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HAIKU Conference Preview with Karen Beckman: Why the Humanities and the Arts Matter

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HAIKU Conference Preview with Karen Beckman: Why the Humanities and the Arts Matter

By Gina DeCagna.

On September 12 and 13, 2014, the University of Pennsylvania will be hosting the HAIKU Conference — short for the Humanities and the Arts in the Integrated Knowledge University. Organized by Karen Beckman, this conference includes a schedule of eight distinct topic segments and twenty-eight notable speakers bringing various perspectives on the place of the humanities and the arts in the contemporary world. The event will take place in the Rainey Auditorium of the Penn Museum and is open to the public. Students are especially encouraged to participate in the ensuing discussion.

Visit for more information and to register for the events.


GD: Given your background as a professor of both History of Art and Cinema Studies at Penn, and that you started the Art and Culture Initiative and directed the Penn Humanities Forum last year on the topic of violence, this upcoming conference seems to be a progression of a lot of things towards your larger goal — having the arts and humanities, which are under criticism, especially in relation to job acquisition, as an integral part of the educational system. Can you talk about the types of work that have gone into organizing this conference, including the people you have brought together?

KB: We have been planning this for about a year and a half, but it’s really central to the Art and Culture Initiative, which is a three-year pilot initiative. The questions we’re bringing up at the conference are a combination of the things we’ve been doing around campus over the last two years. The sponsors are from almost every SAS humanities department as well as five other schools at Penn and the Provostial cultural centers. We spoke to lots of different people, including the chairs of the departments, and asked them to consult with their faculty to bring forth what they thought were the most pressing issues around the question of the place of the arts and the humanities. Often, those two things collapse into each other — or the arts are seen as the extracurricular part of the humanities. We’re thinking about what it means to take both of these aspects seriously as central to what the research university is about and to Penn’s mission to integrate knowledge across the different schools. We want to consider the creative practice of the arts alongside the historical and critical thinking of the humanities, and ask what this combination might offer to and gain from other disciplines.

We wanted to find people who were not going to deliver predictable talks. We wanted people who are very challenging and willing to join in very open interdisciplinary conversation. This conference is a live experiment in bringing lots of creative people who do different things into the same place and having them not just talk about what they do, but actually do what they do. We’re also interested in the question of what constitutes research in the contemporary moment, and what difference it makes to be part of the digital generation — how does that change what we think and what we’re able to do? What constitutes research and who are we able to share that research with? And, what are the parameters of the university in this rapidly changing climate?

GD: What were some the particular challenges that have gone into meeting this goal of the conference?

KB: Always when you’re working with creative experiments, you sign on for a lot of unpredictables. Last week, we were working on preparations with the experimental percussionist Robyn Schulkowsky, who is performing with the social scientist, Professor Nilam Ram, on a data sonification project, which makes audiences listen to rather than look at data. At one point, my colleague Brooke Sietinsons and I thought we were going to have to find 180 horse chestnuts for their presentation — we’ve managed to get around that problem!

Another challenge is more conceptual. We have a number of different disciplines outside the humanities represented on each panel, which is itself a challenge; and we also have to think about how the different panels speak to each other. This is partly an experiment in audience attendance — will people attend panels on topics outside their areas of expertise? I hope so.


    • Nilam Ram
    • Music as data scores (image courtesty of Penn State Studio|Lab).

GD: Regarding the people: this conference is open to the public. Are you expecting a Penn-dominated audience or will there be people beyond Penn?

KB: I really like experiments, and I never know who’s going to show up. Last year, for example, I ran a series of films about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan at International House Philadelphia, and there was a completely diverse audience there — local West Philadelphians, peace activists, students, faculty members, veterans, and film buffs. This mixed audience allowed for good conversation after the film. I hope we get that kind of diversity again.

I believe the university can have porous boundaries, and I’m interested in this porous-ness. There are some very specialized things that we do in some classrooms and individual research venues — and I don’t think all of those things have to be accessible to everybody — often, they wouldn’t work if they were. But this conversation needs participants from inside and outside the university. We’re posing questions about how to foster creative thinking and research in the contemporary moment — and how to think about what universities are, what they can be, and what we don’t want them to be — and this question matters for the evolution of our society. Whether or not you’re in the university yourself, you live in a world that is impacted by how we train people in higher education.

GD: How much of Penn will be represented in the panel speakers themselves?

KB: Penn has some very unique features. We attract creative people because our academic priorities are experimental at the core, and we have a great geographical advantage over many of our peer schools. President Gutmann’s decision to highlight the integration of knowledge as top priority emerged in part from the unusual geographic proximity of our different schools. I think it’s the only campus in the nation where you can walk among all the different schools really easily — and this physical fact fosters collaboration. People here tend to generally be very collegial and open to collaboration. We have, for example, very interesting things going on right now between the Fine Arts Department and the School of Engineering with the Digital Media Design program; or among History of Art, Philosophy, Cinema Studies, Psychology, and Neuroscience through the Visual Studies program.

