Catching Up with Dean Edwards

Dean Brian Edwards and Professor of English Tulane School of Liberal Arts

Two weeks ago, in the last installment of this column, I was tasting my first king cake and looking through what my mystery benefactor called “the purple, green and gold prism” of New Orleans. Since then, I have tried 7 different king cakes from Tartine, to Maple Street Patisserie, Haydel’s, Angelo Brocato, and the famous Dong Phuong in New Orleans East. Other than the increased calorie and carb intake, has the start of carnival season changed my perspective on life?

Mardi Gras is still five weeks away, and everyone here assures me I don’t know what I’m in for. I quickly agree! But it leads me to the following question, which in various ways is explored in this newsletter. What is a life changing experience?

It’s a phrase we hear often. We drop it easily into conversation, where it can refer both to tragedy and to aspirational journeys. In the case of the former, moments when adversity changes lives or careers are soon recast as opportunities in our popular mythology. In the case of the latter, trips or products are marketed frequently as life-changing. But what does that mean?

Whether for good or ill, you don’t have to want to change your life to seek out life-changing experiences. It strikes me there is something deeply American about the desire for change. The sentiment runs through our literature, from those rags to riches stories made famous by Horatio Alger to journeys across oceans or continents in the novels of Herman Melville and Toni Morrison, or inward travels as we find in the writings of Kate Chopin or Walker Percy. The final sentence of Mark Twain’s canonical Adventures of Huckleberry Finn offers a famous shorthand phrase, when Huck decides to “light out for the Territory” lest he remain in conforming society.

I am someone who believes that placing oneself in new contexts—whether through immersive experiences in unfamiliar settings close to home or in the productively disruptive experience of study abroad—can be so disorienting as to be life altering. One need not take an airplane or even go off campus to change one’s outlook dramatically.

Simply put, a liberal arts education offers the surest possibility of producing life-changing experiences. This issue of our newsletter offers three perspectives on life changing experiences that emerge from the School of Liberal Arts. In many ways, each issue of our publication adds to that archive.

SLA senior Terez Hobson, profiled here by Emily Wilkerson, is someone who brings the lessons she learned in Kenya during a remarkable study abroad experience, to her work back on the Tulane campus as a Community Engagement Advocate. As Tulanians engage various local communities around New Orleans, Hobson helps facilitate conversations about what it means to enter a community different from one’s own. This is a profound and intricate question indeed.

In a related way, our alumnus Frank Relle, who recently received a major award for his body of work as a documentary photographer, encourages us to be changed by what is directly in front of us. “Getting people to slow down and pay attention… is a gift,” Relle remarks. He credits courses in our philosophy department and in creative writing as changing his own world view. Doing so, he says, “allows you to see what’s really there.” His own creative work achieves this magnificently.

Finally, Walter Isaacson’s popular course on the digital revolution gives us a window on that most elusive perspective: the ever-changing present. He remarks that “The digital revolution has been as transformative as the industrial revolution and the scientific revolution.” When he adds that “the cool thing is, we’re living through it,” the complexity of what he achieves in the classroom is made tangible. On my own travels, I meet people everywhere—Tulane alums, parents, and non-affiliated fans of our university—who express how much they wish they could take a class taught by Isaacson. (I am in their company, as I’ve told Walter myself!) This piece gives us a sense of how exciting that would be. 

I hope you’ll enjoy reading these stories, as they index a few of the ways in which our faculty, students, and alums are helping us discover together what it means to change lives and to have life changing experiences.

Read more from the SLA January 30, 2019 Newsletter.