By Ruby Shao ’17
The Office of Admission welcomed outstanding high school students from around the world to a Virtual Arts and Humanities Open House on Saturday, November 14. By introducing some of the University’s best faculty and instructors, the program would hopefully whet the appetites of prospective Princeton applicants, according to Dean of the College Jill Dolan.
“Studying the arts and humanities, especially through a rigorous liberal arts curriculum like the one we offer at Princeton, encourages you to engage broadly with the history of thought, and with the history of creativity, innovation, and human expression,” Dolan remarked. “You embrace close engagement with the heart as well as the mind.”
She emphasized how these subjects train students to write and communicate, two of the most important skills for employees along with citizens. Undergraduates at the University not only examine but also produce books, poetry, films, and more. They learn to think rigorously through various methodologies including theory and digital analysis. Furthermore, they delve into the past, present, and future meaning of our lives, as they imagine how to improve our societies, Dolan said.
She highlighted the three yearlong Sequences offered by the Program in Humanistic Studies: “Interdisciplinary Approaches to Western Culture,” “East Asian Humanities,” and “Near Eastern Humanities.” Over Zoom, the rest of the afternoon covered assorted topics, including the lives of underrepresented composers. Autumn Womack (African American Studies, English) taught a lesson on archival research into the literature of Princeton professor emerita and Nobel laureate Toni Morrison. Behrman Professor in the Humanities Denis Feeney (Classics) shared the history of how Homer’s Iliad turned from a song into a written text.
“HUM Seniors on Writing an Interdisciplinary Thesis”
Stephanie Lewandowski, who manages the Program in Humanistic Studies, introduced the session “HUM Seniors on Writing an Interdisciplinary Thesis.” According to Humanities Council Executive Director Kathleen Crown, the Program focuses on interdisciplinary approaches to big questions, such as, “What makes us human?”
Tilmann Herchenroder ’21 shared that he has taken an equal number of classes in economics, politics, and the Program in Humanistic Studies. He reasoned that humanists could benefit from thinking more about economics, and economists could benefit from thinking more about people.
Fortuitously, his liking for data led him to discover the digital humanities in a course that mapped prisons in antiquity while analyzing related texts. Herchenroder’s independent work combines data and coding with probing how phenomena influence humans on the individual level. For example, his thesis concerns how the Clean Air Act, an environmental regulation in the United States, affects communities.
Set on studying neuroscience when she came to Princeton, premed Sofia Pauca ’21 so enjoyed “Interdisciplinary Approaches to Western Culture” that she split her courses thereafter evenly between the humanities and the sciences. Within the humanities, she inclined toward writing a thesis about the often spiritual experiences of families, like her own, who have children with developmental disabilities. Religion professors supported her idea. Largely as a consequence, she chose to major in religion, a decision she identified as the most important in her four years of college.
As future physician, Pauca said, she prized devoting her undergraduate years to an area that medical school would not cover. Her research has involved interviews of parents and chaplains at pediatric hospitals. She finds herself completely surprised to be doing interdisciplinary work.
“Interdisciplinary Approaches to Western Culture” showed Paige Allen ’21 the artificiality of disciplinary boundaries, while also indicating where she felt most comfortable. She liked investigating stories as shaped by the cultures that produced them, while also shaping the cultures around them. As a result, she majored in English.
Entering Princeton keen to specialize in 19th-century British literature, Ethan Glattfelder ’21 turned rather to 12th-century French literature. He focuses on the environmental humanities, which he described as thinking about matters that seem external but still present to the human experience, like nature and animals. Glattfelder is researching monsters as portrayed by medieval French texts.
“Monstrous Humanities: Reading Cultures Through Monsters”
Open House participants addressed similar themes in the session “Monstrous Humanities: Reading Cultures Through Monsters,” led by Professor Federico Marcon. He is currently teaching the course “A Global History of Monsters.”
“Everybody knows monsters,” Marcon said, speaking of the shadows that haunt children as they grow conscious of themselves and the world that surrounds them. “All of you have experienced monsters in one form or another. It starts early on in life, with a monster under your bed or inside the closet.”
Marcon observed a paradox, namely that while every society seems to recognize monsters, the meaning of each monster always depends on the surrounding culture. As an example, he pointed to diverse interpretations of vampires.
