Discovering the Humanities Lab

As a global health major, I am interested in the big picture problems– how can we improve health on a greater scale? Or, what are the root causes that underlie key issues like HIV, malaria, or cardiovascular disease? My interests are broad, and my education the past four years at ASU has been just as diverse: from genetics, to economics, to French, to linguistic anthropology, these courses have not only expanded my worldview but have also allowed me to explore the unexpected connections between these different disciplines.

To my simultaneous excitement and chagrin, a month into my second semester of my senior year, I discovered the Humanities Lab, a brand new ASU initiative in its first full year of offering courses in transdisciplinary learning. Though the Spring 2018 Health Humanities Lab course seemed to fit my varied background perfectly, my discovery came too late to enroll. However, I was pleased when I saw another opportunity to engage with the Lab as a Communications Assistant, and I submitted my resume. In the months that followed, I worked with the Lab’s program coordinator, Monica Boyd, and founder, Dr. Sally Kitch, both of whom gave me the autonomy and creativity to test my ideas. As someone who is more of a generalist than a specialist, the Lab helped to reaffirm my belief in the value of a diverse education and how the skills I have gained in my multidisciplinary study could be applied.

My role with the Humanities Lab

My role with the Humanities Lab was centrally focused on promoting its pedagogic work through social media and other channels, as well as scheduling and coordinating meetings for the Lab’s administration. Through these actions, I became familiar with just how much effort goes into promoting something so new. This was a valuable opportunity and learning experience for me as I forge a career in global health, in which I will examine current practices that are attempting to solve complex human challenges such as immigration, and figure out how we can continually improve those practices. Constructing and communicating stories is one of the most powerful tools for creating change, and in my future work, I know that it will be extremely important to be able to bridge the lived experiences of immigrants and refugees with those who have the power to improve the situations of these people. In today’s society, it seems there is such a vast disconnect between the general American public and the rest of the world, and I know that many people disengage simply because it is too overwhelming to think about. I believe, however, that people inherently strive to improve, both themselves and their environment, and need only the right spark of inspiration to take action. I think that in helping to develop an effective system of communication within the Lab, I have learned not only the process and necessary components of a working system, but the different ways that people approach collaboration, and as such, how different people are motivated to participate. Whether it be creating media content, or sending emails for the Lab, I have to consider my audience’s perspective in order to send a salient message.

Throughout my few months with the Lab, I have come to appreciate even further the humanities-grounded approach to solving complex problems — what the Lab refers to as “grand social challenges.” There is a great debate about the value of a humanities degree in an era in which technology and science reign. One of the most important things I learned while working with the Lab was that the humanities have a unique power. Through a large body of data and nationwide Gallup polls, a report from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences showed that graduates of the humanities are gainfully employed, hold positions of authority, and reported job satisfaction comparable to graduates from all other fields. What the report underscored for me is that while employers value the skills that a humanities degree provides (strong critical thinking and analysis, oral and written communication, creativity) there is little attention to why these skills are so important, and how they are relevant in the “real world.” This is because the most critical problems of our time, for example poverty or immigration, are ancient problems of humanity. They require such a broad and comprehensive scope that demand a depth of knowledge about human society and culture. What I appreciate about the Humanities Lab is that through the Lab’s many interdisciplinary connections, a student doesn’t necessarily have to be a humanities degree-seeking student to enroll so that they can begin honing these types of skills and applying them to real problems.

The ability to collaborate with scholars from different disciplines, combine various fields of study to engage with issues and questions in new ways is unique and, I think, particularly demonstrates the qualities of a university that prides itself on being innovative. At the conclusion of the Spring semester I was able to attend and document the Health Humanities Lab’s final research showcase. During one of the presentations on sex workers’ access to healthcare, a student presenter referred to the power dynamic between sex workers and the media: “By giving a voice you can also retract a voice…so it’s not really giving power at all.” This student was majoring in business, and in this presentation it was clear that in using a humanities research approach, social media, a very powerful tool in business, became more than something used to market and sell goods, but a tool that can both give power to and take power from, different groups. Another presenter from a group who researched gender and mental health noted, “Language is gendering us in a lot more ways than just our pronouns.” Here, it was evident that a language analysis could become richer than just the text itself, by extending beyond the page to shape our identities, and, as a result, cultures. These snippets cannot capture the entirety of this course, nor the research of the students; however, I think they hint at the atmosphere of the room, and the essence of the Humanities Lab itself: a place full of curiosity and an eagerness to learn.

As my time working with the Lab draws to a close, I am glad I have gotten to be a part of building the foundation of this unique opportunity for ASU students from any discipline, to come together and share ideas in an effort to understand some of the most complex human issues that define our past, present, and future. I hope that many more students can share this experience as a part of the Humanities Lab in the semesters to come. Thank you so much to Monica and Dr. Kitch for creating such a wonderful learning environment and I am excited to see how the Humanities Lab grows!

Azalea Thomson
Global Health Major