But we also wanted to include different perspectives in the conference, so I’m bringing in lots of people from outside Penn too. I hope we can really learn from each other and share best practices. I hope that there will be a follow-up on the ideas that are sparked and the relationships that begin at the conference and the dinners we have afterwards.

Most of all, I would love it for our students to be really vocal in the question-and-answer period. I know our students have a lot of ideas about what they hope to get out of their education and that they see as possibilities that faculty members don’t necessarily see. I read The Daily Pennsylvanian frequently and there are a lot of articles about people wanting more creativity in the classroom, more agency, different styles of learning. It’s a moment of transformation, and we have to think together about both what we need to ditch and what from the traditional classroom we want to maintain.

GD: I’m thinking about breaking down what "interdisciplinary collaboration" means and the rhetoric of "Integrated Knowledge University" in the name of the HAIKU conference. Why is interdisciplinarity important (when digging deep in one discipline might be more straightforward)? And what are the consequences, especially in the university setting?

KB: Well first, I really believe in disciplines! They are really important to the mission of the research university. Specialized, disciplinary knowledge is a way of training oneself in rigorous thinking. It allows us to see the complexities of a problem and gives us time to really immerse ourselves in these complexities. This is a very important part of what higher education offers, and I wouldn’t want to do away with that. 

The strongest models of interdisciplinarity never do away with the value of specialized knowledge, although they might end up asking questions that ultimately change what we thought we knew. In this conference, you’ll see there are specialists in particular panels. Howard Gardner from the Harvard Graduate School of Education is one of our speakers, and one of his major contributions to education at all levels is his theory of multiple intelligences. Through data-intensive research, he really saw that humans have different types of intelligence and the brain can work in very different ways. There’s musical intelligence, verbal intelligence, or bodily-kinesthetic intelligence, for example. He’s interested in how we approach education in a way that takes into account these multiple modes of intelligence, which are always differently arranged in each person. For me, the conference is about trying to be open to human intelligence in its fullest sense, and to imagine the university as an environment that fosters and celebrates this richness of being, and encourages it as a lifelong enterprise.


    • Howard Gardner
    • Howard Gardner is the John H. and Elisabeth A. Hobbs Professor of Cognition and Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, Adjunct Professor of Psychology at Harvard University, and Senior Director of Harvard Project Zero.

I believe strongly that a liberal arts degree is not a pre-professional degree, although I do think it’s a useful degree, in the sense that it’s useful to be able to think carefully and for yourself. The best liberal arts education gives you the capacity and the courage to think about questions and problems that don’t have clear answers and solutions yet, to know that human history is also a history of error, and to be one of the people who’s able to step up in their own social group and say, "I can help us think carefully about this, and I have some kind of training in doing so." To do this requires a certain self-confidence, rigor, and flexibility, so that you’re constantly questioning the way you think, the assumptions you’re making, your own biases. How can you use history, a scientific method, the complex nuances of language, or whatever it is that you’ve learned, to keep check on your own ego?

In all of these discussions, the cost of higher education and the debt that people are being left with is a very real problem. I take that very seriously, but at the same time, I don’t want to think the answer is to measure the value of the liberal arts degree by asking which particular job it trains you for. For me, this frame is too narrow. 

GD: Right now, globally, there are major violent military conflicts in the Middle East and Ukraine/Russia. Domestically, we’re also seeing brutal violence through the incident with Michael Brown and through some reactions to that incident. So, using the violence theme of the Penn Humanities Forum last year just as an applicable example, we can see how issues can be dealt with personally, on an individual level, and collectively, as a group on a societal level, though the two often mesh together. In this HAIKU conference, how can we apply what comes out of the upcoming discussion on an individual, personal level and then on a broader, societal level?

KB: There’s a lot of different ways I could answer that. The Creative Writing Panel [at HAIKU] is, for example, going to bring together a number of different people to discuss how creative writing programs in the United States have shaped and are shaping literary history. If you believe that reading has an effect on who we are and how we behave as a people, we are all shaped by the literary landscape, and it’s part of who we are as a nation.

I’m also thinking about Al Filreis’s MOOC — the Mod Po course — and his most recent innovation of holding weekend in-person meetings at the New York Public Library. Getting together and talking about poetry is not to be underestimated. I lived in Brooklyn when 9/11 happened, and I became a part of a series of poetry readings at the local bookstore in Park Slope, which also became a discussion of why poetry matters in times of crisis. The room was packed, and we had just fantastic poetry experiences and conversations as the community tried to process what was happening around us. The arts are capacious things that humans create as responses to the things that are often too much for normal language — or too much for coherent thought. Often, art seems to be a response to things that feel out of reach or too much for us.


    • Al Filreis - Mod Po
    • Al Filreis’s MOOC— Mod Po —being filmed at the Kelly Writers House.

