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Writing the Route: OU Selected for National Humanities Center’s Inaugural “Being Human” Festival

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A group of people at a stop along Rt. 66

Writing the Route: OU Selected for National Humanities Center’s Inaugural “Being Human” Festival Exploring Complex Route 66 History in Oklahoma

May 1, 2024

NORMAN, OKLA. – In classic Oklahoma form, spring severe weather the weekend of April 27 interrupted a planned excursion for University of Oklahoma scholars and almost 40 Oklahomans to explore by charter bus the cultural landmark of Route 66 in the state.  

The weather didn’t deter the participants’ goal of engaging with Oklahoma’s intricate cultural landscape, however.

When the decision was made at lunchtime to forego traveling further northeast to Tulsa from Oklahoma City to avoid storms on the way back, the group stopped in Chandler as planned. Ron Frantz, Wick Cary Professor in the Gibbs College of Architecture, decided he was going to take them on a walking tour of the small town that he knew well after years working in community architecture and small towns throughout the state.  

Kimberly J. Marshall, who proposed and organized the trip as director of the OU Arts and Humanities Forum, said what happened next was an unexpected albeit “ultimate Oklahoma moment” in the middle of the planned trip to engage with the complexities of the communities along the historic “Mother Road.” 

“This 88-year-old woman in a yellow Corvette pulls up, screeches up next to the group, hops out of the car, and essentially stops the group. She goes, ‘Where's your leader?’

“And she says, ‘I have a historic home three blocks that way,’” Marshall continued. “’You all need to come and check it out.’ 

“This random woman asks the entire random group of people to come check out her historic home, which was like curated like a museum. It was amazing. And as we're walking down, I mean, that alone is noteworthy. But as we're walking down the street, fully six other people came out of their house to talk to our group and invite them in.” 

Marshall adds, “All of those were very Oklahoma experiences but it also really bonded the group together. We started just this random collection of people who gathered from our flyers in libraries and community buildings, but as the trip went along, it really got all of us feeling like a group of people who were on an adventure together.” 

The unique bonds and history of the communities connected by Route 66, as well as the complex, meaningful and sometimes tragic experiences, in Oklahoma spurred the interdisciplinary group of OU scholars to explore the cultural landmark the weekend of April 27 as one of eight competitively selected sites for the National Humanities Center’s first “Being Human” festival.   

Modeled on similar festivals in Great Britain and Australia, faculty participating in addition to Marshall and Frantz, who also serves as director of OU’s Environmental Design Program; , Julie-Françoise Tolliver, associate professor of English and assistant director of grants and fellowships for the OU Arts and Humanities Forum, and Susan Kates, professor of English. The Department of English is a unit of the Dodge Family College of Arts and Sciences. 

The Oklahoma site of the festival used humanities as a lens by which the participants could foster a greater critical understanding of their world around them, and of Oklahoma’s unique, complex history, specifically along Route 66. 

According to the National Humanities Center’s website, the festival consisted of “...community-focused events, organized and presented by local artists, scholars, and educators, [which] highlighted the incredible breadth of the humanities and demonstrated the innumerable ways that they add depth and meaning to our lives, help us understand ourselves and one another, and provide context for the complex world around us.” 

The Writing the Route workshop engaged nearly 40 Oklahomans in a collaborative, cross-disciplinary project that culminated in a Sunday writing workshop led by Kates on the landscape gathered by all the senses in which the participants had engaged the day before.  

Another stop on the trip was the Pioneer Museum in Chandler, where participants received another tour, this time of Oklahoma’s frontier history of tenacity and perseverance, which avoided the thornier issues of Native American resettlement within Indian Territory. The group also stopped at the Threatt family’s filling station, which provided refuge for African American travelers on Route 66, in addition to the Round Barn in Arcadia. 

Marshall said the role of humanities, however, is to teach people to engage critically with the information they receive and to understand seemingly opposing things can be true simultaneously. 

“Academic humanities recognizes the complexity of the world, and that something can be both beautiful and troubling, that something can be beautiful or valued or an important piece of our heritage, and also something that we don't want to perpetuate into the future,” Marshall said. “There's ways in which the world is complex, and that we need to be teaching, not particular data about the past, but ways of asking questions about the past that help us plan for and create a future that we want to be a part of.”  

Also during the creative writing workshop, Kates led participants through landscape-based writing exercises, helping them develop their own writing projects. Participants will have the option of publishing their writing connected to the workshop through the 2024 National Humanities Festival website.  

The National Humanities Center is based in North Carolina’s Research Triangle and is the United States’ only free-standing humanities research library.  

About the University of Oklahoma

Founded in 1890, the University of Oklahoma is a public research university located in Norman, Oklahoma. As the state’s flagship university, OU serves the educational, cultural, economic and health care needs of the state, region and nation. OU was named the state’s highest-ranking university in U.S. News & World Report’s most recent Best Colleges list. For more information about the university, visit ou.edu.


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