Each year, up to five Stuart Tave Teaching fellowships are awarded to advanced humanities graduate students. Fellows teach an undergraduate course of their own design, reflecting their intellectual interests and providing engaging and broadly appealing subject matter suitable for their department’s curriculum. Tableau sat in on three such classes this spring.

Popular Science and New Media: Methods, Theory, and Practice
Mikki Kressbach, Cinema and Media Studies

Mikki Kressbach—who specializes in the representation of infectious disease in contemporary film, television, and video games—teaches her course on science and medicine through emerging media and technologies in a small, dim auditorium in Cobb Hall. About half the students are science majors, and the other half study the humanities.

Kressbach’s course asks students to interact with media and everyday technologies, such as watching movies and using smartphone apps and fitness trackers. She wants students to explore “ordinary and often overlooked encounters with science,” she explains.

Week six on the syllabus is called “Citizen Scientists: Gaming Science and Medicine.” The second class of the week begins with a discussion of how video games train users in perception, knowledge, muscle memory, and reflexes. Learning is embedded in video game infrastructure, Kressbach explains, and games have been used in surgical training.

The students watch a video of physicians using a hospital-based laparoscopic surgery training system and compare their actions with the skills theoretically gained from video games, such as hand-eye coordination and ambidexterity. They watch a clip of a game called Underground, developed to train surgeons but marketed to the public on the Wii gaming platform. While the game might be fun for laypeople, students quickly identify drawbacks to such training for actual surgeons.

Digital gaming can be choppy, denying the ability to make precise micro-movements, says one student. Another student thinks the lag may be beneficial because “you have to anticipate the lag to effectively play the game.” Kressbach asks if such a lag would pose problems in real surgery. One student suggests that learning on and mastering an imperfect system would make real surgery easier. Another student counters that training on a game teaches the surgeon to master the system and not the skills themselves.

Yet another student praises the platform: “You don’t even realize you’re learning. It’s subconscious.” This statement prompts another student to wonder, “Why would we want surgeons to learn subconsciously?”

Kressbach considers the difference between learning and practicing. “Training is hard,” she says, “but execution shouldn’t be.”

Islamic Political Thought in the Global Era
Madeleine Elfenbein, AM’11, Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations

From 2015 through 2017, Madeleine Elfenbein helped lead the Race and Pedagogy working group—created by graduate students and affiliated with the Center for the Study of Race, Politics and Culture; UChicagoGRAD; and the Chicago Center for Teaching. That experience, and teaching in the Core’s Classics of Social and Political Thought sequence, inspired a class investigating how Islam “has remained a vital source of principles and doctrines for a diverse array of political thinkers and movements over the course of the past two centuries."

The quarter’s study has included the modernization of Turkey, Islam and Blackness in America, and the Muslim Brotherhood. Sandwiched between Islamic feminism in week seven and secularism in Islamic political thought in week nine, week eight focuses on contemporary jihads and jihadisms, to explore how jihadi thinkers use Islamic texts and traditions toward specific political ends.

The class, held in Wieboldt Hall, begins with a look ahead to the following class’s assignment, which included watching a four-minute Islamic State (IS) group video. Many students have already seen it and are eager to discuss it and other IS-produced media.

One student has read Rumiyah magazine, an IS publication. He notes that the issue was “written in English for English-speaking readers by people who speak English well.” A column called Just Terror Tactics, he says, could be a headline on the cover of US Weekly.

The class continues to discuss the stylistic choices of jihadist media and how their treatment is tailored to certain aspects of the message. Propaganda by and about Osama Bin Laden was “appropriately rustic in its production value,” a student says. “You saw jihadis in a cave filmed with a camcorder. The low quality of the production matches the pristine brutality of their thought.”

Current jihadist media is higher quality: “Articles have been laid out in InDesign; they’ve got video fades going,” the student says.

Another student says the IS video looks like a UN production with statistics and infographics.

Elfenbein brings the class discussion back to the day’s reading, covering fundamentalist groups’ historical context and an analysis of jihadist literature, including the Hamas Charter (1990) and Osama Bin Laden’s declaration of war against America (1996).

As a capstone project for the course, each student writes an essay on a text by an Islamic political thinker of their choice.

Beethoven or Bust: Musical Canon Building in Nineteenth-Century Culture
Abigail Fine, PhD’17, Music

In a tiny second-floor classroom in Goodspeed Hall during the fifth week of spring quarter, Abigail Fine, PhD’17, reminds her students of the previous week’s assignment: find a cover of a song that changes the original’s tenor from highbrow to lowbrow or vice versa.

The notion of high- and lowbrow and their applications is the week’s theme in Fine’s course on how canonical artworks “rise to the top like oil on water.” Fine explains outside of class that the course not only “polemicizes or deconstructs the canon but pieces together a mosaic of historical and cultural explanations for how canons form.”

The syllabus outlines the week’s focus on musical elitism between and within genres and the rift between serious art and entertainment, particularly in nineteenth-century culture. The class begins with a discussion of culturally enforced binaries and who the arbiters of highbrow art might be.

Fine asks the students if they know the origin of the terms “highbrow” and “lowbrow.” When no one answers, she warns: “Steel yourselves to be offended.” The concept comes from the pseudosciences of physiognomy and phrenology, which attribute personality traits and intellectual capacity to the shape of skulls and facial features.

She shows a figure from the 1889 book New Physiognomy captioned “Grades of Intelligence,” illustrating different skull shapes based on race. The eyebrow prominence is a focal point: a higher brow, attributed to “Europeans,” indicated greater intelligence, while a lower brow, attributed to the “negro,” indicated a low grade of intelligence. The students murmur in disapproval.

She brings the discussion back to music by explaining that in the mid-1800s, phrenologists made casts of the skulls of composers, including Beethoven, Schubert, and Haydn, and attempted to correlate their skeletal structures to their musical styles.

The class then explores the ethical baggage of defining art as high- or lowbrow, which leads to the power dynamics that shape tastes and eventually influence canon building.

Fine hoped to revise and retool the curriculum for a graduate workshop at the University of Hawai'i at Mānoa, where she joined the faculty this fall.

Photo Creds: 
Image from Underground, courtesy of Grendel Games