In thinking about your question about Michael Brown, my mind turns to the work of one of our speakers, Shola Lynch, who is the film archivist at the Schomburg Center in Harlem, as well as a filmmaker. Her latest film is a biography of Angela Davis, Free Angela and All Political Prisoners (2012). She depicts Davis’s life as an intellectual and a political activist—and explores how she brought those personas together to make decisions at difficult moments under different kinds of pressures. Davis’s ability to think carefully and historically, as well as her ability to articulate the subtlety of her thinking, is centrally foregrounded in this film. Lynch has talked about the Schomberg Center as a real opportunity to open up the archive to give people a chance to understand a history through the images that haven’t been fully accessed by the wider community. Several people in the conference—Will NoelLouis MassiahAl FilreisShola Lynch—are actively involved in increasing public access to the media, to archives, and to knowledge.


    • screen shot 2014 08 30 at 9 55 06 am
    • Still from Free Angela and All Political Prisoners, a film by Shola Lynch, 2012.

Last year at the Penn Humanities Forum, Michelle Alexander talked about her book, The New Jim Crow, and how, in drawing a line from the new Jim Crow to the current system of mass incarceration, we need also to think of what our options are for doing things differently. That’s where fostering creative thinking comes in—recognizing that in different moments of history, there will be situations where we can’t come to crossroads and we’ve never quite encountered that challenge before with this group of human beings. We have the option of repeating things we’ve done in the past or inventing ways of doing it differently—and sometimes the creative solution involves combining these two things. I believe higher education should foster not just rigorous but also creative thinking so that people are flexible and can access their imaginations when challenges arise. The arts and humanities also teach us about empathy, sensitivity, and cross-cultural understanding—and we are in dire need of these things.

GD: Among undergraduates at Penn and within current media discourse on the Ivy League, there’s always this question about what constitutes success and how it relates to why students are so frequently stressed out. In my Penn education so far, I’ve really learned how everything is so complex and multifaceted with different perspectives, as you’ve mentioned, and it shows me that success, like many other things, isn’t some finite conclusion. It’s unquantifiable, like being. So, how do we come to conclusions? Is it even fair to come to something finite, as in a conclusion?

KB: Thinking about the arts and humanities in quantifiable terms often misses the point. In doing a sound test in the Penn Museum for the conference, Robyn Schulkowsky talked to me about the shift that John Cage brought about in how we think about music and its relation to how we might think about each other. If Cage wanted us to think about each sound in its own right, Schulkowsky suggested that we could extend this into the way we think about each thing in the world—not just human life—but to everything that we encounter, each word, each bite of food, each experience. The scale and temporality of this way of approaching life is different from the frame of success and failure; it’s attentive simultaneously to life’s immensity and minutia.

One thing I love about teenagers is that they are always questioning the values delivered to them. They push against the system they grow up in, and their imaginations are on fire. These are the people in our classrooms, and these are the energetic brains we want to bring into our conversations. It’s not infrequent that students will tell you that what you’re teaching is a load of rubbish! Students often have a panic reaction in the face of unfamiliar things that make them feel stupid, but those of us who teach this challenging material don’t just want to explain this strangeness away, because we also want to foster a willingness among people to sit with the things that they don’t understand and to realize that the world is not fully graspable. We all have to find a way of being with strangeness and difficulty. Thinking is one way.

GD: What types of questions will be coming up about the digital sphere? Is the dynamism of the digital a negative threat to tradition, or is it just a progression that takes adjustment?

KB: There are a number of ways that the digital is going to come up. One is access, and it is relevant both to the “Opening the Archive” panels and the “Museums of the Future” panel—such as how museums of the future are investing in the digitalization of objects and virtual experiences of the museums without losing people’s interests in actually showing up and seeing the objects uniquely for themselves.


    • Native American Voices
    • Native American Voices: The People--Here and Now, an exhibition at Penn Museum.

Howard Gardner has just released with a book with Katie Davis called The App Generation. He talks about himself as a digital immigrant and his granddaughter as a digital native, and the two authors consider great questions, such as how identity, intimacy, and imagination are shaped by one’s own technological moment. In this panel, I think he’s considering how we can be as aware as possible of the impact of our technological moment within the realm of learning, of how technology acts on us as well as how we act through technology.

I really didn’t want this conference to take a polemicized on the role of the digital in the arts and humanities; instead, I’m hoping for an open conversation so we can consider different perspectives. Our speakers are aware of the pros and cons and are subtle, critical thinkers on this issue. That’s certainly what I want to foster among our students in approaching this huge and complex question.

Gina DeCagna is a junior in the College of Arts & Sciences, double-majoring in English and Fine Arts. She’s the founder and editor-in-chief of Symbiosis.

Edited by Kenna O'Rourke.

Top banner image, left to right: Percussionist Robyn Schulkowsky; E-Crafting Circles, a project by Yasmin Kafai and Orkan Telhan; and Muslim Voices of Philadelphia, a project by Louis Massiah and Scribe Video Center.