from each other and the rest of the world. The professor was prone to rants about Stalin and Mao.

It led me to a fascination with China, which has served me well in my work as well as personally.

Other significant classes include:

1) Intro to Cultural Anthropology - it gave me respect for other human beings and made me much more sympathetic to the environmental movement than I otherwise would have been.

2) Art History - at the time this was the worst class ever. But I love going to art galleries as a hobby now.

3) Wine Science - it was a bit of a silly class but it exposed me to agriculture and wine tasting.

Dr. Crazy said...

Well, when I entered college I was NOT an English major, and so probably the most influential class was a Women and Literature year-long seminar that I was required to take to fulfill my comp requirement :)


1. A class that was called something like "Sociology of the Family" - This class more than any other made me think about the ways in which gender wasn't something that was imposed from "outside" (ads, movies, whatever) but rather that it was part of those structures that feel most "natural." Also, it was the first time that I realized that "gender" didn't just mean "women."

2. Cultural Anthropology - I don't actually remember why I was so into that class - I took it in my last semester of college. I suppose for many of the same reasons that others have listed a course like this in this comment thread :)

3. A philosophy class called just "Aesthetics." That class challenged me in ways I'd never been challenged prior to that point, and I didn't do terribly well, but that course is probably the foundation for any understanding of theory that I have now, and it's also the foundation for the kinds of theories that most interest me.

Flavia said...

These are really great responses.

I've long thought that 20CEICH and Post-War Political History were important to me simply because they taught me important stuff--introduced me to or gave me a better grounding in events and movements that were still playing out in my lifetime (and, in the case of the former class, made my museum- and film-going, and my appreciation for mid-century design, that much more nuanced and pleasurable).

But I actually think there are a couple of other aspects to these two classes that made them stand out. One is that they were both taught by just-hired junior faculty, which is probably responsible for the fact that both were exceptionally well-designed and fairly innovative in certain ways. The instructors' youth and energy (and in one case, obvious nervousness--he was a great lecturer, but sweated through an entire shirt per class) may also have helped "young college professor" seem like a role that I might possibly inhabit.

But more important is the kind of texts and materials we studied. I described some of the range of texts and objects that we examined in 20CEICH, but the Post-War Politics class was also unusual, in my experience or expectations, for the fact that, apart from two responsible scholarly texts (on the Presidency, and political shifts, and that kind of thing), everything else we read was polemic, from both the right and the left, and we talked about polemical style and individual voice, and how those idiosyncratic features served or didn't serve a given cause (we started with "God and Man at Yale," and also read "Why We Can't Wait," "Feminine Mystique," "What I Saw At the Revolution," and so much more).

What both those classes gave me, then, was a fuller and richer sense of the culture of their time period, through different kinds of texts and different, distinct, individual voices and competing movements and trends.

And that does relate to my own work in a pretty profound way: I'm interested in the lived experience of the 17th C., as reflected in both its more canonical and more ephemeral texts: how those works engage with larger political and religious issues through the idiosyncratic voices and perspectives of their authors. (And as it happens, some of the texts I work with are political polemics.)

Dr. Koshary said...

Ooh, fun question! I had some pretty good out-of-major courses, but it's intriguing to ponder which ones really influenced my thinking.

1. "Russian History Through Literature." Somehow, that one really stuck with me, primarily in terms of the history we studied. When I learned about Russia before college, we were basically still using textbooks that referred to the Soviet Union. I was astonished to learn how much I really had no idea what this entity called Russia was about and the ideas in circulation among its political classes, given that I had known since early childhood that the Russkies were still waiting for their chance to blow us all to hell. It also introduced me to some books that I still love: Isaak Babel's stories, _Darkness at Noon_, and one of my beloved favorites, _The Master and Margarita_.

2. A brilliant seminar on Shakespeare that I may not name here, because the course title is itself instantly recognizable. I had to sign up two years running to get into it...and I went to a very small college. I already enjoyed reading and watching Shakespeare, but the prof is a wonderful teacher who made me appreciate on a far deeper level how Shakespeare grappled with ideas, experimented with characterizations, and generally did all sorts of fucking amazing things with language.

3. An unexpectedly fine course about sex and gender as depicted in cinema. (I took it just because it sounded like a ton of fun: movies every week!) The prof made us read real film writing, not the newspaper critical reviews that I had known thitherto as 'film writing'. I didn't enjoy every film we watched, but I learned an awful lot about visual and cinematic devices for indexing genders and delivering gender-inflected messages. (If I ever run into any of you in real life, remind me about this course and I'll tell you about the most spectacular 'weeding-out' technique the prof used to get rid of unserious students who bloated the first day's enrollment!) I also developed an appreciation for Billy Wilder films.

