Humanities 161: Creativity and Crisis

Humanities 161: Creativity and Crisis

Everyday is a new crisis. We are surrounded by global forces that challenge leaders and citizens to live, work, and govern differently. But, do we have the creative capacity to respond to these crises in ways that advance social wellbeing, justice, peace and prosperity? When the old ways of knowing and expression are no longer sufficient to meet the demands of a new situation, what types of creativity are required?


Watch a clip from the documentary of Humanities 161: Creativity and Crisis. Sara Lee Burd, Liz Scofield, and Harvey Burrell documented the one-time course through interviews with students, the teaching team, teaching assistants, and guests. Featured here are interviews with teaching team members professors Bruce Barry, Owen School of Management; Vanessa Beasley, Department of Communication; Steven Tepper, Department of Sociology; and Mel Ziegler, Department of Art. The full documentary coming soon!

Course topics

Decision-making and crisis. There are countless examples of managers and public officials failing to adequately respond to crisis – resulting in a spiral of negative outcomes for individuals, communities, governments, and society.  What goes wrong? Why do experts fail to foresee the consequences of their action (or in action)?  What happens to creativity in these situations?

Music City Meltdown:  How digital technology is changing the music business as we know it. In this session, our guest speakers Bryan Clark, Will Kimbrough, and Dave Pomeroy discussed the current state of the music business, the impact of piracy, the opportunities for new business models, and the impact of these changes for the health of music in America.

The Financial Meltdown (2008-2009): Part I.   We watched the film Inside Job and discussed the ways in which creativity in the financial sector both produced the financial crisis as well as the creativity of different responses, examining the ethical issues involved in this case and discussing the relationship between law, policy, professional norms, accountability, and personal freedom.

The Financial Meltdown Part II.   In this session we paid particular attention to the media coverage of the financial crisis.  We also examined the protests that were spurned by the crisis and the creative ways in which people engage in social movements and push for policy change in the face of crisis.   Guest speaker Bethany McLean is a contributing editor of Vanity Fair magazine who co-authored a book  on the 2008 financial crisis titled All the Devils are Here (November 2010).

Personal crisis and creativity.   Many argue that we are living through a time of great social change, uncertainty, and personal crisis.  Incoming college freshman report lower levels of emotional health than cohorts 10 or 20 years ago.   Anti-anxiety prescriptions have sky rocketed for teenagers and young adults.  Social observers argue that we are living in an age of anxiety and point out the increasing levels of risk and fear that characterize everyday life.    In a recent poll, four-fifth of Americans say they are “very concerned” about the changes taking place in society these days.  On the other hand, living with personal crisis – from poverty, to abuse, poor health and disease, loss of a job, death – is nothing new.   How do people construct creative narratives about personal crisis?  Who do they blame?  How are people able to creatively assemble resources, even in the worst conditions, to get through the day, sometimes succeeding against all odds?  What social (laws and institutions) and cultural (prejudice, beliefs) limit people from being creative in the face of crisis?   We heard from guest speakers jeff obafemi carr, Sh. A.R. Chao, Vali Forrester, Lillian Hallstrand, and Becca Stevens.

Picturing Crisis: The role of visual media in shaping our perceptions of crisis. In this session, we studied the way in which crises get played out in and through visual media, such as photography, video, signs, documentary coverage.   One of the nations top scholars of visual culture – University of Chicago professor W.J.T Mitchell– discussed how to examine and analyze visual culture for clues into the public meaning of crisis and the politics behind the stories and images we use to respond to crisis. Professor Claire Sisco King discussed images of crisis in horror films, and professorand artist Vesna Pavlović discussed documentary and fine art photography in relationship to crisis.

Democracy and Crisis.  Many scholars and public commentators have lamented the current state of America’s political institutions – partisan gridlock, the power and influence of lobbyists, campaign finance and the clout of special interests, abuse of election laws and barriers to voting; and rising levels of distrust and cynicism among the electorate. This session examined new ideas for strengthening and building democracy.  We looked at attempts in the U.S. to use technology to craft a third party alternative (Americans Elect); creative strategies for reforming elections; and social movements who are using creative tactics to influence policy.   Special guests include Rob Richie, executive director of FairVote, a national organization that advocated for fundamental structural reform of American elections.

