The Humanities Studio at Pomona College, launched in September 2018, enriches the humanities experience of Pomona students, faculty, staff, and our surrounding communities through workshops, a fellowship program, and a speakers series organized around an annual theme. The theme for the Studio’s inaugural year was “Fail Better,” in honor of late Pomona College Professor of English Arden Reed. The theme for the 2019-20 year is "Post/Truth."
Christina Sharpe: "Wake. Seed. Soil."
April 18, 2019
Christina Sharpe, professor of humanities at York University, visited Pomona to present “Wake. Seed. Soil.” — the final lecture in our yearlong “Fail Better” Speakers Series.
In this talk, Sharpe thought about wakes, about plantations and memorials, about soil, seeds, and ash. In order to do this, she turned to, among other things, two films, several images, The Whitney Plantation in Edgard, Louisiana, the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, and the Legacy Museum from Slavery to Mass Incarceration in Montgomery, Alabama.
Sharpe is known as one of the most important contemporary scholars in Black Diaspora thought and cultures. She is the author of Monstrous Intimacies: Making Post-Slavery Subjects and In the Wake: On Blackness and Being.
The event was co-sponsored by the American Studies Program, the Gender and Women’s Studies Program, the International Relations Program, and the Departments of English and History.
Hua Hsu on Writing
April 4, 2019
Hua Hsu is an associate professor of American Studies at Vassar College. He’s also a critic at The New Yorker, where he writes most often about hip hop. How does one guy get to have two such cool jobs? Hsu sat for an on-stage interview in the Humanities Studio, discussing his writing practice and his career as an academic and a popular writer and sharing insights with students about the balancing act of working simultaneously in the academic and popular realms.
Hua Hsu on "Cultural Criticism & Its Metaphors of Smallness"
April 4, 2019
Hua Hsu, associate professor of English and director of American Studies at Vassar College, presented “Of Fleas, Pests, and Termites: Cultural Criticism and its Metaphors of Smallness” — the penultimate lecture in our 2018-19 “Fail Better” Speakers Series.
To the cultural critic, failure has always seemed inevitable. There’s a romance to lost causes, to championing the obscure artist or the overshadowed author. But what happens when popular culture no longer orbits a stable center — when there’s no longer a boring monoculture to build your identity against, and our tastes and desires grow fragmented beyond imagination? What does it mean to seek out the lost and forgotten in this moment of historical amnesia? Hua Hsu, a critic at The New Yorker, sketched out an alternative lineage of culture and criticism that prizes the minuscule, the underground, and the stubborn — as well as his own obsession with a “pest” he found in the archives.
Hsu is the author of A Floating Chinaman: Fantasy and Failure across the Pacific.
Film Screening: "The Disaster Artist" and Q&A with Greg Sestero
March 27, 2019
The theme for the Humanities Studio's annual year of programming is "Fail Better." Tommy Wiseau’s auteurist masterpiece The Room (2003), “the greatest bad movie of all time,” is an irresistible topic given that theme. Never one to leave well enough (or bad enough) alone, in 2017 James Franco—trying to “fail better”?—made a film about the making of The Room. That film is called The Disaster Artist.
In partnership with Intercollegiate Media Studies at Pitzer College, the Humanities Studio hosted a screening of The Disaster Artist, a meditation on failure, friendship, and redemption, followed by a Q&A with Greg Sestero — “Mark” from The Room (“Oh hi, Mark”), and author of the memoir that inspired Franco’s film.
Humanities Toolkit: Writing for the Public
March 25, 2019
Jon Baskin, founding editor of The Point; Evan Kindley, senior humanities editor at the Los Angeles Review of Books (LARB); Francesca Capossela ’18, contributor to LARB; and Casey Goodwin ’19, intern at The Point, joined us for a panel discussion of the ins and outs of writing for the public, and how to make the leap from narrowly academic to broadly public writing.
Rostam Performs Debut Solo Album "Half-Light"
March 13, 2019
Rostam (formerly of acclaimed indie band Vampire Weekend) visited Pomona College to perform from his debut solo album, Half-Light.
