As I begin another year of classes, I am once again reminded how little course content actually matters in terms of student engagement and success. Those concise class descriptions and proposed reading lists that left me struggling to choose between classes that all sounded, well, really good, are no longer relevant in the pedagogical space of the classroom. The most interesting material can easily be murdered and the dullest brought to life; this is dependent on how the professor engages with students. When my readings and preliminary assignments are done, I go to class, I sit down, and surrounded by my classmates, I wait to be taught. At the most basic level, this is what the classroom is all about: we as students are there to learn and our professors are there to teach us. And the most important thing we as students can be taught is why the content we are learning about matters. This is the difference between a degree and an education, between graduating with a BA and graduating with a genuine belief that the humanities are necessarily and absolutely relevant.
I was lucky to encounter a professor that inspired such a realization in my first year at university, and this encounter is the reason I switched from a BSc to a BA with a major in English and Canadian studies. While there are plenty of good reasons why I made the switch, one stands out in particular. Combining lyrical rhetoric with sincere concern for comprehensibility, this first year professor actively grounded literary subject matter by relating it to accessible contemporary examples. Whether it was a Heritage Minute, a recorded reading of a particular poem, or a Dr. Pepper commercial, the professor’s efforts to tie abstract theories to recognizable, concrete examples validated our liberal arts education at a time when government rhetoric and popular culture often perpetuates claims of its uselessness. In effect, the professor not only cared that we understood the material she taught, she also cared that we understood the relevance of that material in a social, political, and cultural context. It was just one class in first year, but it triggered subtle shifts in my own thinking that led me to sincerely believe the humanities, and those who work within them, do create, drive, and inspire positive change.
From my perspective, the best professors don’t simply lecture on individual texts, they lecture about the relevance and impact of those texts today. When I graduate this coming spring, the lessons that will stick with me are those that gave me the clearest sense of both the necessity and practicality of my humanities education.
Jacob Sandler is a fourth year undergraduate student studying English and Canadian Studies at Dalhousie University. His academic interests include contemporary Canadian literature, contemporary poetry and poetics, cultural studies, and the relationship between individual and collective forms of identity. He is currently co-president of the Dalhousie Undergraduate English Society.