The Secret of Good Humanities Teaching

Thursday, September 17, 2015
Humanities Writ Large

In a recent piece for The Chronicle of Higher Education an English professor and one of his former students describe what they believe to be "the hidden structure of effective humanities teaching." It hinges on "the skill of rereading." A first reading allows the students to absorb the broad themes but not all of the richness. The key is a second reading, in which "[a] good professor brings the complexities back into the text not as noise, but as music."

Kevin J.H. Dettmar, a professor at Pomona College, and Julius Taranto, a recent graduate who studied philosophy and English, write that they believe "good humanities teachers do two things in sequence."

First, the good ones take something that’s confusing and complicated for students and simplify it to the point where students have their bearings. They’re oriented; they can see in broad, general terms what a passage, text, or author is doing and talking about.


But good college professors do a second thing, too: After making it look simple, and orienting the students, these professors will make things complex again. That is, they teach the text again, but this time show the subtleties and depths. They start bringing out the reasons that the text looked complicated in the first place — because it is. The stuff that was stripped away during the simplifying process wasn’t gratuitous padding or obfuscation after all; it was doing work, providing nuance and additional layers of meaning.