A Grammy Award-winning songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, and producer, Rostam produced Vampire Weekend's self-titled debut while he was a student at Columbia University. That album, along with Contra and Modern Vampires in the City, became gold records for the band with Rostam as producer. Rostam announced his departure from Vampire Weekend in early 2016. His solo debut Half-Light is a kaleidoscopic work featuring 15 songs written, produced and performed by Rostam in his Los Angeles home studio.
The event was part of the College's Art of a Revolution series, co-sponsored by the Department of History, to celebrate Persian New Year and commemorate the fortieth anniversary of the Iranian Revolution.
"Raiders of the Lost Archives": A Workshop with Scott A. Sandage
March 8, 2019
American cultural historian Scott A. Sandage conducted a primary-source workshop exclusively for Pomona College students, focusing on some of the archival sources for his book Born Losers: A History of Failure in America. The discussion touched on matters of contextualizing and interpreting manuscript sources, in addition to where and how Sandage found his sources on failure. His methodology is derived from Clifford Geertz’s practice of “thick description,” in which context and layers of meaning are culled from ancillary sources that surround the primary source.
Scott A. Sandage: "Loser! How Trump's Favorite Insult Became Our Hugest Fear"
March 7, 2019
A cultural historian and the author of Born Losers: A History of Failure in America, Scott A. Sandage presented an illustrated lecture about how an eighteenth-century business term—loser—became a personal fear and a public insult. Why does “Loser!” wield such power to hurt and to provoke, whether on the school bus or in the White House? Tracing fundamental changes in the meanings of failure in a culture framed around success, Sandage reflected on his own failures—and invited guests to reconsider our own.
Sandage joined us from Carnegie Mellon University. He is a consultant to the Smithsonian Institution, the National Archives, and the National Park Service. His writing has appeared in The New York Times and The Washington Post.
Celebration of Nowruz (the vernal equinox and Persian New Year)
March 7, 2019
The Oldenborg Center and the Department of History presented a celebration of Persian New Year (Nowruz), featuring Persian cuisine, classical Persian poetry presented by students of the College's Persian language program, and a live set of Persian classical music performed by the Taak Ensemble. The celebration was part of the Art of a Revolution Series, celebrating Persian New Year and commemorating the fortieth anniversary of the Iranian Revolution.
Humanities Toolkit: Writing for Trade Publishers & Careers in Publishing
March 6, 2019
Students interested in careers in publishing gathered advice about next steps for making that dream a reality and learned how trade publishing differs from scholarly publishing from trade-press editor (and Pomona alum!) Stephanie Stein and literary agent Elise Capron.
Film Screening: "No Land's Song"
March 5, 2019
Professor Anthony Shay introduced this screening of the film No Land’s Song – a documentary about a young composer who organizes a concert for females solo singers in Iran after the 1979 regime forbids women to sing publicly as soloists. The event was part of the Art of a Revolution Series, celebrating Persian New Year and commemorating the fortieth anniversary of the Iranian Revolution.
Film Screening: "Close-Up"
February 28, 2019
Professor Arash Khazeni introduced this screening of the film Close-Up – named by a Sight & Sound poll as one of the "Top 50 Greatest Films of All Time." The event was part of the Art of a Revolution Series, celebrating Persian New Year and commemorating the fortieth anniversary of the Iranian Revolution.
Film Screening: "The White Meadows"
February 27, 2019
Professor Jonathan Lethem introduced this screening of the film The White Meadows – hailed as a masterpiece of the Iranian New Wave movement of cinema. The event was part of the Art of a Revolution Series, celebrating Persian New Year and commemorating the fortieth anniversary of the Iranian Revolution.
Workshop with Austin Walker: Failure, Team-Based Problem Solving & the Imagination
February 15, 2019
When “failure” exists at a societal level, there is no such thing as a quick fix. Every rusty gear interlocks with another, and soon, the entire machine shudders. How do we arrive at holistic solutions? Which problems are prioritized and which are left to the side? To explore this idea, Walker led Pomona College students in a simple, team-based roleplaying game set in the sci-fi future of our own solar system.
