Humanities Studio Annual Theme

2023-24 Theme: Joy


Joy: we’re all looking for it, trying to stay alert to its manifestations, both mundane and transcendent. But what is it? How do the various scholarly disciplines understand the concept? What role might it play in our research, teaching, and service? How, or where, can work/joy balance be found?

Possible research and presentation topics might include:

  • Whither joy in this mid-/post-pandemic moment?
  • What do literary, artistic, musical, filmic, dramatic representations of joy have to teach us?
  • How do the expression and experience of joy differ? (cf. Linda Williams, Hard Core)
  • Is the experience of joy transhistorical and transcultural, or locally inflected?
  • How do joy and privilege intersect?
  • Is there an experience of joy that avoids naïveté?
  • Can joy be an engine of political/social/cultural/historical change?
  • “About suffering they were never wrong, / The old Masters,” W. H. Auden tells us.
  • What do the “old masters” and ancients have to tell us about suffering’s flip side, joy?
  • “The pleasure of the text” and “the text of pleasure” (Roland Barthes)
  • Jouissance
  • Ecstatic states (and the State?)
  • The relationship of joy to pleasure, happiness, contentedness
  • Joy as political resistance
  • The ethics of joy in a time of climate disaster and race/class warfare
  • Gendered pressures on the experience and expression of joy
  • The joy of sex (and The Joy of Sex)

These and many other topics and questions—especially those that our fellows bring to us—will help us shape our yearlong discussion and programming.


2022-23 Theme: Human||Nature


Over the course of the 2022–23 academic year, we explored the theme Human||Nature from a variety of disciplinary perspectives, grounded in the fields and methods of the humanities. Discourse took place in our Studio seminar — comprised of six faculty fellows, six undergraduate fellows, and two post-doc fellows — and more broadly through our Human||Nature public speakers series.

Possible research questions & communal discussions included:

  • Is there a “human nature”? What is the nature of “human nature”?
  • What are the possible relationships between the human and the natural?
  • What are the properties of human-nature interfaces, boundaries, borders?
  • How might we narrate the invention of nature and the intervention of the human?
  • Is “culture” the third term bridging “human” and “nature”?

These and many other topics and questions shaped our yearlong discussion and programming.


2021-22 Theme: Movement(s)


Over the course of the 2021–22 academic year, we explored the theme Movement(s) from a variety of disciplinary perspectives, grounded in the fields and methods of the humanities. Discourse took place in our Studio seminar — comprised of six faculty fellows, six undergraduate fellows, and two post-doc fellows — and more broadly through our Movement(s) public speakers series.

Some topical approaches included:

  • Intellectual movements
  • Artistic movements
  • Musical movements
  • Historical movements (the Civil Rights movement)
  • Social movements (antiracism, Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, MAGA)
  • Youth movement
  • Stock movements
  • Wave and particle motion
  • Stillness
  • Bodies in motion
  • (E)motion
  • Progress
  • Migration
  • Immigration
  • Emigration
  • Cinema’s 24 frames/sec
  • The Muybridge Horse
  • Animation
  • Kineticism

Among the questions we considered:

  • What does it mean to be a movement?
  • What does it mean to move?
  • What moves us?
  • What is the life cycle of a movement?
  • Why do some movements succeed while others fail?
  • How does movement/do movements shape the human experience?
  • How do we identify, observe, and measure movement(s)?
  • How does movement move through your discipline—as an embodied practice, a concept, a thematic focus, a metaphor, or in some other way?

These and many other topics and questions helped us shape our yearlong discussion.


2020-21 Theme: Indigeneities

For the 2020–21 academic year, the Humanities Studio at Pomona College explored the
theme Indigeneities from a variety of disciplinary perspectives. What lessons and values can
the humanities learn from the field of indigenous studies? What are the stakes of belonging,
of home? What are the various ways of being from a place (and not); of being native (and
not); of belonging (and not)?
Associated topics included:
  • Indigenous ways of knowing; indigenous research, methods, and protocols
  • Indigenous environmental consciousness
  • Indigeneity as an analytics of political resistance
  • The deep roots of Pomona College’s Southern California location and its connections to indigenous cultures
  • Home/homelands/tribal lands/“imaginary homelands” (Rushdie)/“imagined communities” (Benedict Anderson)
  • Borders, borderlands, border lines, the “frontier” (Borderlands/La Frontera [Anzaldua])
  • (Im-)migration, expatriation, repatriation
  • Narratives of arrival, “discovery,” displacement, and settler colonialism
  • Cultural appropriation
  • The politics of translation
  • The encroachment of the built environment
  • Indigeneity v. nativism v. nationalism v. enthno-nationalism
  • The literary work of genealogy
The Humanities Studio at Pomona College acknowledges its presence on the traditional, ancestral and unceded territory of the Gabrielino/Tongva peoples.

