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ASU professor engages young people, teaches respect

August 25, 2016

English professor Neal A. Lester uses critical thinking to educate young people on cultural awareness

Sports mascots, music lyrics, Halloween costumes, hairstyles, face paint: Arizona State University professor Neal A. Lester says cultural appropriation can take many forms.

It can be hurtful when one group borrows from another without proper credit, Lester said, adding that in most cases people aren’t aware when they’re being insensitive.  

To address it, Lester has started a yearly symposium to discuss self- and cultural-awareness with young people from across the Valley.

The third-annual discussion, “Cultural Appropriation: Critical Dialogues on Cultural Awareness,” starts at 8:30 a.m. Saturday at ASU Preparatory Academy in downtown Phoenix. Lester said he expects about 250 Phoenix-area high school students to learn about and discuss the value of advocacy and personal responsibility in an all-day workshop led by ASU students and faculty, along with a group of high school seniors.   

It’s about “knowing the ways in which we can be more culturally sensitive and respectful to others,” said Lester, Foundation Professor of English and founding director of Project Humanities.

He added: “We live in a fast-paced, sound bite, drive-through culture where we miss opportunities to engage critically. This symposium provides an opportunity to do just that.”

Lester started the gatherings in 2014 after students painted their faces black at an ASU football game. He said their actions didn’t offend him because they most likely had no historical understanding of blackface, an entertainment industry practice from the 1800s that perpetuated negative black stereotypes.

He looked for a way to engage, educate and enlighten through critical thinking. Once students know the effect of their actions, he said, “they can’t unknow.”

Anna Avila, a 17-year-old at Chandler’s Hamilton High School, attended last year’s symposium. She said that at the time she didn’t know what cultural appropriation was and that she didn’t want to attend the event. She learned so much from the conversations, however, that this year she’s a facilitator.

Avila said that while cultural appropriation might seem like a complicated issue, she can simplify it: “If it’s something that you don’t normally do, wear or practice in your own culture or everyday life, you probably shouldn’t do it.”

Senior editor , ASU Now


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ASU-led researchers uncover ancient Catholic texts

Rituals, devotional images could expand knowledge of women's religious lives.
Books uncovered in German monastery complex from 11th century.
Monastery to be closed; fate of the ancient library unclear.
August 25, 2016

Group seeks protection of dozens of books that could reshape modern understanding of Middle Ages, nuns' spiritual lives

An Arizona State University-led international research team is advocating for the protection of a newly uncovered trove of centuries-old Catholic texts that could greatly contribute to the world's collection of art and music from the Middle Ages.

The team discovered the previously unknown manuscripts, which date back to the 15th century, on the final stop of a tour of German monasteries late last year. The books include volumes adorned with gold leaf, and detail ancient rituals and devotional images that promise to expand what researchers can say about spiritual life for medieval women.

Professor Corine Schleif, who studies art history at ASU’s Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts, called the find at a monastery northwest of Munich “a sensational discovery.”

“I never expected in my lifetime to find this amount of unknown material,” she said.

Schleif and her colleagues immediately volunteered to catalog and digitize the collection, saying some of the books uniquely show how images and symbols were adopted by nuns of the Brigittine Order — the only group to compose liturgy for medieval women.

At the outset of conservation work in December, however, it was announced that the monastery was being permanently closed because few nuns remained there. The statement leaves the fate of the ancient library unclear and cuts off access for researchers.

“We hope,” Schleif said, “that by making the existence of this rare treasure known to the scholarly community and to the public at large, efforts will be made to continue the collection as an ensemble, to take any and all necessary measures to maintain and preserve the books and to ensure that the works are safe and accessible by placing them in an appropriate institutional library.”

Ideally, that would include digitizing the library’s most important books so they could be accessed anywhere — an undertaking Schleif and ASU visiting faculty Volker Schier, a musicologist working in the Institute for Humanities Research, completed with their earlier project “Opening the Geese Book,” a multisensory work for researchers, students and broader audiences to explore an illustrated, two-volume liturgical manuscript from 1510.

This time, they hope to build an immersive, virtual-reality platform called “Extraordinary Sensescapes” to provide insight into questions about the music, art, history, architecture and practices of the Brigittine nuns. Plans include a 3-D virtual model of a prototypical church and acoustic renditions of sounds in the space.

The team, also guided by Catholic University of Leuven (Belgium) postdoctoral researcher Karin Strinnholm Lagergren, uncovered the texts after being invited into the library at Birgittenkloster Altomünster, a vast 11th-century monastic complex for the Catholic order of Benedictine Sisters and later occupied by nuns from the Brigittine Order. The complex is the oldest continuously inhabited community of its kind, as many such monasteries were dissolved following the Protestant Reformation, destroyed in central Europe’s Thirty Years’ War or shuttered during the early 19th-century secularization of Germany.

The invitation came as a surprise, since the collection had been traditionally off-limits to visitors.

With the monastery shuttered, there is concern that the dozens of books could be sold to private dealers. However, representatives from the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek in Munich, the state library of Bavaria and one of the largest in the world, plan to investigate each object to determine if it can be claimed by Germany and brought to the library's special collections.

Top image: Shelves with manuscripts in the library of the Brigittine monastery at Altomünster, Germany. Courtesy of Eva Lindqvist Sandgren.

Beth Giudicessi