The Secret of Good Humanities Teaching

Julius Taranto and Kevin J.H. Dettmar

This past May, when a former student was back at Pomona College to see his sister graduate, he (Julius) and I (Kevin) managed to steal away amid all the commencement festivities for a bit of Scotch in my living room. There, unbidden and (he claims) accidentally, he explained what I’ve since come to think of as the hidden structure of effective humanities teaching.

He said that his best professors “took texts that seemed complicated, made them look simple, and then made them complex again.”

Something in that formulation rang true for me — this was what humanities teachers should do. In trying to explain it later to my wife, however, I felt like the idea was slipping away. (I blame the Scotch.) So I reverted to my role as professor and wrote Julius asking him to put the idea in writing — to clarify, please. What follows is our joint attempt at a more thorough explanation.