New humanities class explores the history of the ‘self’ from B.C. to VR

A new Yale humanities course, “Selfhood, Race, Class, and Gender” — or the Self Class — is committed to answering the question: What is the “self” anyway?
A collage featuring a virtual reality headset, a woman using one, and a VR display screen.

For many of us, self-reflection marks the turn of the new year, namely in the form of resolution-making. But few of us ever stop to consider, “What exactly is the ‘self’ I am trying to improve?” A new Yale humanities course, “Selfhood, Race, Class, and Gender” — or simply, the Self Class — is committed to answering the question: What is the “self” anyway?

Marta Figlerowicz, professor of comparative literature and English, and Ayesha Ramachandran, professor of comparative literature, are co-instructors of the Self Class, which is at once a traditional humanities class and an applied exploration of new technologies and their effect on our lives. The Self Class starts with Plato and ends with virtual reality. It asks both “what is the self?” and “what shapes it?”

The idea behind the class,” says Figlerowicz, “is to diversify the axes and dimensions along which people think about what it means to have a ‘self’ and how you express and analyze that self.” As the full course title indicates, among those axes and dimensions for exploration are race, class, and gender. “We look for counter-histories and roads-not-taken,” Figlerowicz adds.

The Self Class is a “deeply canonical course,” says Ramachandran. Many of the texts — Plato, Shakespeare, Charles Taylor — come straight from the most classical conception of the humanities. “But it’s also a course that tries to rethink the nature of canonicity and canon-formation,” says Ramachandran. “Instead of saying, ‘here is how we got to an idea of the self,’ it’s a course that actually says, ‘let’s think together about the ways in which the question of the self has been approached in different places and times, and are these useful models for how we are thinking about it now?’”

The first unit, she notes, is “a rapid-fire history of highlights of philosophical texts in the Western that have thought about the self.” Then follow the units that explore the political axes of self — gender, class, race. In the gender unit, the class compares writings by Shakespeare, feminist French poet Louise Labé, and Persian poets Hafez and Jahan Malek Khatun. “We think about East and West, male and female, the pronouns in these early poems and their fluidity, already shifting between genders,” says Ramachandran.

The professors also invite special presenters to come in and speak to the class. For the gender unit in this fall’s class, they hosted Yale students who’d acted in a queer adaptation of Middlemarch that was produced as a web series, which was reviewed in the New Yorker online.

The Self Class also tracks the axis of history and the intersecting dimensions of medium, asking such questions as: How does where we are in history determine how we express and analyze ourselves? Does the medium we use for expression and analysis determine the contents of our analyses and expressions? The “self” might be different, for example, when considered on Facebook rather than a diary page, note the professors.

Part of the point of the Self Class is to think about the intersection of identity and technology,” says Ramachandran, “and to consider the long histories of each, which in turn help us understand the shifting ways in which selfhood is defined today.”

When Figlerowicz and Ramachandran were developing the Self Class, they considered the role of their new course within the dialogue about purpose in the humanities. “What’s important about the humanities has shifted,” says Ramachandran. “The classic account was always that the humanities are there to preserve and carry on traditions. From the time of Sir Francis Bacon, there’s been this idea that the sciences make new knowledge while the humanities preserve and transmit existing knowledge. For a long time, that has been broadly true. Work in the humanities was about cultural capital, about knowing the great works of the past.”

But this ongoing crisis about the purpose of the humanities has made us both think very hard about our own training, and what we wanted to be doing in the classroom, and how we could make our work in the humanities feel deeply connected to the world around us,” Ramachandran continues, “We felt that our students clearly wanted to talk about real-world issues and that sometimes this typical humanities logic of preservation and collection did not allow them to do that.”

One stated goal of the Self Class is to examine “the intersection of political identity and technological categories.” Virtual reality (VR) technology, which Yale obtained initially through a grant from Hewlett Packard, became the bridge between the interrogation of old knowledge and production of new knowledge in the Self Class, say the professors.

People often allow technologies to become invisible to them,” says Figlerowicz. “It’s easier to get students to think of older technologies [such as the cellphones, computers, and even printed writing] as ‘technologies’ as opposed to ‘givens’ if you also introduce them to technologies that feel genuinely new and seem buggy and confusing, like virtual reality, because even though VR’s seemingly cutting edge, we don’t know quite yet what to use it for.”

Figlerowicz and Ramachandran require all students in the Self Class to try out VR and consider the experience in relation to themselves and the texts of self they’ve been reading. The students can, but don’t have to, pursue their final creative projects in the medium.

We want those new technologies to be present for people in whatever way seems helpful,” says Figlerowicz. “It seemed to us that some students have gravitated toward it as medium of expression more naturally; to others VR seemed more like an interesting point of juxtaposition against media to which they were more attached but which they could see more clearly when juxtaposed against this new alternative. We want to remain flexible about the productive role the technology plays because even the negative thought process — ‘Here’s why I don’t want to use VR and why I want to write in my diary instead’ — is productive.”

In this past semester’s class, for his project, one student created a high-concept performance art piece involving an anthropomorphic dummy and VR equipment. The dummy was experiencing a VR environment that was projected onto a real wall in the exhibit space so that a person watching the dummy could see what it was seeing. The spectator could move the human-weight dummy about in the exhibition space to affect what the dummy — and thus the spectator too — sees in the virtual space. Another student created a dance-and-video project, which she performed for an audience in November. Additionally, several students did projects involving the use of and reflection on Tilt Brush, a virtual reality that allows users to paint in three dimensions.

Many of the students who chose not to work in virtual reality wrote final essays and reflections that explored technologies in dialogue with texts from the course syllabus. “History is filled with new technologies that seemed awesome for five seconds, and then became obsolete or non-essential. People move on,” says Ramachandran, “And five seconds in history might really be a decade of human time — but in the year 2100 … who’s going to remember the floppy disc?”

Selfhood, Race, Class, Gender” was taught twice in 2017. The course is cross-listed between Humanities, English, Literature, and Ethnicity, Race & Migration in recognition of its scope and breadth. This semester, Ramachandran is teaching “Renaissance Love Poetry” and “Gender and Genre in Renaissance Love Poetry,” and Figlerowicz is teaching “Internet Cultures: Histories, Networks, Practices” and “How to Compare,” an exploration of literary comparison.


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