Kegan Doyle

Tuesday, September 06, 2016

Humanities 101 has a profound impact on students, teachers

This is the first in a series of written posts, photos and videos celebrating the stories of our community.

American social critic and writer Earl Shorris defined poverty as an absence of reflection and beauty, not an absence of money.

Although Shorris died in 2012, his ideas live on in the Phoenix Kwantlen Humanities 101 Program.

Modeled on the Bard College Clemente Course in the Humanities, the Phoenix Kwantlen program gives people a taste of post-secondary education — people who wouldn’t otherwise have a chance for such a thing.

The program typically runs for two terms each year with 10 to 20 people in each class. It’s not a conventional university class so the course runs for only six to 12 weeks. Students create a project to present at the end, and there is also a graduation ceremony.

For Kwantlen University English professor and program coordinator, Kegan Doyle, Humanities 101 has a profound impact on participants, on both sides of the desk. “Most of the students don’t really consider themselves capable of attending university or belonging there,” he says. “They find it very empowering and intellectually stimulating and it has a transformative effect.”

One student Kegan cites is now deceased but during his time in the program he became motivated to start writing his life story, with the help of a sympathetic professor. “At his memorial, the program was mentioned repeatedly by his case workers and psychologists,” Kegan recalls.

And the impact on teachers is equally acute. “To come to a class where everyone is curious and engaged and grateful is a totally wonderful experience,” Kegan says. “Faculty members often leave on kind of a high.”

Kegan believes the benefits of having such a program in the community are numerous. Students — who range in age from their late 20s to early 70s — have the opportunity to learn about the great thinkers and writers of history, which, of course, is empowering. Some students then go on to pursue higher degrees of education — something they previously would have imagined impossible. So much education, Kegan says, tends to be concentrated on the first 20 years of our lives. But for people who missed out on that, Humanities 101 gives them the chance to engage whenever they are ready.

What do the professors learn by volunteering to teach in such a program? Rather than feel they are “dumbing down” their work, they gain inspiration from the students who are genuinely curious about the material they bring to classes. “It helps them see their own expertise in a slightly different way,” Kegan says. As Earl Shorris put it, in a 1997 essay in Harper’s Magazine: “The humanities are a foundation for getting along in the world, for thinking, for learning to reflect on the world instead of just reacting to whatever force is turned against you.”