Reading in the Humanities Cynthia Shanahan, uic what is reading in the humanities?

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Reading in the Humanities

  • Cynthia Shanahan, UIC

What is reading in the humanities?

  • The humanities include:
    • Ancient and modern languages
    • Literature
    • History
    • Religion
    • Philosophy
    • Visual and Performing Arts*
    • Anthropology
    • Technology
    • Communication Studies
    • Cultural Studies
    • Linguistics
  • Humanities study the human condition. Methods are primarily analytical, critical, or speculative

What are the characteristics of humanities texts?

  • Lots of general academic vocabulary
  • Text can be abstract and philosophical rather than concrete and practical
  • Less reliance on overt features of text structure than science or mathematics text


  • Immanuel Kant: Of the Distinct objects of the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime
  • The various feelings of enjoyment or displeasure rest not so much upon the external things that arouse them as upon each person’s own disposition to be moved by these to pleasure or pain. This accounts for the joy of some people over things that cause aversion in others, or the amorous passion so often a puzzle to everybody, or the lively antipathy one person feels toward something that to another is quite indifferent. The field of observation of these peculiarities of human nature extends very wide and still conceals a rich source for discoveries that are just as pleasurable as they instructive. For the present I shall cast my gaze upon only a few places that seem particularly exceptional in this area, and even upon these more with the eye of an observer than of a philosopher.

Purposes for reading humanities texts

  • To understand human endeavors, attitudes, interactions, etc. (e.g. to understand cultural mores in middle eastern societies)
  • To understand and appreciate human creativity. (e.g. to recognize and enjoy beauty or conlfict in a piece of art).
  • To contemplate one’s own humanity (e.g. to see oneself in a novel)
  • To critically analyze perspectives about humankind and human endeavors (e.g. to analyze a piece of art; to analyze a philosophical argument
  • To evaluate the quality of human endeavor (e.g. to judge the quality of a piece of art)

Why is it important to read the humanities?

  • Can add to one’s understanding of him or herself and others
  • Can increase the habits of reflective thought and critical thinking
  • Part of lifelong reading enjoyment

Why is it important to read the humanities?

  • 25% of the questions on the ACT are in the humanities
    • Memoirs and personal essays
    • Content areas of
      • Architecture
      • Art
      • Dance
      • Ethics
      • Film
      • Language
      • Literary Criticism
      • Music
      • Philosophy
      • Radio, television, theatre

Example of ACT humanities question

  • The time is overdue to admit that there is some- thing of a vacuum in women’s poetry, and that we abhor it. For a woman to concede this is not disloyal to her sex; it’s the first step in the creation of an environment in which women artists will flourish. But what can be done about the fact that the list of beloved women poets is not as long as the list of beloved poets who were born male?
  • The most liberating response to the problem was the one Elizabeth Bishop chose. As James Merrill writes, “Lowell called her one of the four best women poets ever—which can hardly have pleased Miss Bishop, who kept her work from appearing in ‘women’s anthologies.’ Better, from her point of view, to be one 15 of the forty, or forty thousand, best poets, and have done with it.”

Example of ACT Question

  • Which of the following sentences best summarizes the first paragraph?
    • A. It is disloyal to encourage women to write, and to ask: Why do male poets flourish more readily than female poets?
    • B. We must ask why there are so few women writers; perhaps asking this question will help create a women-centered culture.
    • C. It can be liberating to ask questions such as: What can be done about the fact that there are fewer beloved male poets than female poets?
    • D. If we admit that there is not enough quality poetry written by women, it can make it easier to discover why this is so, and help us change the situation.

Example of ACT Question

  • t may reasonably be inferred from lines 10–17 that James Merrill respected Elizabeth Bishop’s poetry:
    • A. and wished that reaction to her poems had not been complicated by gender issues.
    • B. but was disturbed by her refusal to be included in women’s anthologies.
    • C. but felt she should be more concerned with women’s issues.
    • D. and was glad she was one of the four best women poets ever.

Why is reading humanities important?

  • Part of the Common Core Standards
  • The humanities embrace literature, history, and literary non-fiction; d the common core standards addresses these subjects areas as well with
    • Key ideas and details,
    • Craft and structure
    • Integration of knowledge and Ideas
    • Range of Reading and Level of Text Complexity.

The Lessons

  • Essential Question
    • What is art?
    • How do we attribute meaning and value to art?
    • What processes do artists use to create their work?
    • How does an artist’s past experience influence their work?


  • Preface
  • Appall
  • Fluidity
  • Harmony
  • Fleeting
  • Intuition
  • Finesse
  • Deduction
  • Epoch
  • Realization
  • Procuring
  • Recondite
  • Supposition
  • Sovereign
  • Utility
  • Utilitarian
  • Superseding
  • Expression
  • Decadence
  • Subsidiary
  • Base
  • Raison d’etre
  • Manifestation
  • Pious
  • Chimera
  • Dogma
  • Aesthetic
  • Transcend
  • Perspective
  • Balance
  • Articulate
  • Inherent
  • Symmetry
  • Composition
  • Medium
  • Controversial

Examples of Strategies

  • Before Reading
    • Quickwrites
    • Word Sorts
    • Surveying the Text
    • Title Analysis
  • During Reading
    • Think Alouds
    • Triple Entry Vocabulary Journals
  • After Reading
    • Summarizing
    • Written Response

Writing Activities

  • Quickwrites
  • Written Response
  • Writing Breaks
  • Written Reflection (on strategies)
  • Writing an argument

The Texts

  • The Preface to Paul Gaultier’s The Meaning of Art: Its Nature, Role, and Value (Preface by Emile Boutroux);
  • “How to Judge Art: Five Qualities You Can Critique”;
  • Searching for Beauty and Bone Structure in “The Swan”—Ben Bloch
  • “One Dollar Art: Laser Cut Money Made Worthless Gained Artistic Value”
  • Landi, Ann. ARTnews, November, 2007. Top Ten ARTnews Stories: Capturing the Artist in Action, Pollock Paints a Picture, ARTnews, May 1951.

