Leaving the Comfort Zone

By Linda Shapiro

Undergraduate Scott Artley immerses himself in all CSCL has to offer

Scott Artley

Scott Artley bristles with enthusiasm talking about the realm he occupies beyond what used to be his comfort zone. Thanks to CSCL, he has left that zone to challenge old ways of thinking and "get to the heart of important issues in contemporary society," he says.

Artley recalls how he got to this new place by way of courses such as Cultural Pluralism, taught by Harvey Sarles, one of several professors in the department who have received teaching awards. Sarles challenged students to think about what it means to live in a multicultural society--by asking questions about "the boundaries of who gets to be privileged, who even gets to be called human."

The course typifies the nontraditional, interdisciplinary approach that is drawing increasing numbers of bright, inquisitive majors like Artley to CSCL.

Coming full circle

From the western suburbs of Minneapolis, Artley's educational path took him first to George Washington University in Washington, D.C., as a freshman. An anthropology major with a strong interest in comparative literature, he began searching for a university program that would offer the perfect fit for his diverse interests and insatiable curiosity. His search brought him full circle back to the University of Minnesota, which "had everything I wanted," says Artley.

He was especially drawn to CSCL's inclusive and integrative perspectives, which meld critical theory with the study of literature, art, and other cultural phenomena and leave no stone unturned. Classes, he says, "ranged from a class on suburbia to a course about the figures of monsters and robots in literature."

Artley, who refers to himself as "overly ambitious," dived right into CSCL's wide-ranging curriculum. He discovered early on the department's robust inversion of the traditional approach to comparative literature: "Instead of looking at how literature fits into a particular intellectual movement, we consider how it is a reaction to historical circumstances," he says. In the course Concepts of Literary Study, for instance, "we discussed several approaches to studying literature and situated specific literary works in the context of intellectual thought that had bred them--modernism, for example, as a reaction to the loss and suffering in World War I."

Critical thinking

Like his studies in comparative literature, Artley's forays into cultural studies have allowed him to view the world through interdisciplinary lenses and to take imaginative and intellectual risks that yield fresh insights into contemporary society. "In this department, students' ideas are taken seriously.We're encouraged to look at things in new ways--everything is up for grabs," says Artley, who adds that CSCL students are encouraged not only to think deeply and creatively but also to subject their inspirations to rigorous intellectual inquiry, a process that yields sometimes startling new insights.

In the class Theories of Culture, Artley was introduced to the idea that everything a culture produces--all cultural production--is open to being "read" as a text. He began reading his world in new ways, and his reexaminations led to a paper that he delivered at a Midwest Modern Language Association conference in November.

His topic was the narrative techniques of literary journalism employed by Barbara Ehrenreich in her book Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America and Susan Orlean in The Orchid Thief (later made into the film Adaptation). "When I saw that the theme of the conference was 'Revisiting Realisms,' I thought immediately that newspapers are something we generally accept as presenting what's 'real.' But how is that journalistic authority created and maintained? Journalism is an institution historically run by men, so maybe it has something to do with patriarchal control of 'official' news. And there is a power dynamic, too, with journalists making people--often people who have been affected by some misfortune or tragic event--into their subjects," says Artley.

The provocative paper takes the subjectivism of the New Journalism established in the 1960s by male writers like Tom Wolfe, Truman Capote, and Norman Mailer into a feminist examination of the role of the journalist. The project raised "some really heady metaphysical questions, which isn't my bag," he says. "I'm happy to pass along that baton to someone else who wants to talk about Descartes."

A global lens

Artley credits CSCL for the support and encouragement he got in preparing his paper and getting it accepted for presentation at a major academic conference, a rare opportunity for an undergraduate. Two years ago, the department created the new position of undergraduate adviser, to help students like Artley get the most out of their academic experience in the department. Jules Darg (next page) was hired to create social and academic enrichment opportunities that would bring together students, the faculty, and staff members.

"This is such a vibrant and stimulating major," says Darg. "CSCL students are highly intelligent, creative, and curious. They like challenging the status quo. They're always looking at things from multiple perspectives, through a global lens."

And no one is doing that more than Artley, who follows his passions by maneuvering seamlessly and spontaneously between areas of study. "CSCL's biggest contribution to my education is the fluidity I feel with critically reading, analyzing, and contextualizing texts. I am equipped with the skills to examine books, art, films, newspapers--just about anything!" he says.

That fluidity recently brought Artley to First Avenue music club in Minneapolis, where he is studying club culture, mixing his anthropological yen to do field work with his background in critical theory. Like Ehrenreich and Orlean, Artley jumps right into his subject. "I'm not the kind of person who observes people like a fly on the wall. I have to participate--have them show me how to dance, walk me through their music preferences and fashion choices," he says.

And while he's shaking a leg on the dance floor, Artley is also "reading" the text of how a social event becomes a ritual of identity, connecting the dots as only a CSCL student can. "My training in CSCL led me to look at newspapers as indicative of wider social politics of truth, and at social dance as a mediated practice of consumerism and identity," he says. "You don't get that in any other department.

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This page contains a single entry by cla published on July 23, 2008 4:04 PM.

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