November 26, 2013

Working Together is ‘Awesome!’

Students in the “Awesome!” class show off a painting created in the White Mountains

When Ron Bernier, chair of the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, came across a publication connecting 19th-century landscape painting with Hubble Space Telescope images, he had to share it with his colleague, Russell Pinizzotto, senior vice president for academic affairs and provost.

“I literally took a photo of the book cover that moment and sent it to him,” said Bernier.

Bernier felt the publication perfectly blended one of his areas of expertise (the aesthetic sublime) with a subject in which Pinizzotto is an expert (the astronomical sublime). “Imagine, art historians and scientists talking to each other about shared interests, from very, very different perspectives!” Bernier continued. “We decided this could be good fodder for an interdisciplinary class.”

The result of their work is a new class entitled “Awesome! Regarding the Sublime in Art and Science” that they are currently teaching together. “Awesome” looks at abstract thinking and how to define ideas through topics ranging from star-gazing to nature-worship, aesthetics to science, and technology to terror. The class began by looking at the history of the sublime and foundational writings on the subject before moving into contemporary responses and approaches.

“[The sublime] is part of our intellectual heritage as human beings,” Bernier said. “We have always been drawn to, fascinated by, those human experiences that defy language, or any other kind of representation and description.”

A large part of the class centers on project-based learning and field trips. This semester, students have viewed motions of the stars at the Boston Museum of Science’s planetarium, considered geology and painting in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, looked at the solar system and sense of scale from the sun on Huntington Avenue, and studied aesthetics at the Museum of Fine Arts. The final project tasks students with creating a multimedia project that articulates an original theory of the sublime, the challenge being how to represent the non-representable.

For Bernier, there is no concrete definition of “sublime,” but he believes that the teachings that he and Pinizzotto deliver will provide the building blocks for personal inspiration when something in society is ambiguous or incalculable. “That is part of the interest, challenge, and—for me at least—appeal of this course,” he said. “The goal is, at least in part, to get students to re-connect with a world of wonder and the truly awesome.”

Another aim of the course is to continue Wentworth’s commitment to interdisciplinary learning. Bernier and Pinizzotto come from different departments and offer different teaching styles, but together they convey a strong message of approaching challenges through various means. Bernier said that he hopes a takeaway students have is that “it is possible, indeed imperative, in the contemporary workplace (and society) for people of different backgrounds, training, and interests to talk to rather than at or across each other—that—each of us has a tremendous amount to learn from those most unlike ourselves.”

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