George Erving is the member of not one department but three. When he joined University of Puget Sound in 2003, he was hired as a professor of Humanities, English and the Honors program. This year, he is conducting the first course in the new Humanities minor, which he describes as a program of study in the history of influential Western ideas as expressed through the arts.
Professor Erving’s broad interests and experiences go beyond his University post. He has worked at a Fortune 200 company, coached high school track and field and was a nationally ranked amateur triathlete. He also is the lead guitarist of the aptly named band The Professors, which also includes English Professor Alison Tracy-Hale and Professor Tim Lulofs who is teaching digital humanities this semester. Even his band’s genre can’t be put in category; Erving calls it “sort of an Americana, country-rock, rockabilly sound with jam band (Dead, Phish, etc.) influences.”
Before you came to Puget Sound, you used to work in the corporate world: could you tell me about that transition?
Well, it’s a long story. I worked in the treasury of a multinational corporation doing economic forecasting, hedging overseas operations in the forward foreign exchange markets and managing domestic investments and borrowings. When my company was bought out and its headquarters relocated to the East coast, I decided I didn’t want to go with them. I was a single parent with a daughter in junior high school, and I didn’t want to disrupt her life, or mine, for that matter. I took what I thought would be a brief time-out from the corporate world and started coaching track and cross-country at my daughter’s high school while I competed on the triathlon circuit.
During this time, I traveled to England on a summer holiday with my wife and infant second daughter, and I had an epiphany while visiting Oxford: it occurred to me that I might like a life in academia better than one in the corporate sphere. The reasons why I thought so are too involved to explain right now, but when we returned to the Bay Area I began to take classes in history and literature, and these prompted me to attend St. John’s College’s Great Books Program in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where I read widely, studied ancient Greek and received an MA in Liberal Studies.
It was an exhilarating intellectual experience and I still try to use its Socratic pedagogy in some of my classes. Often the conversation was so energized that no one wanted to stop. We’d go straight to the local pub and keep talking for hours! I decided to take the next step and entered the doctoral program in English Literature at the University of Washington in Romantic period studies. A dissertation fellowship took my family and me to Cambridge University for two years, and when we returned I was fortunate enough to land the appointment I now have at Puget Sound.
What was it like transitioning from the business world to academia? Do you feel that any skills cross over?
Yes, I do think some key skills cross over. In both spheres, success often depends upon one’s ability to draw logical inferences based upon careful observation of the facts in question—and then to communicate one’s conclusions clearly and persuasively. The kind of information that’s at stake may vary—it might be a company’s financial statements in one case, or a Shakespearean sonnet in the other, but there is much about the method of analysis that is similar. I feel that by teaching these skills my colleagues and I are helping students develop what are perhaps the most fundamental tools for success, whatever career path they choose.
I feel fortunate to be part of the academy. After all, I work in a place where people discuss far-reaching and exciting ideas. In the corporate world, one’s thinking is shaped by the profit imperative—there’s tremendous pressure to deliver profitability to shareholders on a quarterly basis. Sometimes the pressure sparks creativity, but it’s generally valued only insofar as it impacts earnings. I’m more interested in the broader questions and issues raised by the texts that I and my colleagues teach.
The Humanities occupies a strange place in the university, because until now you couldn’t major or minor in it. So could you tell me about what it has been and what you hope it will be?
It had originally been a program that allowed faculty to teach courses that didn’t really fit into the curriculum of their home departments and that gave the university additional courses for the core requirement. So it was a win-win from these perspectives: the University increased its supply of core offerings and faculty had opportunities to explore new teaching interests, so long as the courses they proposed related to study of the Humanities, which wasn’t difficult given all that the Humanities includes. So for many years the program was a hodge-podge of courses without much coherence, which was just fine since there didn’t need to be any without a major or minor in place. At some point, we also established a residential program that allows seventeen or so freshman to live together and take a SCIS course with a faculty member who also serves as their academic advisor.
How did the minor come into being? And what makes up the minor?
The push for the minor began when Kent Hooper came on board as the program’s Director three years ago. Kent and I wanted to give the Humanities program more internal coherence and a clearer identity. Although from a practical standpoint a major was too long a leap, a minor seemed quite feasible.
The minor provides a series of courses that gives students an overview of Western intellectual history as expressed through the arts—literature, theatre, painting, music, film and so on. Of course, it’s tough to accomplish something so ambitious in six courses. We’ve decided to offer an introductory course (Hum 200) that traces an important theme or related themes (for example, art and nature, or eros, or crime & punishment, etc.) as it develops from Antiquity through the Middles Ages and the Renaissance up through modernity. Since this is such an impossibly long stretch of time, student will “specialize” by taking three of the six courses in one of two periods: either Antiquity to the Renaissance, or Renaissance to the present. There will also be a course in “comparative Humanities” that juxtaposes one of these themes with its treatment in a non-Western culture. Finally, there will be a capstone course involving one or more theoretical approaches to a particular idea. For example, I have a course in the pipeline that’s on the concept of “sacrifice” in religion, politics, and ethics. It’s a topic that’s been given extensive theoretical treatment from a variety of disciplinary angles.
Several other features distinguish the minor: we want there to be an experiential component. So, we want to coordinate classes with trips to the theater, to museums, to films, on-campus performances, etc., and to encourage students to make art, play music, perform dance, recite poetry, etc., so they can better appreciate the works that we study. We also want to expose students to the burgeoning field of “digital humanities” by having them work with digital archives, and in some classes (Hum 110) by having them learn how to create archival material since digital technology is quickly changing the ways that we encounter and relate to the arts. Finally, we have a wonderful residential program in Smith Hall that includes students from all four classes. I’m the faculty liaison and I’m hoping to make it a kind of center for the Humanities on campus—a place that hosts open-mic nights, film screenings, guest lectures, and the “Palaver Dinners” that students organize, cook, and invite other students to speak at. Last year, for example, someone gave a great talk on parkour and silent film. They have a blast. In short, we think the minor offers something unique on our campus and is a wonderful opportunity for students who want the study of the Humanities to play an important part in their undergraduate experience.
Why does the minor focus on the Western tradition?
Well, the very idea of Humanities as an integral set of disciplines is Western—it comes out of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. Our modern system of university education is the child of Western ideas and most of our faculty who teach in the Humanities know more about the Western tradition than about other traditions—with a few notable exceptions of course. In practical terms, it’s a matter of building the program around the personnel who are already in place. But it’s also fundamentally about helping students understand their intellectual heritage—the history of ideas propagated through the arts that continue to shape what we take for reality.
How hard is it to create a minor? What is the process?
There must be a group of professors who see that there is a need—that there’s an important gap in the curriculum that the minor would fill. They must propose a coherent body of courses and make sure there are enough faculty on hand who have the desire, the qualifications, and the time to teach them. Not all who would like to teach in a new minor are able to free themselves from responsibilities in their home department. Once a plan is developed, it must then pass approval of the Curriculum Committee who checks to see that the proposed minor makes sense in practical terms and that it adds sufficient value to the curriculum as a whole. So, while creating a new minor is possible, I wouldn’t say that it’s easy. We’re elated to have the Humanities minor approved and are really dedicated to making it an inspirational experience.
What is something about yourself that would surprise your students?
Well, perhaps they’d be surprised that I’m doing CrossFit, which is a high-intensity strengthening and conditioning program. CrossFit gyms started cropping up about six or seven years ago, and the program is really catching on. It provides a counterbalance to my academic life.