areté Alumni News
The 20th Great Conversation welcomed more than 350 attendees and raised over $250,000.
by Robert Cremins
Heraclitus is a name that must have been heard many times over the years in the lecture halls of the Human Situation, our yearlong Great Books sequence. He’s the pre-Socratic philosopher famous for saying, “You could not step twice into the same river.” It’s a truth that applies to Human Sit itself: no two semesters of the course are ever the same. Even though there are some fixtures—a Homeric epic in the fall, a Shakespeare play in the spring—the bi-annual realignment of texts, themes, and teams ensures the vitality of the experience for both students and faculty.
And there are ways of enriching the Human Sit experience that go beyond the page. This past academic year has given us some great examples of that. In the fall (as we talked about in detail in the last issue of Areté), Team Omega’s “profblog” flourished, with many meditations on the theme of mortality. We’d begun the semester with the Egyptian Book of the Dead and, thanks to a canny plan devised by Human Sit coordinator Dr. Richard Armstrong, we ended the term with a summation lecture and a visit to the treasure-laden King Tut exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts. Looking at a gleaming pair of gold slippers once worn by the Boy King himself, I thought to myself that we’d brought our students very close to walking a mile in the shoes of one of the characters we’d discussed in class.
In the spring, we used Team Alpha’s home base of Cemo Hall for a couple of joint-team ventures. In early April, I gave a talk on the history of Dublin’s Abbey Theatre to contextualize a cluster of Irish plays that were appearing on our syllabi and on stages around town. Both teams were studying the poetry of W. B. Yeats, one of the founders of the Abbey (Ireland’s national theater); Yeats’ own writing is much concerned with “players and the painted stage.” We made “field trips” to see work by two of Ireland’s most exciting contemporary playwrights: The Seafarer by Conor McPherson at the Alley, and The Cripple of Inishmaan by Martin McDonagh at University of Houston’s own Cynthia Woods Mitchell Center. Moreover, Dr. David Mikics worked with Houston’s innovative Catastrophic Theatre Company to bring students to see Samuel Beckett’s modern masterpiece Endgame, and to bring actor Greg Dean, who’d brilliantly played Hamm in the production, to campus. Beckett was on Omega’s reading list, while Alpha examined a very different (but equally brilliant in terms of its linguistic sensibility) 20th-century classic: Brian Friel’s Translations.
In late April, Professor Mikics was also instrumental in bringing acclaimed teacher and writer Dr. Mark Edmundson to the University of Houston for a series of lectures, including a special presentation to Human Sit students entitled “Self and Soul: The Mortal Dilemma.” As Self and Soul was Team Omega’s theme for the spring semester, this was a timely talk indeed. The students were energized by Edmundson’s exhortation to spend more time, in both our imaginative and literal lives, in a soulful mode. Edmundson, whose sensibility encompasses Shakespeare and rock’n’roll, Freud and the Gospels, defined soul as a “state of being” whose gifts, to both oneself and others, include courage, compassion, and contemplation. It was a refreshing lecture.
And in the fall we’ll step into the refreshing waters of another Human Situation. For both teams this is going to be an “Iliad year.” The towering presence on the reading list of that great “poem of force,” as Simone Weil labeled it, is calling forth a coordinated creative responsive from the Honors College and its allies. In 2011, choreographer Jennifer Sommers and Center for Creative Work director John Harvey collaborated very successfully on a production of Agamemnon, the centerpiece of that year’s Dionysia festival. For spring 2013, they are working on an adaptation of the Iliad that will be both a choral dance piece and a testimony of how war has affected the lives of both Honors College students and their families.
From Troy to the War on Terror, the Human Situation experience is eternal, and ever changing.
The Human Situation’s cast of characters continues to evolve. Last year we added professors Jonathan Zecher and Robert Liddell. Zecher’s expertise is in Christian theology, and Liddell’s is fiction writing, and both met the challenge of the daunting syllabus with grace.
This fall we welcome Jesse Rainbow, a Harvard-trained Biblical scholar and Honors alumnus, and Marcel Widzisz, a Greek scholar who has taught at the University before, as well as at Rice University and St. John’s College.
“We are fielding the strongest teams ever this fall,” said Human Situation coordinator Richard Armstrong. “The balance of teaching talent, types of expertise, and styles of lecturing should make this one of the best years in our history to go through the Human Sit experience.”