Before Reading

  • Quickwrites: What is Art?
  • Image Rankings: I1 = not at all what I consider art; 5 = This is definitely what I consider art

What will teachers need to do to teach the unit?

  • Decide how to introduce and frame/reframe the essential questions as they relate to each of the readings
  • Help students to write a culminating essay that answers the questions
  • Decide before teaching how the strategies can be used to help students understand the humanities texts, especially in relation to the essential questions
  • Choose strategies that make sense for the humanities and your students
  • The teacher provides the glue!

Text: How to Judge Art: Five Qualities you Can Critique Whether You’re an Artist or Not

  • Knowing the difference between good and bad art can be difficult. You can’t always trust the art experts; many times it’s hard to even understand them. Since I believe that it’s important to make up your mind about art I decided to write this article to let each and every one of you judge art for yourself. (It’s a little longer than the other articles so far, so feed the dog or put the kids to bed, and don’t say I didn’t warn you!), I’ve come up with five characteristics that you can use to determine the quality of art, ranging from the paintings in your local gallery to the strange contemporary sculpture your boss added right outside your office. The characteristics I found were beauty, skill, inherent meaning, uniqueness, and fulfilled intent. I’ll explain each of these throughout the article. I’m convinced that anyone can use their own fundamental knowledge to compare artwork based on these five inherent properties. Even if other people have a different opinion than you do about a particular work of art, this article should help you explain how you came to your conclusion. All right, so on the basis that all art is not created equal, let’s get to the nitty-gritty and break down these five characteristics of art.
  • Beauty in Art. Beauty is, and always will be, in the “eye of the beholder.” Your decision about the beauty or lack of beauty in a particular work of art is instinctive and natural. In fact, you probably won’t even have to make that decision, you’ll just either be captivated by a piece of art or you won’t. People within the same social context often agree on what is beautiful, so you’ll probably find others close by who will like the same things as you do. Some aspects of art that are generally appealing to people are:
  • 1. Repeating shapes, patterns, and symmetry. 2. Colors, especially colors that complement or enhance each other. 3. Textures, both visual and physical (like thick, impasto paint). 4. Crops and compositions that focus the eye and keep the viewers’ attention. 5. Movement or flow to guide viewers through the art. 6. Correct or appealing proportions of figures and objects. 7. Presentation and framing.

Before Reading: Title Analysis

  • Based upon the title, what can you expect from this essay?
    • An introduction and five sections
    • Ways to judge art
    • Simple language
    • Etc.

What should a teacher consider?

  • What does this piece say in regards to the essential questions?
  • What stylistic features are in this text that your students should know?
  • How is this text structured?
  • Which before, during, and after activities make most sense for your students?
  • What does this piece say about the author? Why did he/she write it? What does he/she want you to think about visual art? How will you get your students to pay attention to these issues?

Essential Questions:

    • How do we attribute meaning and value to art?
    • What processes do artists use to create their work?
    • How does an artist’s past experience influence their work?

During Reading: Annotation

  • Note questions in the margin
    • Does art have to be beautiful?
    • Is everything that is beautiful art?
    • What is “inherent meaning?”
    • What if an artist doesn’t use correct or appealing proportions in order to make a statement? Isn’t it still art?
  • Summarize as you read
    • Everyone has an idea of what is beautiful or not, and people who have a lot in common often have the same ideas.

During Reading: Writing Breaks

  • Before assigning a reading decide on some good stopping points for reflection
  • Have students work in pairs
  • At stopping points (about 10-12 minutes)
    • Students write in response to general or specific questions
  • After writing, have pairs read each others and discuss.
  • Call on two or three to get a quick summary of the comments

After Reading: Summarizing

  • GIST
    • Write a summary of the Introduction in 30 words or less.
    • After student reads the next section, write a new summary of both, in 30 words or less.
    • Keep doing this until the student has written a summary of the entire text in 30 words or less.
  • Example: There are five characteristics anyone can use to evaluate a work of art First, art is beautiful if it has symmetry, proportion, texture, composition, flow, and framing.

After Reading: Summarizing

  • Summarization Rules (Marzano)
    • 1. Take out material that is not important for your understanding.
    • 2. Take out words that repeat information.
    • 3. Replace a list of things with one word that describes the things in the list (e.g. use fruit for apples, pear, and grapes).
    • 4. Find a topic sentence, if you cannot find a topic sentence, make one up.

Example of Summarization

After Reading: Formal Written Response

  • Is plastic surgery art? Support your position by referencing the two texts you read and discussed in class.
    • Answering this questions entails looking at plastic surgery in light of the five characteristics.

Remember the purpose

  • To help students think deeply about the humanities.
  • THANKS!!!
  • Cyndie Shanahan

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