The University hosted its annual Humanities Day program this past Saturday, inviting the general public to campus to hear presentations on topics from linguistics to opera presented by dozens of professors in the University’s Humanities Division.
In the introduction to the event’s keynote address, Martha T. Roth, dean of the Humanities Division, emphasized the rich history of the event. The first Humanities Day was held on October 1, 1980, and brought nearly a thousand people to campus. “There is a broad and deep public appetite to learn about the latest work of humanities scholars,” Roth said. “The status of humanities in today’s society is still and always will be a worthy topic of debate and reflection.”
The keynote address was then given by David Levin, the Addie Clark Harding Professor in the Department of Germanic Studies, the Department of cinema and media studies, and the Committee on Theater and Performance Studies.
In his address, titled “Elektra Shock: Opera and Radical Interpretation,” professor Levin explored the opera Elektra, an adaptation of Sophocles’s tragedy. He focused on one production directed by Martin Kušej at the Zurich Opera House. Over the course of 40 minutes, Levin showed clips of the opera’s pivotal scenes and guided the audience through the decision-making process behind staging an opera, discussing everything from the set to individual costumes.
During a post-address interview, Levin emphasized that his address was less about Elektra as an opera and more about the specific production of Elektra he discussed, which used a harshly lit black and white set, modernized clothing, and samba dancers.
“I’m particularly interested in figuring out how we can engage contemporary performance, in particular contemporary performance that is unusual, challenging—that offers an interpretation that is exciting, innovative,” he said. “At the University of Chicago, engaging live performance is something that I feel we are doing now thanks to the Logan Center, thanks to initiatives on campus and in the city that mark Chicago as an exciting destination for artwork.”
In addition to the keynote address, the Humanities Day event included three sessions of presentations given by University professors.
Anthony Cheung, an assistant professor of music at the University, participated in the event by both attending the presentations of other faculty and presenting his own work in music composition.
Cheung commented on how Humanities Day offered a rare and welcoming environment for exploring the different humanities topics studied at the University. “The sheer breadth of what is on offer is staggering,” Cheung said. “I myself would’ve liked to see other things, including things during the same [time] slot [as my own presentation]. It’s just not possible. It’s a good problem to have.”
In his own presentation, “Of Myth-making and Monumentality: A Composer’s Response to Beethoven,” Cheung attempted to make Beethoven’s influence in his work accessible to those who may not have a background in music. “I had, for instance, excerpts of scores up, which I use to illustrate things and might be helpful for those who do read music, but I try to make sure that it adds to the experience without intimidating or taking away from it,” he said.
Mario Santana, an associate professor of Spanish literature, believed the main challenge of the event was showing the relevance of his research to a broader audience.
“When you’re in a particular field…you don’t need to explain why you study Spanish literature, because everyone in the field is doing the same,” Santana said. “If you’re trying to do something about literature with people who are not in the discipline, you need to show why this is relevant.”
In his presentation titled “Translation and the Implosion of National Literatures,” Santana sought to accomplish this by emphasizing the important role of translation in cultural communication and other fields outside of academic research.
Jason Merchant, another presenter and chair of the Department of Slavic languages and literatures, is a veteran of the event, having participated in the last five Humanities Days. He commented on how this year’s event uploaded several presentations for online viewing. “The biggest change…is that now we film some of them and put them on the web, which I think is a great idea because not everybody can make it to sit in this room at this time,” Merchant said.
On the overall theme of Humanities Day, Levin remarked that critically analyzing dogma lies at the heart of the humanities.
“There’s a broader sense that what the humanities can do is make us think about things we think we know in different ways, such that maybe rather than being settled in our convictions, it can unsettle those convictions.” Levin said. “I find I prefer to be unsettled; it’s a much more exhilarating way to live.”