West Shore Community College is taking a different approach to its ongoing study of what it means to be human for the 2020-21 academic year.

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the Humankind Series, now in its fourth year, will utilize video-conferencing platforms such as Zoom while exploring its area of focus — the British Isles of England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales — in order to guarantee safety and adherence to state guidelines.

Previously, the series featured in-person lectures, presentations and exhibits to examine the similarities and differences between the U.S. and other parts of the world, but that in-person platform simply wasn’t realistic this year, according to Matt Sanderson, WSCC philosophy professor and chair of the Humankind organizing team.

Sanderson said COVID-19 changed things, and its impact required the organizers to some logistical recalculations regarding this season’s programming.

“We had to shift our whole focus,” Sanderson said. “We were trying to have events in the community like in local libraries… We had this whole vision of partnering with community organizations — libraries, art centers, history museums… We had this whole out-in-the-community, face-to-face plan. Of course, you can’t do that now, so we’ve had to switch to a virtual format.”

Sanderson said adapting to a virtual model could have its benefits, including increasing accessibility and participation in the series.

“We’re excited about it because it is possible we could get a broader audience; not everyone can make it to a physical event, but people all over the world could potentially tune it to a Zoom meeting,” Sanderson said. “I’m optimistic about the possibilities.”

If the shift to a virtual platform is successful, it could inform future programming, since there are financial benefits as well.

“It’s certainly easier and less costly to have speakers appear via Zoom, because you could have somebody from halfway across the world appear on Zoom, and you don’t have to pay to fly them in and lodge them,” Sanderson said. “If we find that we get a big audience from out virtual events, we might continue (to use them).”

In addition to a change of format, the organization of the Humankind events was also affected by the pandemic. The last few events of the 2019-20 season were called off, and uncertainty about the pandemic and its duration led to a delay in planning.

Sanderson said events are being planned out on a short-term basis, compared to previous years, when the slate of programming was all done at once.

“We’re kind of releasing a couple events at a time, rather than doing the whole list for the semester,” he said. “We have a few more events that we’re still working on for the fall that aren’t finalized.”

The British Isles

Each year, the Humankind Series explores a different part of the world, examining the cultural, artistic, historical, economic and socio-political landscape of each area in comparison to the United States.

Previous seasons have focused on Africa, the Middle East, and, most recently, Cuba. Sanderson said each year’s region was selected by students and faculty.

“We polled the students,” he said. “We have a team that runs the series… and we put together a list of about 15 places around the world. We sent that list out in a poll to students and employees and the British Isles was the top choice.

“It seemed kind of interesting to do Ireland and Scotland and Wales, with Great Britain too, rather than just Great Britain.”

The series will kick off at 12:30 p.m. and 7 p.m. on Sept. 21 with two Zoom presentations by Alan Gallay on the life of Sir Walter Raleigh. Gallay will be interviewed by Mike Nagle, WSCC history professor, and there will be time for questions from audience members.

Sanderson said he’s excited about the event.

“Mike Nagle had (Gallay) as a professor and credits some of his love of history to him, so he should be a really exciting speaker,” Sanderson said. “And his books are award-winning.”

Next up, at 7 p.m. on Sept. 29, there will be a virtual lecture by British artist Philip Hartigan.

In the planning stages are events that will focus on comparing and contrasting social issues in the U.S. and Great Britain.

“We’re working on an event that focuses on Brexit and cultural identity, and a big part of that is what it means to be British,” Sanderson said. “It’s a question of identity, and of course that’s a big issue in America — what it means to be American, in terms of immigration and so on.

“We’re not facing anything like (Brexit) in the U.S., so there are some big differences that might appear, too.”

Sanderson said Humankind is an important part of WSCC’s mission, and noted that he’s glad the series is continuing.

“It’s really one of our ways of taking education to the community,” he said. “We’re obviously trying to promote diversity and inclusion and learning about other cultures, and we think that we have a role to play in getting people to be curious about the world.”

Sanderson said the series is funded through a one-year loan from the Michigan Humanities Council, and that WSCC still has funds left over due to canceled events in the spring.

For more information about Humankind, including updates about new events as they’re announced, visit www.humankindwscc.org or find Humankind by West Shore Community College on Facebook.