4.2 Humanities 101: “The History of Today” The University of Alberta, Edmonton, Alberta

Jay Friesen


It’s a Tuesday evening, and our class can feel ourselves getting caught in the familiar Humanities 101 rhythm. Before class begins, we send our usual delegation to get coffee and tea, while others help set up the snack table—strudel and Rice Krispie squares tonight—and reconfigure our classroom into our elongated ‘round’ table. All the while we visit, catch up with what one another has been doing during the last week, and talk about what the upcoming class is going to cover. And although it’s still before class has officially begun, it’s this early conversation that establishes the pulse for what follows; it’s these pre-class traditions that are perhaps some of the most important features of what we’ve fostered.

As it goes, on this particular evening we’re discussing the UN’s HeForShe initiative. Accordingly, much of the early pre-class chatter is personal anecdotes about how gender stereotypes have impacted those in the class, anticipating how these experiences might inform our discussions during the class. Each week our class welcomes a new presenter, and tonight we’re fortunate to have Dr. Haagsma, an archeologist, deliver a lecture. In Humanities 101, each semester the theme changes. This semester, we’re considering the “History of Today,” where we look at significant current events—such as Emma Watson delivering her famous HeForShe speech—and work to better understand its historical underpinnings. In this spirit, Dr. Haagsma skillfully leads the discussion by depicting how women in ancient Greece fit into the social fabric of Greek society. In some ways we discover how far we’ve come with respect to gender equality; in other ways, though, we find how little things have changed. In both respects, we have a number of thoughtful discussions about how learning some contextualized history reframes how we see the issues of today.

Before we know it, the two hours of class have passed, and we're winding down by talking about what the upcoming weeks will look like. Next week we have a lecture on how violent crime is depicted in the news. We also have a field trip to the Alberta Legislature, where we’ll be extending our recent discussion about the changing face of Canadian democracy. And after that, we begin another familiar pattern as we say our goodbyes and begin the wait until next Tuesday evening when we can do it all again. Such is the rhythm of Humanities.

Of course, all classes develop their cadence and character. However, there’s something distinct happening in Humanities 101. As part of the University’s Community Service-Learning (CSL) programming, the course has been running since 2008 and offers free, non-credit university level classes for those in the community who have encountered barriers in their education. Modeled after Earl Shorris’ Clemente Program, Humanities 101 has aspirations to incite change through providing the opportunities to dismantle barriers and “develop the critical, reflective, and creative skills that empower [participants] to work effectively toward improving their own lives and those of their families and communities” (The Clemente Course).  And although the barriers to education have taken various forms—social, economic, situational, and so forth—the driving force behind the class is singular: a desire to critically engage the world around us.

At first glance, this motivation—a desire to engage with the world—might sound abstract, in practice it has tangible effects for those participating. For many who have encountered barriers in learning, what has been lost is a confidence to wade into academic topics that might seem unfamiliar and, in many ways, exclusionary. In practice, a desire to engage entails the motivation to move past these insecurities, which means a group commitment to creating a safe learning space with mutual learning goals. Accordingly, there is an undeniable sense of ownership for those who play a role in the class: learners, lecturers, and volunteers are all intimately involved in shaping how the course looks and feels. Topics covered in the course are developed in a deliberately collaborative manner, but always strive to maximize civic empowerment. Brainstorming sessions, which include students, facilitators, and volunteers inform what topics the class is motivated to pursue in upcoming semesters. This process, of course, informs one of the most basic principles of learning—pursuing topics that hold personal interest and meaning. It’s this personal interest that translates into meaningful impacts out in the world. To date, our class has looked at media literacy, the concept of the ‘home’ through various academic disciplines, and aliens (and human alienation), to name only a few areas we’ve investigated.

In most semesters, nearly half of the people attending have been there for at least one previous semester, and often many more. In contrast to most other classes, then, this sort of continuity cultivates an uncommon type of classroom community where everyone is highly invested in what future courses look like because it is, in essence, a reflection of what we’re building towards both as learners as well as people out in the world. The “C” in CSL, in this case, doesn’t simply mean that we’re simply located in the community (as opposed to say in the university), but also that we have developed a strong internal community as well.

Moving forward, we have plans to begin Art 101, a similar program with a focus on developing art skills, as well as Humanities 201, a program f0r graduates of Humanities 101 who want to continue with the program in seminar and reading groups. All along the way, the class will be evolving as those coming to class change themselves. Overall, it is in this dual sense of community that Humanities 101 exists and ought to be highlighted. Yes, the course is out in the community. It is also a community unto itself, one that has its own pulse and purpose from class to class, semester to semester, year to year.


Works Cited

The Clemente Course. “Mission Statement.” The Clemente Course in the Humanities. N.p., 2015. Web. 9 Feb. 2015.



Inquire: Journal of Comparative Literature

Brought to you by Graduate Students from the Program in Comparative Literature
at the University of Alberta

ISSN 1923-5879
Email: inquire [at] ualberta.ca

Join the Discussion