Humanities for Humanity: A log from Humanities Day 2007

By Sam Feldman and John Thompson

Saturday marked the twenty-eighth annual Humanities Day at the University of Chicago, a smaller but older version of the citywide Humanities Festival. The day was organized into one-hour workshops held at venues throughout the UofC campus, each offering an opportunity for any and all who were interested a chance to learn from a groundbreaking humanities scholar or impresario. The following is a log of choice events:

Civic Knowledge Project Panel, 1:30pm

“[We] became involved with lots of different organizations and individuals in the surrounding community, where we could develop mutually enriching, reciprocal relationships that could avoid so many of the problems the University of Chicago’s had in the past when they’ve just talked about service or outreach or urban renewal,” says Bart Schultz, speaking to the goals of the Civic Knowledge Project (CKP). The CKP affords UofC students opportunities to learn from the surrounding community and mobilizes University resources to help local non-profits. The workshop was the most democratic among all those offered during Humanities Day, with members from the Illinois Humanities Council, adult students who have benefited from the humanities curricula offered via the CKP’s Odyssey Project, and members from organizations in the South Side Arts and Humanities Network all joining in to explain the benefits and potential problems with the CKP’s purpose. Patric McCoy—South Side resident, University alumnus, and art collector—said, “During O-Week, we were told very clearly—to my chagrin—not to go across Cottage Grove, not to go across 61st Street. I lived on 62nd and Champlain! The University was very insular, and I think that was a real problem. So I think the Civic Knowledge Project has been a real godsend.”

“Telling Stories” with Professor Ted Cohen, 3pm

What ostensibly started as an exploration of our relation to fiction quickly became more memorable for Professor Cohen’s one-liners. Two selections:
Regarding the study of aesthetics: “Mark Twain says somewhere regarding some Frenchman—(one of those periodic Frenchman who come to the U.S. and then write a book explaining the United States; this has been going on since de Tocqueville and as they say you can’t really learn anything about the United States from those books, but you can learn everything about the French)—[Twain says] ’This would never be a problem for anyone but a trained philosopher.’”
Irony vs. metaphor: “It’s difficult to tell when someone is speaking or writing ironically. But once you know that, it’s pretty easy to figure out what’s meant. With metaphor, it’s usually pretty easy to figure out that you’re dealing with a metaphor, and it can be very difficult to figure out what the damn thing means!”

”Making the Scene: Wicker Park, Hyde Park and the Future of Cities” with Professor Lawrence Rothfield, 3pm

“The creative class is footloose and fancy-free,” according to economist and urban theorist Richard Florida. On Saturday Professor Rothfield explained Florida’s theories about the creative class—who they are, what draws them to a city and why they’re desirable—and their application to Chicago and its neighborhoods. The key concept in Rothfield’s brand of urban theory is the “scene,” which he defines as “practices of meaning-making through shared consumption” or participation. For a more pragmatic definition Rothfield referred us to Sartre, who once observed that although New York and Paris were both filled with writers, only Paris had a writing scene. In other words, New York writers spend their time scribbling away in their apartments while Paris writers lounge around at cafes, observe the passersby and interact with each other and the world around them.

In order to apply the sociological concept of “scene” to real-life communities, urban theorists have had to find a way to quantify such abstract qualities as “glamour,” “neighborliness” and “authenticity.” Using focus groups, Rothfield and his colleagues gave each business in a given neighborhood a score on each scale. Two neighborhoods can then be compared mathematically and graphically. Hyde Park, for example, scores lower than Wicker Park on “self-expression,” “transgressive,” and “corporate,” but higher on “egalitarian,” “rationality” and “ethnicity.” Not too surprising, perhaps, but some of Rothfield’s other conclusions do tell us something new. For example, the most “bohemian” set of zip codes in Chicago according to Rothfield’s definition was the area stretching from Bridgeport through Chinatown and Pilsen to Little Village, scoring a perfect twenty out of twenty on the bohemian scale. Rothfield’s theories also apply on a national scale, and one of his most interesting comparisons was the number of restaurants in America’s three major cities: Cook County has 1,818, while New York City and Los Angeles each have a little more than 1,350.