Austin Walker on "Failure as an Engine for Meaning-Making"
February 14, 2019
Austin Walker, editor-in-chief of Waypoint, VICE magazine's channel for gaming culture, and a writer on the intersection of games, culture, labor, and community, spoke about the benefits of failure in the gaming world.
“You pull back your bow string and let loose the arrow. It sails through the air, until it shatters, useless against the scaled sheen of the dragon’s hide. What do you do?” In our daily lives, scenarios like these are empty fantasy, but for those familiar with Dungeons and Dragons and other roleplaying games, a sequence like this is not only normal, but potent. With every new bit of narration and each roll of the dice, players weave together heroic stories of success and failure—and it is the latter, not the former, that provides a catalyst for future action, necessary context for characterization, and a clear marker of plot stakes.
Yet only in the last decade have the creators of these games begun to actively leverage the power of failure as a storytelling device, moving away from competitive models of play and towards exercises in collaborative fiction. Unsurprisingly, this shift comes alongside a broadening of “the roleplaying game” as a category, as independent, alternative, and small-press games have emerged to challenge the hegemonic vision of play presented by Dungeons and Dragons. Now, queer creators, designers of color, and other marginalized game makers are creating their own fantasy sandboxes, and they’re contesting the boundaries of “failure” along the way.
Drawing on the work contemporary game designers like Avery Alder and Brendan Conway, along with the critical work of Judith Halberstam and Walter Benjamin, Walker explored the function of failure in storytelling—whether those stories are about slaying dragons, developing one’s own identity, or building a sustainable community in a hostile world.
Humanities Toolkit: Working with Scholarly Publishers
February 13, 2019
Aspiring (published) writers learned how to work with a university press to find an appropriate home for their scholarly books. Dr. Ray Ryan, Senior Commissioning Editor at Cambridge University Press, addressed the process of querying editors, pitching your project, writing a proposal and cover letter—as well as responding to readers reports, and what to expect in a contract.
Drury Sherrod on "How Narratives Shape Jury Verdicts"
February 12, 2019
Drury Sherrod is the author of a social psychology textbook and more than thirty articles on psychology, jury behavior, attribution theory, and the effects of environmental stress on human behavior.
Geeta Dayal on Exploring Strategies for Creative Thinking
February 1, 2019
Music writer Geeta Dayal hosted a workshop on using creative systems like Brian Eno’s “Oblique Strategies” to stimulate students' own creativity.
Geeta Dayal on "Brian Eno, the Oblique Strategies, and Building Tools for Creativity"
January 31, 2019
Music writer Geeta Dayal discussed systems and strategies of creativity devised in the 20th century—including pioneering musician Brian Eno's "Oblique Strategies"—and how they might help us today.
The Oblique Strategies, a card deck of “over 100 worthwhile dilemmas,” was originally released by Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt in 1975. The Strategies have had impressive cultural traction in the four decades since. Many of Eno’s high-profile friends and collaborators—from David Bowie to The Edge to David Byrne—have used the cards to get around creative impasses and make music in new ways.
Many artists used special decks of cards or card-like systems in the 20th century, but few of them crossed over into popular culture with as much success as the Oblique Strategies. Fluxus had their “Fluxboxes” or “Fluxkits” in the 1960s. In 1969, Marshall McLuhan released a series of aphorisms, printed on regular poker cards, known as the “Distant Early Warning” cards. John Cage famously used the I Ching, the ancient Chinese divination system based on 64 hexagrams—not a straightforward card deck, per se, but a complex system that he deployed in many different ways.
Dayal is a prolific writer, covering electronic music for magazines such as Bookforum, Wired, The Guardian, Rolling Stone, the Wire, The New York Times, and the Village Voice. She is the author of Brian Eno: Another Green World in the 33 1/3 series.
Brian Keating on Popular Science Writing: How & Why to Do It
December 7, 2018
In a special session for aspiring writers at Pomona, astrophysicist and inventor Brian Keating shared his insights and tips about how (and why) one might engage in popular science writing.