Monsters warn people of dangerous, impure, scary, or prohibited elements by exposing normally invisible threats, he noted. In the 1930s and 1940s, the Nazis represented the Jews of Europe as monsters to rationalize their isolation, elimination from social life, and final extermination as protecting German society and the purity of the Aryan race. Similarly, colonial imaginations depicted African Americans as monsters to convey that their liberation would wreck the social order of slave masters and plantation owners, according to Marcon.
Noticing the prevalence of stories about monsters harming children, one Open House attendee asked whether such tales emerged just to terrify young people into behaving well. Another participant asked how human monsters, like fascist leaders, might resemble fantasy monsters. A third student probed the extent to which monsters served as explanations for tragedies like plagues.
Marcon spotlighted the powerful impact that monsters can have. By understanding how to cease fearing monsters as rhetorical, symbolic devices, people grow less vulnerable to rhetoric and ideology when they appear in other forms, he said.
The Open House closed with a reflection by Kelvin Dinkins, Jr. ’09. After graduating from Princeton with a degree in English as well as a Certificate in Theatre and Dance, he earned his Master of Fine Arts in Theatre Management and Producing from Columbia University. He now serves as an Assistant Dean and a Lecturer in Theater Management at the Yale School of Drama, and the General Manager of Yale Repertory Theatre.
Dinkins recounted that in high school, he achieved good grades and active involvement in clubs. Nevertheless, sure that any Ivy League school would reject him, he dreaded even applying.
“What would they do with me?” he said, voicing his teenage thoughts. “Those are the schools where presidents go. Those are for smart people.”
Although nobody discouraged him from considering the Ivies, his worries persisted. He only knew one person who had attended Princeton, a girl one year ahead of him whom he described as “the smartest kid in the school.”
After his mother asked why he had excluded the Ivies, he finally decided to apply to Princeton, on the grounds that trying could not hurt. He also hoped that he could attend such a prestigious university to start giving back to his mother, who had sacrificed heavily to afford an expensive private school for him.
Following his acceptance to Princeton, Dinkins inferred that the admissions committee had recognized his curiosity, commitment to service in his community, and eagerness to learn about the unfamiliar. His passion showed in his dedication to acting, stage managing, and building sets.
But as college approached, he felt pressure to spend much less time on theater. A second-generation Jamaican American descended from two working class families, he sought to escape the cycle of poverty by pursuing what he saw as the standard path to success: majoring in economics to become a banker in New York. Thus, he committed to majoring in economics. He instantly regretted his choice.
“The beauty of attending a liberal arts school is that you don’t narrowly focus your education, and you have an opportunity to have exposure to other subjects you’re not necessarily interested in,” Dinkins explained.
After a year of mulling over his dissatisfaction with economics and deepening his love of literature, he switched to English, not knowing what he would do with an English degree but knowing it would suit him better than an economics degree. He joined the Princeton Triangle Club, which he described as one of America’s oldest original musical theater comedy troupes.
“I spent all of my time and energy in a theater or rehearsal room, investing in, truly, the arts and humanities at Princeton. And it became another moment in my life where I found my place and my community,” he said.
At the University, he kept discovering himself through once-in-a-lifetime experiences, like taking a playwriting class from a famous solo artist, or studying another celebrated playwright’s pieces with the author in the room. Dinkins’s thesis constituted 80 pages analyzing interpretations of the Orpheus myth in and across the arts and humanities, while arguing that no musical theater interpretation figured in the canon. To fill that absence, he and a classmate wrote an original musical set in New York, casting one of their friends. Thinking “Why not, at Princeton?,” Dinkins directed the production, expecting that he would never again have the chance to direct an original musical. A decade after the submission of his thesis, his paper seemed vindicated by the launch of Hadestown, which one of his professors produced and which won the Tony Award for Best Musical.
As graduation neared, Dinkins remained unsure of where his life would lead. Discussing his uncertainty with one of his drama professors at Princeton opened the door to his first job in the theater industry. He has enthusiastically continued in the field ever since.
“Princeton taught me more than anything the value of communication and community, and how these two things shape my outlook on the world and how I am a part of it. I’m a practitioner, I’m a professor, a producer, a Princeton alum, and I am forever grateful,” he said.