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October 24, 2008

School’s out for weekend—still, scholars fill seats

“Enticing,” “challenging,” “provocative,” “daring.” Why were crowds congregating around a wall erected in Harper Quad on Wednesday? They were collecting pins adorned with 24 different adjectives—“enlightening,” “inventive,” “intelligent,” “sublime.” Students found a secret message revealed beneath each pin: Humanities Day ’08.

For the 30th-annual University of Chicago Humanities Day this Saturday, faculty from more than 21 different departments will present lectures, screen films, and lead discussions in intimate settings, all answering the broad question of what it means to be human. Speakers will delve into such subjects as the Civic Knowledge Project, Sanskrit poetry, the 13th-century text The Romance of the Rose, the Dead Sea scrolls, and much more.

English professor Jacqueline Goldsby will deliver the day’s keynote address, “A Salon for the Masses: Black Chicago’s Book Review and Lecture Forum, 1933–53.” In her address, Goldsby will describe how the University of Chicago and the elite salon culture of pre-revolutionary France may have influenced authors and readers from Chicago’s black community during the 1930s. Goldsby is widely heralded as a dynamic speaker whose work is extremely important to the South Side. Stephanie White, director of communications in the Humanities Division, declared Goldsby’s research to be a significant contribution to the city of Chicago and black literary history.

In their celebration of language, literature, and culture, the humanities are “at the heart of the University and the core curriculum,” according to White. She noted, “These lectures have a direct appeal to a college audience.” However, the humanities are not only important to University of Chicago students and faculty. As Christina von Nolcken, associate professor in the department of English Language and Literature and the College, and chair of the committee on Medieval Studies, observed, “A main part of the audience is from the city of Chicago…particularly people from Hyde Park.”

Von Nolcken—who has participated in Humanities Day from the very beginning—will continue to impress her listeners with a lecture about Beowulf, historical allusions within the poem, and how these allusions contribute to the poem’s meaning. Another highlight of the day should be Larry Rothfield, associate professor in the department of English Language and Literature, whose lecture, “Nobody Thought of Culture: Behind the Looting of the Baghdad Museum” reflects on the 2003 lootings and their repercussions on Iraq’s archaeological heritage.

In addition, David Bevington, the Phyllis Fay Horton Distinguished Service professor emeritus in the Humanities and professor emeritus in the departments of English Language and Literature and comparative literature will enthrall attendees with a lecture on Shakespeare, his “especial love.” He will address a question about Shakespeare that has confounded scholars for centuries: How does religion play a part in his writings? Bevington will ask such probing inquiries as “Was Shakespeare Catholic? Was he Anglican? What did he think of the Puritans and the Jews?”

The professors are among the most knowledgeable people in their chosen field, having done research and taught these subjects for twenty, thirty, even fifty years. “Each one of these faculty members is absolutely at the top of their field. You’re going to hear an expert,” White declared.

All of the lectures are sure to appeal to new and returning spectators alike. “Alumni and friends come back each year,” White stressed. “Humanities Day is very accessible to a wide range of audiences.” This is especially true with families and visitors on campus due to the event’s coincidence with the College’s Family Weekend.

There are on-going opportunities on Saturday to participate in the lectures, three film screenings and visits to exhibitions around campus. Given the interest in all these great speakers, seats are filling up quickly. White recommends pre-registering on the University’s Humanities website, or on the morning of the event.

With a lineup of knowledgeable professors and intriguing subjects, this year’s Humanities Day should prove to be thought provoking. As the pins posted in Harper quad revealed, Humanities Day promises to be a lot of things. Will the speeches be passionate, engaging, and edifying? Perhaps, but the only pin I am concerned with is the one that reads “worthwhile.” After all, it does start on a Saturday morning.