Brian Keating on "Losing the Nobel Prize"
December 6, 2018
Brian Keating, cosmologist and inventor, spoke about his book Losing the Nobel Prize: A Cosmological Memoir. In the book, Keating shares the inside story of the experiment that brought him to the cusp of Nobel glory, and of the mesmerizing discovery and the scientific drama that ensued. He provocatively argues that the Nobel Prize, instead of advancing scientific progress, may actually hamper it, encouraging speed and greed while punishing collaboration and bold innovation. In a thoughtful reappraisal of the wishes of Alfred Nobel, Keating offers practical solutions for reforming the prize, providing a vision of a scientific future in which cosmologists may, finally, be able to see all the way back to the very beginning.
Keating is a professor of physics at the Center for Astrophysics & Space Sciences (CASS) in the Department of Physics at the University of California, San Diego. He is a public speaker, inventor, and an expert in the study of the universe’s oldest light, using it to learn about the origin and evolution of the universe. He is a pioneer in the search for the earliest physical evidence of the inflationary epoch, the theorized period of expansion of space in the early universe directly after the Big Bang.
The event was co-sponsored by the Pomona College Department of Physics.
Applying to Graduate Programs in the Humanities
November 26, 2018
Part of the Humanities Toolkit series, we welcomed three UCLA graduate advisors (Charlene Villaseñor Black, Art History; Muriel McClendon, History; and Christopher Mott, English) for a practical roundtable dealing with such topics as making the decision to go to graduate school; selecting the right graduate school; the importance of contacting potential faculty advisors; crafting a personal statement, statement of purpose and/or diversity statement; selecting and polishing a writing sample; approaching letter writers; and funding one's graduate education.
Sarah Lewis on "Creativity, the Gift of Failure and the Search for Mastery"
November 15, 2018
Sarah Lewis, assistant professor of art and architecture and African and African-American studies at Harvard University and author of The Rise: Creativity, the Gift of Failure and the Search for Mastery, spoke about where new innovations, new ideas, spring from and offered her perspective on what enables creative endeavors. What really drives iconic, transformational change on both a personal and an organizational level? From Nobel Prize–winning discoveries to new inventions to works of art, many of our creative triumphs are not achievements but are conversions, corrections after failed attempts.
Drawing on figures such as Frederick Douglass, Angela Duckworth, J. K. Rowling, and others, Lewis revealed the importance of play, grit, surrender, often ignored ideas, and the necessary experiments and follow-up attempts that lead to true breakthroughs. The path to success, Lewis noted, is often more surprising than we expect.
The event was presented in partnership with the Departments of History and Art History and the American Studies Program.
Writing & Pitching an Op-Ed: A Conversation with Bill Keller ’70
November 13, 2018
Bill Keller, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and former executive editor of The New York Times, spoke with aspiring faculty, staff, and student editorial writers about what makes for a compelling and timely op-ed and how to get editors to read a pitch.
Keller, a Pomona alumnus from the class of 1970, is Editor-in-Chief at The Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization covering the U.S. criminal justice system. A winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 1988 for his reporting from Moscow, Keller served as executive editor of The New York Times from 2003 to 2011, where he was an Op-Ed columnist from 2001 to 2003 and again from 2011 to 2014. He is an emeritus member of the Pomona College Board of Trustees.
Can Democracy Work? A Reading & Discussion with James Miller
November 8, 2018
Today, democracy is the world's only broadly accepted political system, and yet it has become synonymous with disappointment and crisis. How did it come to this? In his book Can Democracy Work? A Short History of a Radical Idea from Ancient Athens to Our World, Pomona alumnus James Miller offered a lively, surprising, and urgent history of the democratic idea from its first stirrings to the present.
Miller is a professor of politics and liberal studies at the New School for Social Research. He is the author of the critically acclaimed Examined Lives: From Socrates to Nietzsche; Flowers in the Dustbin: The Rise of Rock and Roll, 1947-1977; and Democracy in the Streets: From Port Huron to the Siege of Chicago.
The event was co-sponsored by the Department of Politics.
Kenneth Lonergan: Writing for Stage and Screen
November 2, 2018
Student actors performed the opening of Lonergan's Lobby Hero, followed by a talkback with the director (Emma Silverman), actors, and playwright Kenneth Lonergan.
