Each month, The Stone House Center for Public Humanities interviews a humanities scholar or community member and asks them everything from why they believe the humanities are important to what they're currently binge-watching. We hope that our new blog series, Coffee & Questions, will inspire you, introduce you to a variety of people and fields, as well as create new conversations.
This month's guest is Michael Dittman, a writer and English Professor who lives in Butler, Pennsylvania. He’s always looking for the next project that gets him too excited to sleep at night. Sometimes it's writing the next book (He is the author of Jack Kerouac; A Biography, Masterpieces of the Beat Generation, and Small Brutal Incidents), hacking together tumblr projects like Ithagram and Pictsburgh, blogging about arts and culture (He reviews comic art exhibits and scholarship for the International Journal of Comic Arts), or experimenting with lo-fi video and photography. Michael is also a member of our Community Advisory Board. Find him at michaeldittman.com
What inspires you in your current position/role?
This semester in a class discussion I started talking about the American Suffragettes’ “Night of Terror” in 1917 to contextualize a piece of literature we were reading. As I talked about how these women were tortured because they wanted the right to vote, one of my students, an Army vet returning to college after several combat tours, said “Wait? This was in America?” We had an incredible discussion about the American experience and how it does (or doesn’t) get expressed in literature. In one moment, this man who had several lifetimes of experience fighting for democracy had a completely different world opened to him and he dove right in to try to understand the world of people who had never crossed his mind. Moments like those keep me coming back to the classroom.
What work experiences (past or present) have been the most educational for you, and why?
Working as a writing center tutor at Slippery Rock University showed me what I wanted to do and gave me the chance to figure out best strategies for helping other express themselves and their lives. Working as a roofer taught me that there was no way I could do that sort of work for the rest of my life.
What project(s) are you currently working on?
A story map of Stewart O’Nan’s novel Snow Angels. The book is set in Butler. When the map is completed, it will collect all the places mentioned in the book and included images of what the places looked like during the time the book is set as compared to today through interactive maps and scenes with rich multimedia content to make connections in the story more clear and to spark a discussion about nostalgia, among other ideas. As Umberto Eco writes, “Every text, after all, is a lazy machine asking the reader to do some of its work.
Why do you believe that the humanities are important to everyone, and not just people in academia?
We have made our worlds very small through the technological creation of ideological walled gardens. Google has convinced us that knowledge and wisdom are the same thing and easily accessible through a click. Yet, most of life’s deepest experiences can’t be reduced to an algorithm. The humanities enable us to share lived experiences and create empathy within informed citizens.
What is something that people might be surprised to learn about you (hobby, skill, interesting story)?
I swim and paddleboard competitively – a couple of years ago I was nationally ranked. The look of doubt in my students’ eyes when they hear this fact out never fails to destroy my ego.
What shows are you currently binge-watching?
As a huge comic nerd, I’m embarrassed to say I just finished The Punisher. I took a long break with Hell on Wheels and so had to start over at the beginning and I just started Babylon Berlin
What is your first thought in the morning and last thought at night?
“Why did I stay up so late?” and “Man, I’ve got to go to bed soon.”
What's a book you've always wanted to read but haven't gotten around to?
Moby Dick. Every summer I promise myself that this will be the year and every summer it sits unopened and mocking on my nightstand.
What is the funniest thing that has happened to you recently?
While hiking with my wife on a trail a little north of Pittsburgh, we came around a curve to find a youngish couple coming up the hill on the trail towards us. Completely naked. We paid each other our “Good mornings” while all of us refused to admit that there was anything unusual happening.
What is the worst job that you had while working through your degree and what would you tell your past self now?
I took care of a colony of capuchin monkeys. They loathed me and never lost an opportunity to steal my glasses or pull out large chunks of my hair when I was in the enclosure with them. If I could talk to the 19 year old, I’d tell him, “You think this is bad, wait until we end up at that restaurant.”
Can you describe another aspect of your life or career that is influenced or enriched by the humanities that people would find surprising?
I’m a photo enthusiast. I eschew digital techniques to instead work with photographic processes that re over 100 years old. Studying and documenting the human experience through two dimensional images and the interplay between photographer and subject is a profoundly humbling experience with an outcome that is also uncertain. That uncertainty is key to my art and also to the interaction between humans that is expressed through the humanities.
Check back next month for more Coffee & Questions. In case you missed our previous interview with Cindy Lacom click HERE.
Our vision is to create a community of learners enriched, engaged and enlightened through the humanities.