The Hum of Humanities is in the Air: Day 1

Author’s Note: Future blog posts elaborating on individual breakout sessions to follow with embedded hyperlinks.

6:15 am – I touched down at JFK airport from San Diego, California where the airline seemed to have lost 3 hours of my night. Lucky for me—sarcasm notwithstanding—as a college student and military veteran, I have extensive experience being sleep deprived. So I donned my backpack filled with a laptop and cushioned by the spartan, 3-day’s worth of clothing inside, and deplaned. The conference was scheduled to begin in a few hours which gave me just enough time to sleepily order an overdosed cappuccino and muffin, navigate the airport to the train, and make my way to Manhattan. The muffin remained in its bag, clutched in my hand for the entire train ride as I stood checking my phone with nervous regularity. The metro gods must have been on my side because I made it to the City University of New York (CUNY) Graduate Center, tucked underneath the shadow of the Empire State Building, without issue.

After meeting with the other student documentarians who had arrived, I inhaled my muffin as the finishing touches were put in place for the first day of the conference. An assembly line formed of blue-shirted conference employees, stuffing branded totes with informational pamphlets, schedules, and the like, dropping in a single pen for good measure. I watched with a be-crumbed face as people began to trickle in around 9 am, lured in by the scheduled coffee and breakfast buffet. I silently cursed my airport muffin.

I have always found it interesting to see how large groups of people interact, seeking out the friendly and familiar faces first, and then introducing themselves in incremental doses: handshakes in the buffet line or polite nods at communal tables. The energy of the attendees seemed comfortably bubbly like a can of soda that had been open long enough to start loosing the sharpness of its carbonation. I flitted between a table of people I knew who had also traveled from San Diego—peers, professors, and friends—and the other student documentarians. There were six of us in total: two bloggers, two photographers, and two social media personnel. My inability to take a decent photo to save my life and my lack of a social media presence meant I was blogging.

We all were directed to the entrance we had already passed through to pick up name tags. Along with identifying information including preferred pronouns, everyone attending the conference was given a strip of red, yellow, and green stickers which were to act as visual indicators of one’s conversational openness. It was a nice, simple way to allow everyone present to feel comfortable talking, or not talking, by affixing a conversational stoplight color to their name tag.

Before long we were ushered into the amphitheater to begin the day. The tone of the opening remarks were dramatically hopeful, a feeling that circulated through the crowd like a warm spring breeze that marks the end of winter. The opening remarks made clear that we were there to address equity, community college integration, and the future of the humanities in higher education. Of the myriad of points made, there were a few that I particularly resonated with: a less hierarchical approach to education, the dialogue around education necessary for “constructive friction,” and the metaphor of higher education as a machine of change.

10 am – Eventually, our day’s keynote speaker, Dr. Lourdes Delores Follins, was introduced at which point she gave a wonderful presentation that reenforced the foundations of our work at the conference and in higher education as a whole. She spoke about diversity, equity, and understanding for both students and faculty, the pursuit of which she has dedicated over a decade of her life to. The session was inspiring and a great way to get the conference rolling. 

11:15 am – After Dr. Follins exited the stage, there was a panel discussion by CUNY graduate teaching fellows about their experiences with a mentoring program with local community college professors. The emphasis on learning how to teach from an established professor was inspiring. I have suffered through courses taught by a grad student who was thrown into the position and forced to figure it out—much to my dismay—as they went along. The benefit of this program is twofold: better professors and no undergraduate student sacrifices need be made in the process.

Around 12:00 pm – We exited the theater, and at this point my stomach was angrily boisterous; I was bordering on hangry. However, lunch provided a dilemma for me: try to shove food into my mouth while talking with other attendees at my table without having food in my mouth. Somehow I managed to prevent any major displays of half-chewed sandwich while maintaining an interesting conversation about a new literature program initiated at the Community College of Baltimore County (CCBC). Unfortunately, the discussion had to end prematurely because the first breakout sessions of the day were scheduled to begin.

1:00 pm – I gathered my things, a little disheartened that my first chance to interact directly with people actively engaged in cutting-edge humanities pedagogy was cut short. My disappointment was short lived. As I walked into the intimate presentation room, who should be presenting but the professors from CCBC I was just having lunch with. The nature of their program—adjusted literature composition courses to engage non-humanities students—was initially disconcerting to me. Not only did the professors/presenters assuage my fears, but they outright convinced me of the programs universal benefits.

2:30 pm – Following a short break, I made my way into a panel discussion about humanities scholarship and how it can be limiting. In response to the relatively narrow, traditional specialties, the presenters challenged what that means, especially as it relates to dissertations and professorial tenure. As someone who has grown comfortable with the traditional ways of writing and presenting research, it was fascinating to see some examples of nontraditional methods. In particular, I found audio-video essays, such as the ones published on mediacommons.org. While I’m not certain it is a medium everyone should use, it definitely is something that everyone could use.

4:00 pm – My lack of sleep had finally caught up with me. Despite the overwhelming urge to drift off for a few minutes (more likely hours), I still needed to check into my Airbnb across town as well as work on homework for the classes back home I was going to miss during the conference. And so, with my backpack on, headphones in, and jacket zipped all the way up—the San Diego sensitivity to cold weather followed me to New York—and headed to the nearest metro station.

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