2019–20 Theme: Post/Truth


“What is truth?” Pontius Pilate, c. 33 CE

“Truth isn’t truth.” Rudolph Giuliani, August 19, 2018

It was the Oxford English Dictionary’s “word of the year” for 2016, Year Zero of the current U.S. Presidential Administration: post-truth or, as we’re styling it (for maximum flexibility and slipperiness and suggestiveness), post/truth. Tracing its current meaning back to 1992, the OED defines it this way: “Relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping political debate or public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”

In its second year, The Humanities Studio at Pomona College explored, through its Speakers Series, Fellows Seminar, and other campus programming, the various facets of our current post/truth (un-) reality. Members of the press are now denounced as “enemies of the people”; outright fabrications are described as “alternative facts”; Facebook, the world’s third most popular web site with more than 1.4 billion users, is flooded with fake news created in eastern European boiler rooms. Applications like FakeApp populate Reddit message boards like /r/deepfakes with forged-identity revenge porn; standards of evidence, across wide swaths of our public life, have been gutted. Indeed, the very truth status of the fact is under fire: science denial of many kinds, including climate denial and the anti-vaxxer movement, flourishes. And let’s not even start on all the varieties of confirmation bias fed by our news silos, including birtherism, Infowars, pizzagate, the deep state, false flag operations, crisis actors….

The Humanities Studio explored the post/truth phenomenon from a wide variety of disciplinary and interdisciplinary perspectives. Humanities Studio Undergraduate and Faculty Fellows, together with the Studio Director, Postdoctoral Fellows, and a group of visiting speakers, writers, and thinkers, took a long, hard look at post/truth—both truth and its denial and occlusions—to assess the hopes for restoring rational discourse about the most urgent problems facing us today.


2018–19 Theme: Fail Better


In a Phi Beta Kappa Presidential Address, “Fail Better,” late Pomona College English professor Arden Reed spoke of our tendency to sugarcoat experience, a pre­disposition “so ingrained that it’s hard to clear mental or emotional space that tolerates or accommodates failure.” A phrase famously uttered by Ed Harris in the 1995 movie Apollo 13 has become one of our era’s most ubiquitous and fatuous platitudes: “Failure is not an option.” Coming soon to a motivational poster near you.

Professor Reed, on the other hand, insisted that failure is not optional. He took the title for his address from Samuel Beckett’s late prose text, Worstword Ho (1983): “All of old. Nothing else ever. Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” At the time of his death in 1989 Beckett had been failing spectacularly, dazzlingly, for more than five decades—a body of work in which, according to the Nobel Prize committee, “the destitution of modern man acquires its elevation.” In the 1949 “Three Dialogues” (with Georges Duthuit), Beckett had embraced failure as both his artistic credo and highest aspiration: “To be an artist is to fail, as no other dare fail … failure is his world….”

Failure is all around us, Reed insisted; what’s more (and more surprising), he suggested that “failures bind us to each other, make us into the human species that we are. Failure matters not because it prompts us to persevere or find a silver lining, but because it is the natural state of things. Failure is woven into the fabric of our existence—the underside of success, the yin to its yang. Eventually we all will fail; by embracing failure, we can learn about the true existential parameters of our existence."

The program for the inaugural year of the Humanities Studio at Pomona College was dedicated to the memory of Arthur M. and Fanny M. Dole Professor of English Arden Reed. His career of nearly four decades at Pomona College as a devoted teacher and passionate, restless, boundary-crossing scholar was anything but a failure. But we honored his memory by applying ourselves to the twin concepts of failure and its kissing cousin, error—seeking better to understand the uses of failure and the impor­tance of error in the ecosystem of scholarly discovery. Together with the Studio Director, Faculty and Postdoctoral Fellows, and a group of visiting speakers, writers, and thinkers, Humanities Studio Undergraduate Fellows took a deep dive into failure, to bring back the treasures only it has to offer.