Susan Scheckel, Professor of English in the College of Arts and Sciences, is on a mission. She’s committed to showing that education in the humanities provides invaluable training in the acquisition of real-world skills.
In a world that sometimes overlooks the importance of the humanities in its enthusiasm for STEM, Scheckel is a fierce advocate of experiential learning — practical training often associated with the sciences — in the fields of arts and humanities.
“The skills and knowledge taught in the humanities, the very ways of thinking, connect to the real world and enhance the public sphere,” Scheckel said.
Experiential learning became an important component of the Stony Brook curriculum when it was reconfigured four years ago. As a member of the curriculum implementation committee, Scheckel was worried that there wasn’t enough capacity in the arts, and especially in the humanities and the lettered social sciences. So she partnered with Marianna Savoca, Director of the Career Center, which provides students with access to experiential learning. She then decided to make her own classes into laboratories.
“Through one experiment after another,” Scheckel said, “I tried to figure out ways to incorporate experiential learning to increase student success and provide really rich experiences.”
In one such initiative she partnered with the Long Island Museum in Stony Brook to study William Sidney Mount’s “Spirit Journal,” which is housed in the museum’s collection. Mount (1807-1868) was an American painter and contemporary of the Hudson River Valley School.
“He went to seances in the Country House right on the corner near the museum,” she said. “He kept records of what happened at those meetings and of his own thoughts and experiences about spiritualism, mesmerism and seances. This is part of Mount’s history and career that really hasn’t been explored very much.”
Students transcribed the hand-written notes in Mount’s diaries and annotated those pages, using them to create a context in which to explore 19th century spiritualism. At the same time students were reading Mount’s diaries, they read newspaper accounts of spiritualism and mesmerism and fiction by Poe and Hawthorne. The annotated texts that the students created from Mount’s handwritten notes have been incorporated into the museum’s exhibit. Meanwhile students harnessed social media to publicize the exhibit, helping the museum to reach a younger crowd,
Inspired, Scheckel met with Karen Levitov, Director of the Zuccaire Art Gallery in the Staller Center, to discuss “Race, Love, and Labor,” a traveling exhibition that came to Stony Brook in 2017 and features photographs by more than 20 artists of color. They collaborated to make the exhibit more appealing and accessible to students.
A lounge space was created in the room next to the larger gallery, a place, according to Levitov, “where students, staff, faculty and community members could come and think about the issues at hand.” A 40-foot long wall became a whiteboard where people were invited to contribute their own ideas and feelings about the topics of race, love, and labor. Students were recruited to lead gallery tours, highlighting the relationship between the images and their own experiences, and were trained in giving public presentations.
Through such undertakings, Scheckel believes, the real-world benefits of humanities education can be made plain to students.
“As an English professor, I really wanted to throw the humanist’s hat into the ring and say ‘Wait, we can have a part to play here, too’,” she said.