Food and Crisis: How we eat, what is at stake, and what needs to change. Food is a significant part of how we spend our time and our money. What creative solutions are being advanced to deal with “food deserts,” the growing epidemic of obesity, rising rates of diabetes, and environmental damage caused by industrial food production?  In this session, we heard from local food entrepreneur Jeremy Barlow and tasted some of Jeremy’s innovative recipes designed to support localism, reduce our carbon footprint, and improve our health.

Crisis in Education. In 1983, The National Commission on Excellence released a landmark report, “A Nation at Risk,” which warned, “the educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people.”  Commentators continue to find troubling signs in our education system – low test scores, persistent drop out rates, lack of critical and creative thinking, the disappearance of arts education, increasing gaps between rich and poor schools, enduring racial disparities, and battles over the rights of teachers to unionize.  Over the past two decades, school reformers have designed and implemented hundreds of “creative solutions” for fixing our schools.  Have any of these innovations worked?  If so, what prevents them from being adopted more widely?  We heard from Chris Barbic, YES Charter School founder and current director of Tennessee Achievement School District and Sam Seidel, author of Hip Hop Genius: Remixing High School Education.

Artful Protest.  This class will examine how art and performance can be used to question power and challenge conventions in the face of crisis. How can artists bring new perspectives to bear on entrenched approaches to problems.   The class looked at the work of the Yes Men group and examined tactics and strategies used by the group to engage a range of crisis, including environment crises like global warming, the BP oil spill, coal mining, as well as economic crises caused by globalization.  In comparison, we watched Hell House and examined the tactics and stakes of both groups.

Weathering the Storm: The Future of Journalism in a Post-Newspaper Age. In 2009, media commentator Clay Shirky pronounced that changes in economics and technology had permanently destroyed the old model of newspaper publishing. In response, he wrote, “Society doesn’t need newspapers. What we need is journalism. When we shift our attention from ‘save newspapers’ to ‘save society’, the imperative changes from ‘preserve the current institutions’ to ‘do whatever works.’ And what works today isn’t the same as what used to work.”  So what will work in the next century?   What new models of journalism are emerging? How will America’s fourth rail – the press – maintain its vital role of informing citizens and holding political and business leaders accountable?  Today, many people distrust the media and perceive it as intrusive, biased, inflammatory, and oriented more to the bottom line of large media conglomerates than to the needs of the public.  In this session we heard from Brian Stelter and Peter Applebome, New York Times’ journalists who appear in the documentary Page One, and Ken Paulson, of the First Amendment Center.

Natural Disasters: creative responses by ordinary and extraordinary people. What if there is a crisis and no one shows up to help?  This unit will examine the creative responses of citizens when federal responses to 2005’s Hurricane Katrina seemed woefully insufficient.  We examined grass roots campaigns that brought attention to the devastation through civic journalism and other forms of new media.  We also examined the creative ways in which impoverished residents saved themselves and reconstructed their lives and communities.  We heard from world-renown artist, Mel Chin, about his own artistic response to Katrina, and Kate Browne, professor of anthropology at Colorado State University, who talked about her work with Hurricane Katrina refugees and the documentary film Still Waiting: Life after Katrina.

Our Environment in Crisis. We examined how individuals are crafting arguments to advance environmental causes or to push back against regulation.    We discussed the debates around cap and trade; the innovations of citizens and consumers who reform their communities and change their lifestyles; and the range of creative policy and business responses that balance the needs of the market with the requirements of sustainability.  Mayor Karl Dean joined us to discuss the creative response of Nashville officials and citizens in the wake of the 2010 Nashville flood.



HUM161 courses have become well-known on Vanderbilt campus for their team-taught, interdisciplinary approach and commitment to challenging students to explore topics around current events with outstanding guest lecturers in classroom. The College of Arts & Sciences offers this course through the support of a grant from an anonymous patron. Previous HUM161 courses include “War in the Classroom” and “New Global Crisis: Earth’s Energy and Water Resources in the 21st century.”


Posted on

May 23, 2012