P.S. I would also like to say that I am very proud of all of you who said they held similar memories of their cultural anthropology courses. Any anthro professor ought to aim for such lasting impressions.

Bardiac said...

What an interesting question!

(and no pop up for me on clicking)

From my undergrad years, I'm not coming up with anything. But I was a science major, and almost all of my courses contributed in a sciency sort of way, even cultural anthropology.

In my post-undergrad exploration year: Art History, because it gave me a basic intellectual periodization to hang what I learned in history and lit classes on. And I learned to look at art differently.

Economics, because Economics makes the world make more sense, especially when you read someone's take on Marxism and realize they've never thought about the economics of things.

Anonymous said...

For my doctoral program in US history I stumbled into a class in "Historical Sociology." It really blew my mind to study history in such a totally different way. The next semester I took "Socio Theory 2" which was basically Weber, the Chicago School, and the modern theorists. Weber really influenced me and I enjoyed reading his work. I went on to do my dissertation on a sociologist and it influenced my work and my worldview ever since.

JaneB said...

No pop-ups here either.

Coming through the UK system, I didn't have so many options to take totally 'out of major' classes - I'm a scientist, but how I longed to take Anglo-Saxon... I'm not sure why, I just really wanted to.

Classes I actually took which have little/nothing to do with my current work in Beach Studies but which have greatly influenced my intellectual development: well, first would be my high school opportunity to learn Ancient Greek, which led painlessly to all sorts of learning about a very different ancient society and its literature and, thanks to the excellent teacher and tiny class (we were allowed to learn if we did the classes in our lunch hour... so only real enthusiasts signed up), I also learnt some skills of textual analysis which were never covered in formal 'English for Everyone' type classes (which I quit as soon as I was allowed).

In terms of developing writing and thinking at university level, History and Philosophy of Science was a delight. Especially the chance to formally study the complexity and alienness of renaissance society and thinking about the physical world. A love I retain to the present day. Even though the lecturer was really spectacularly bad the reading list was full of revelations.

And thirdly, first year Physics. Physics has very little to do with Beach Studies (my current pseudonym for my field) and most Beach Studies people have done no higher ed physical science, never mind pure physics. The habits of thought and approaches I learnt there appealed, stuck, and are an important component of both the little niche I've carved out for myself in Beach Studies and of my personal research narrative.

I wonder what Anglo-Saxon might have done for me?

Flavia said...

I'm continuing to love these comments. I was curious whether any patterns might emerge, but I don't think there are any: some of us seem to have been inspired by classes outside our field that taught us something (more or less) directly related to our eventual work; some of us most value and remember classes that taught us something that was "merely" personally or intellectually rewarding.

(Not that those are truly distinct categories, of course: developing different intellectual processes, or learning the conventions of different disciplines, or just encountering new stuff surely makes us better, deeper, and more agile thinkers.)

Maybe the only take-away here is the value of being broadly-educated--and/or the value of core, distribution, or Gen Ed requirements.

Carin said...

As an escape from my self-imposed all-Classics-all-the-time regime, I took a course in modern British poetry my senior year, which looms large in my imagination mainly because it introduced me to Fussell's The Great War in Modern Memory, which I might not otherwise have read. I can't point to a specific influence on my work, but it did suggest an approach to literary studies that I wasn't encountering in my work in Classics at the time.

Then at Oxford, I actually tried to follow Charles Ryder's cousin Jasper's advice to go to all the best lectures, regardless of subject. The ones that stand out were the course of lectures on St. Paul by E.P. Sanders. They probably colored everything I've thought about the Reformation since then, and I keep coming back to them in my spiritual life, if not in my academic life. To think that Cousin Jasper may have been right about something!

(My CAPTCHA is "aniumi" - a very marvel of minim confusion, btw.)

Flavia said...

Carin: did you follow any of the rest of Cousin Jasper's advice? And with what results?

Carin said...

To the best of my recollection, I did not. Some advice from a favorite undergrad prof of mine did come in handy, but I will not reproduce it here :-)

Renaissance Girl said...

I guess I don't feel like I ever took any courses that have seemed, in retrospect or even at the moment, outside my specialization. All the stuff I took--from my sciencey ugrad major to my bizarre far-flung language study to History of Rock and Roll (I know, can you believe I got course credit for that shit?)--seems to feed directly into the stuff I do now. Maybe one of the pleasures of having time to mature and reflect in this profession is to recognize the interconnectedness of all we've done and all we do...?

FLG said...

I'm late to the party, but things I learned in a a course entitled Witches pops into my head far more than one would thing from the title. It looked at that one theme through the perspective of religion, social construction, history, literature, art, gender, and whathaveyou in a way that provided a great example to really help me sort things out.