Taking Everything Seriously


Marco Arnaudo, a professor and director of graduate studies in the French and Italian department, is a specialist in Baroque and early modern literature. But the Italian-born scholar has a keen passion for other, newer subjects: comic books and war games, for example.

“As my wife says, I take everything seriously,” Arnaudo relates. “Some people do their scholarship and go home and read a comic book for fun. But when I read a comic book, I want to know everything: its history, its style, what it means.”

The same is true for the games he plays, especially war and fantasy games. Not only does Arnaudo maintain a YouTube channel (marcowargamer), which has 16,000 subscribers and more than 5 million views, but his motto in all his IU classes is Do Things with Games.

“Games have been with our species since the dawn of civilization,” he points out. In his classes, he uses games to teach about history, politics, and theatre. He has used games to help students learn about and compose sonnets, for example.

He is currently working on a book about branching, or interactive, fictions, which offer readers a choice of narrative paths to follow through a novel. The genre originated in the 1970s in children’s and young adult literature. But, says Arnaudo, the form “came to a screeching halt in the ’90s," with the advent of video games. Now, because of “digital fatigue,” he says, “people are returning to the idea of holding a book and flipping through pages.”

But his interest in games does not mean he takes scholarship and the humanities lightly—far from it. Recently he sat down to discuss an issue that humanities majors must often confront.

Marco Arnaudo in office with legos
Marco Arnaudo, professor and director of graduate studies in the Department of French and Italian
Do you think majoring in the humanities has value?

Yes, of course. To me, the role of the humanities is to train students and give them practical skills that are usable in any context, whether they go into government, business, politics, or the military.

In the humanities, we deal with complexity and imponderability. We deal with problems that can’t be solved, with questions that don’t have an answer. We learn how to co-exist with experiments that can’t be made, with things that can’t be tested. The humanities teach us the habit of figuring out creative solutions to problems that can’t be approached by other methods—or indeed by any method.

Whether you are launching a product or starting a conversation or trying to create religious, political, or economic connections with other people, if you forget the element of culture, you’re not going to succeed. And that is the role the humanities play: to remind people of difference and diversity. The humanities remind us to take into account the exquisitely impalpable, ineffable aspects of the human mind that cannot be reduced to an algorithm.

Do you enjoy teaching?

Yes! I can’t believe I get paid to do it. And I really believe that what I do matters because it’s useful to my students. It’s not just, “Well, I have fun doing it, therefore I have the intrinsic right to impose it on students.” I know that not every student will be interested in the topic I teach per se and I respect that. Maybe they are coming to my class because it was the only one they could take that met at 10 a.m. But I structure my classes so that every student will at least practice skills that are important: skills like understanding motivation, understanding context, understanding other people’s perspectives and learning how to embrace them, learning how to deal with and take into account the complexity of human society and human culture.

And understanding the complexity of human culture is not just important in itself, it is very useful in society. It may be that we are talking about something pretty obscure, like 17th-century literature and its connection to the Protestant Reformation. Yet at the same time we’re learning how people dealt with and analyzed problems. When I teach something historical, I always teach it as a case study for human dynamics that can be applied elsewhere.

Do you believe studying the humanities is a wise career choice?

Yes, it is not just my hypothesis. There is evidence. For instance, Google was only hiring people from the hard sciences. Google had teams that were technically qualified but were underperforming. On top of that, they were miserable with one another.

So Google figured, “What the heck, we’ve got nothing to lose,” so they started to hire people from the humanities: theatre majors, for example. And they found that teams made up of people from the humanities and the hard sciences had a stronger synergy.

I have a friend who started his PhD with me at Harvard in French literature. His dissertation was about the representation of space in 19th-century literature. You can imagine someone saying, “What’s that? Who cares about that?” But then he decided that instead of going into academia, he would work as a consultant. And when he went to interviews, people were impressed. They said, “Sure, you have no idea what we do here, but you know how to analyze a process. You know how to construct a thought and to follow it through. You can think creatively.” And now he’s a manager at Dropbox. Nothing he does content-wise originates in his training in the humanities. But the skills he learned from the humanities turned out to be valuable.”

The humanities teach us the habit of figuring out creative solutions to problems that can’t be approached by other methods—or indeed by any method.