What does it mean to understand oneself as situated in place and time? How is meaning made? How do we as individuals interpret our lives and history through the complexity of our diverse experiences?
This is a small part of what Summer Research in Humanities, part of the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics’ Summer Research & Innovation Programs, seeks to answer.
Humanities Instructor Dr. David Cantrell leads students on a two-week journey of the exploration of material culture, the written word, archival objects, experience-as-historical, archaeology and self – and how all of these shape our understanding of the world around and within us.
“This course is meant to introduce its students to the study of culture as an opportunity for and an occasion of the renewed struggle for a life worthy of humans,” the course description promises. “Focusing on the critical and creative engagement with objects from art to the everyday works of material culture, it seeks to give a stronger and deeper historical understanding of both the creative resistance of cultural forms – literature, visual arts, music – to inhumanity and the crucial resources these forms offer for the imagination of a different humanity.”
More simply put, Cantrell wants students to reflect on the act of learning as a social experience of self-transformation. He hopes students will be willing to ask difficult questions and be open to uncertainty.
“It’s an opportunity of the summer program for the students to understand the historical situation of their lives and in the work by which they wish to recreate those lives,” Cantrell said. “That’s what’s really at stake for me: to help them understand how they are situated within history and to interrogate those situations when they write, when they are reading. They are asking, ‘How does this text, or how does this object respond to the situation in which it was created?’ And, inseparably, ‘What is the nature of my response, my situation, to the address or call of this object?’”
Over two weeks, students travel across the Piedmont to historical sites, libraries, archives, and the city of Durham and the surrounding countryside.
They explore concepts of high and low art and what and who differentiates the two. They then formulate a research question and apply what they are learning to their projects.
“On one hand, it’s a rigorous introduction to research,” says Cantrell. “At the same time, I want to expand their understanding of the field of research; I want to expand it from text to material culture … In looking at the world, they begin to acquire a sense of how they look at the world, to make them self-conscious of how objects, persons, events are made visible or invisible.”
Sam Scarborough, an NCSSM residential student from Durham said that this program taught him language to put to his experiences. He read a text by Edward Soja, “Spatial Justice,” which stood out as particularly impactful.
“I found that interesting because there were a lot of concepts that were talked about that I saw in my everyday life here in Durham, that I just didn’t have the terms to put towards it,” he said.
“Terms describing how different conversation spaces and social spaces are in some ways reserved for different groups of people because of power dynamics that exist in society. That was something that I knew about, but just didn’t necessarily apply to spatial justice.”
For Scarborough, who grew up near many of the places the students traveled for the program, there was a special and intense connection to that which he was learning. “It was very emotional,” he said. “Not only learning more about the ground that was under my foot, but also just kind of settling with it.”
During a trip to the North Carolina Museum of History archives, Scarborough even saw his cousin’s NBA jersey in the room where they housed clothing. “It was just crazy, because I just saw the jersey, and I thought it looked cool,” he said. “And then I pulled it out, and I was like, oh my goodness!”
While those connections created uniquely personal moments for Scarborough during the program, he said that the best moment was one of reflection during a fun and casual outing to a restaurant.
“The best part was when we went to a restaurant called Sweet Potatoes,” he said. “We had a really engaged discussion…it was a great way to, for lack of a better term, metaphorically sew together what we have learned.”
These discussions, and more importantly this love of having engaged, critical discussions, and the love of thinking through experiences is what Cantrell hopes to foster.
“You wish to honor [the summer program] as an occasion for them to discover or rediscover the love that led them to NCSSM in the first place,” said Cantrell. “And you know really, to try and rescue their education from the instrumentalities of the college admission process and of everything that transforms what they do into a means for some sort of end.”
Which is a sort of open-ended end of its own, for Cantrell: “Even if they never returned to the project of the summer, the practices of looking at the world and thinking about the world and their relations to the world will remain and allow them to participate more fully in their own lives.”