Kenneth Lonergan in Conversation with Jonathan Lethem
November 1, 2018
The Humanities Studio welcomed award-winning film director, playwright and screenwriter Kenneth Lonergan to Claremont as the third guest in our Studio Speakers Series. Screenings of two acclaimed Lonergan films, Margaret and Manchester by the Sea, were followed by a conversation and Q&A session with Lonergan hosted by Jonathan Lethem.
Lonergan is perhaps best known for his 2016 film Manchester by the Sea, which he wrote and directed, and for which he won the Academy and BAFTA awards for best original screenplay. He wrote and directed You Can Count on Me (2000) and Margaret (2011), and has written or co-written a number of other screenplays including Analyze This (1999) and Gangs of New York (2002). He has also written frequently for the stage, including The Waverly Gallery (2000), which was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize, and Lobby Hero (2001).
Jonathan Lethem is the Roy Edward Disney ‘51 Professor of Creative Writing and Professor of English at Pomona College and the author of eleven novels including, most recently, The Feral Detective.
The event was presented in partnership with the Departments of Philosophy and History and the American Studies Program.
Film Screening: DJ Spooky's Rebirth of a Nation
October 12, 2018
The Humanities Studio and Paul D. Miller a.k.a. DJ Spooky presented a screening of Miller's Rebirth of a Nation — a film project the artist describes as a "remix" of D. W. Griffith's infamous 1915 film Birth of a Nation. The film was commissioned in 2004 as the artist's first large-scale multimedia performance piece and has been performed in venues around the world. The DVD version of the performance, presented at this screening, was released in 2008.
Of Miller's work, collaborator Yoko Ono said, “DJ Spooky cannot be called just a DJ. He is a very accomplished composer. But these days, DJs are the ones who are bringing fresh sounds to the music world. In fact, they are creating a new spatial music. They are the space transformers of the universe.”
Jennifer Fay On Writing: A Conversation
October 12, 2018
Natasha Anis ’19 spoke with film scholar Jennifer Fay about her creative process and tips for aspiring writers of all kinds.
Jennifer Fay on "Virtuosic Failure & Environmental Design: Buster Keaton"
October 11, 2018
Following a screening of the Buster Keaton film Steamboat Bill Jr., supported by a live set by DJ Spooky, film scholar Jennifer Fay considered Keaton’s “climatography” as a fable for our contemporary environmental crisis.
Fay is associate professor of film and English at Vanderbilt University and director of Vanderbilt's program in Cinema and Media Arts. She is the author of Theaters of Occupation: Hollywood and the Reeducation of Postwar Germany and co-author of Film Noir: Hard-Boiled Modernity and the Cultures of Globalization. Her most recent book, Inhospitable World: Cinema in the Time of the Anthropocene, was published in March 2018.
DJ Spooky a.k.a. Paul D. Miller is the executive editor of ORIGIN Magazine and is a composer, multimedia artist, editor and author. He has produced and composed work for Yoko Ono, Thurston Moore, and scores of artists and award-winning films, in addition to writing award-winning books, holding an artist's residency at Stanford University, and creating the mega-popular DJ MIXER iPad app.
September 24–28, 2018
A week of performances and presentations regarding the work, influence, and life of American composer and thinker John Cage (1912–1992), Pomona Class of 1932.
Greil Marcus On Writing: A Conversation
September 14, 2018
Ros Faulker ’19 spoke with noted music critic, author and editor Greil Marcus about his creative process and tips for aspiring writers of all kinds.
Greil Marcus on "How Failure Makes History"
September 13, 2018
An editor and critic over the past five decades for Rolling Stone, Creem and the Village Voice, Greil Marcus is the author of Mystery Train: Images of American in Rock ‘n’ Roll Music; Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the 20th Century; Like a Rolling Stone: Bob Dylan at the Crossroads; and nearly two dozen other books. Bruce Springsteen said that Mystery Train “gets as close to the heart and soul of America and American music as the best of rock ‘n’ roll”; about his work, the New Yorker wrote “Greil Marcus developed an ability to discern an art movement, or an entire country, lurking inside a song.”
Marcus spoke on “How Failure Makes History,” followed by a book signing.
The event was co-sponsored by the American Studies Program, the Department of History, and the Joseph Horsfall Johnson Public Event Fund.