During my hours of online teaching this year, I have repeatedly tried to bring myself back to my first encounters with the Humanities classroom. As an enthusiastic first-year student in comparative literature, I was excited to learn about art and culture from authors and specialists in cultural history and to be trained in the study of specific authors, styles, and genres.

I had always been drawn to folklore and been curious about how narratives helped to make sense of the world. My learning had at least always been aided by narrative, the more vivid the details the better. For example, it was much easier to remember geographical information, say the name of the farm, Miklibær, if you knew the 19th-century story of the ghost, Sólveig who haunted the local priest, Oddur. Or the name of the region Ódáðahraun if you knew the lullaby “Sofðu unga ástin mín” about the mother who had fled poverty into the dangerous highlands and was singing to her child in hiding.

When I made it to the humanities classroom it took me by surprise how it was not simply a place where meaning was mediated but a place in which I was trained to investigate how “meaning” takes place. I was both exhausted and thrilled by invitations to investigate how meaning is grounded in culture, relations, histories, and language in all its shapes and forms. In one of my first assignments in a class on Icelandic poetry, I received a comment from a teacher encouraging me to go “deeper” with my interpretation. She encouraged me to follow my own analysis, to try out what felt like a radical idea at the risk of being “incorrect”. Her comments were probably standard advice she gave to all her students, something she wrote on the endless papers that needed grading but for me, it was a formative moment of recognition of my voice and ideas.

While the content of the poem escapes me (I think it was about feminism and potatoes) I can recall the feeling of that instructive moment and its effect on my journey as a reader and thinker lingers. Still to this day I remember the thrill of literary analysis, how we followed the teacher as she dissected poems, plays, and novels and somehow she made the students feel like they were necessary contributors to the study. Students brought different insights to the discussion and the teacher showed us how to see surprising connections between cultural texts. It felt like the possibility of meaning was both grounded in the teacher’s scholarship but also the exchange between the people gathered in the room. Through this process, the authority of knowledge started to feel slippery, which was a powerful exchange, especially in a university setting. It felt to me that the collective search for the answer to our questions required vulnerability from the teacher but also every student willing to participate in the conversation. It felt like we were not only discussing literary materials but also always debating how we should discuss them. What do we see on the page? What is missing? Where do we begin in our interpretation? With the author? Her environment? Essentially, how do we see? But also, how did the text even make it to us, the readers? Who preserved it? Why does that matter?

I specifically remember how powerful it was to encounter feminist analysis, postcolonial and critical race theory, and to have access to new vocabularies to talk about power relations across time and space. The vocabulary of their insight even brought me closer to my original fascination with folklore, and I began to see the stories of my childhood not just as entertainment but as markers of power. Why were there so many ghost stories of young poor women that were haunting men of a higher class and stature? Could these stories tell us something about how colonialism conditioned gender and class relations in 19th century Iceland?

In these encounters with the approaches of the humanities, or “humanities moments” it felt like we in the class were not just discussing an individual poem or story but our relations to, well everything. These memories of deep learning in the classroom continue to inspire my own practice of teaching. And while “thrill” is not necessarily an apt description for every one of my own classes the possibility of these humanities moments is something that continues to inspire me.

– Sólveig Ásta Sigurðardóttir (Ph.D. candidate)