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Essay on creation of a new book series on humanities and public life

Humanities and Public Life

April 2, 2012

Recently, the University of Iowa Press announced a new book series: Humanities and Public Life. Within 58 minutes, we had our first inquiry. In the days after the announcement, we had enthusiastic inquiries from historians, philosophers, architects, museum curators and humanities councils. Our first formal proposal arrived in less than a week.

My co-editor, Anne Valk; the acquisitions editor at the press, Catherine Cocks; and I find ourselves using phrases like "pent-up demand" to explain the outpouring of interest. We are all the more encouraged because neither the term "public" nor "humanities" offers much clarity these days. Not everyone connects the dots among these sometimes overlapping, sometimes alienated cultures. That's what we hope this series will do.

Faculty members and students participate in public life in innumerable ways -- from community clean-up days to Rotary talks -- in activities conventionally referred to as volunteerism and outreach. While we admire what are often called public intellectuals, who weigh in on serious issues, "the world" is their forum. Our series will focus on publicly engaged scholarship — deep, meaningful collaborations in which scholars and artists from institutions of higher learning (which could include cultural organizations such as museums and libraries) are working with rather than for communities.

Such publicly engaged humanities projects grow from reciprocal relationships that can include faculty members, academic staff, students, community leaders, nonprofit organizations, neighborhoods, museums, K-12 schools, and a host of other local, national or global partners. The series will therefore be likely to include books co-authored by project directors, who often form the crucial connection between colleges and universities and the communities in which they are located. That way the series can explore what does and doesn’t work from multiple points of view.

Many engaged projects have come to light in recent years through the organization Imagining America: Artists and Scholars in Public Life. Our home institutions — the University of Iowa and Brown University — are members, and our two centers are collaborating with the University of Iowa Press on this series. The mission of Imagining America has strongly influenced our objectives for the series. We want to capture the rigorous and radical working relationships that evolve during the reciprocal, mutually beneficial and mutually transformative process that characterizes the best publicly engaged scholarship. The series will also try to embrace the full scope of "projects."

These tend to sprawl across the categories of research, teaching and service and to spill out into public policy, community activities, classes, and documentation, of which published scholarship may be only one of many outcomes. Imagining America's report on engaged scholarship, including advice for tenure committees, richly describes and illustrates such projects, as does the "Engaged Scholarship Toolkit" created by TRUCEN (The Research University Civic Engagement Network), a wing of Campus Compact. Our most challenging objective? We want books in the series to convince skeptical colleagues that scholarship in humanities disciplines can sometimes be made more rigorous, provocative, and insightful through public engagement.

More precisely, we want to document projects that show how scholars in architecture and design, classics, history, law, languages, literatures, museum studies, philosophy, religious studies, visual and performing arts, humanistic social sciences like anthropology and archaeology, hybrid fields like law and literature or the medical humanities, and more are working with public partners and, in the process, enriching both our communities and their disciplines. The artists and scholars who share their work at Imagining America’s annual conference believe that their knowledge about lives represented in art, literature, history, and ethics is enlivened by the experience of community partners — shelter directors, neighborhood school teachers, human rights and health care workers, librarians, environmentalists. Furthermore, they believe these collaborations nudge us toward a more just and generous public culture. We know. We know. That sounds outrageously idealistic. It is. We are. Yet every year at Imagining America we learn of another innovative project that edges participants not only toward empathy but also action.

Evidence suggests that many colleagues inside and outside the academic world share our vision. At the University of Iowa, political science professor David Redlawsk and I co-founded the Obermann Graduate Institute on Engagement and the Academy six years ago. More than 75 competitively selected graduate students have participated. Those from the humanities are especially eager to use their passion for literature, art, and a reflective, interpretive approach to address the larger world's complexities.

They develop oral history projects with local neighborhood centers, mural collaborations that link troubled teenagers in Iowa and Burundi, ways to negotiate social conflict through literature. One student recruited an entire Iowa town to help map cancer and track family stories about the disease for what became an award-winning dissertation that traversed geography and public health. Another student developed a film cooperative with the senior center. The result? The partnership has fueled documentaries, theories of visualization, and an intergenerational art scene for almost a decade.

We’re not alone. Our institute was inspired by similar activities at the University of Washington’s Simpson Center for the Humanities that have evolved into a certificate program. I am struck by how many of the affiliated faculty mentors are assistant professors. Like many graduate students, a significant number of junior faculty members long for more collaborative, connected forms of scholarship in the humanities.

Encouragement to expand the ways we conduct and "count" work in the humanities is also coming from professional associations. While the individual, text-based, finely argued analysis in monograph form that has long been the hallmark of the humanities remains central to our disciplines, our associations also see value in extending the reach of academic humanities through experimental, engaged practices. The Public Philosophy Network has almost 750 members. That group and the American Philosophical Association’s Committee on Public Philosophy encourage philosophers to find ways to "use" philosophy, for example by working with public policy organizations.

The president of the American Historical Association, William Cronon, urged historians to avoid the threat of "professional boredom" by "not talking only with each other. By welcoming into our community anyone and everyone who shares our passion for the past and who cherishes good history." Organizations like Campus Compact and the Campus-Community Partnerships for Health provide resources and support for partnerships among individuals, schools and communities.

We want our series to make clear that engaged scholarship does not "dumb down" the disciplines. Discussing concepts, practices, and difficult texts in accessible terms certainly pressures the humanities. If that pressure pushes scholars and students in new, more public directions, their work as cultural interpreters is likely to be intensified, not diminished.

When students in a traditional class write analytical essays about Charles Dickens' Bleak House or Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights, I urge them to answer the question "so what?" — why should this topic matter and to whom? — and to advocate for their answer in every line. Publicly engaged scholars and teachers are driven by that question to seek sites and partners who turn out to value the resources of the humanities in ways we humanities scholars sometimes forget to do.

We know from our own experience that public projects are alive, ongoing, and constantly evolving. We want the series to offer authors and readers a way to wrestle with and make sense of the intellectual, scholarly, ethical, methodological, pedagogical and political complications that challenge and enrich public humanities work. We picture the books as hybrid texts — part exhibition, part analysis, part documentation. We anticipate working with authors, the press, and colleagues in the digital humanities to create books rich with images and archives that live past publication through an interactive companion Web presence.

Many engaged artists and scholars are so committed to developing projects with their communities that they do so even when their institutions dismiss complex, intellectually rich, sustained versions of the public humanities as "service." The University of Iowa Press can illuminate projects that produce innovative humanities scholarship while also connecting scholars and students to communities through collaborative work. Our hope is that the series will help tenure committees as well as fellow engaged scholars and community partners understand and evaluate arts and humanities scholarship.

Finally, like all series editors, we seek authors and collaborators with intelligence and vision. For the Humanities and Public Life series we also look forward to working with colleagues whose wisdom, daring, and civic commitment have inspired them to reach across the boundaries of disciplines, campuses, organizations and communities in shared pursuit of intellectual and civic knowledge and change.

Bio

Teresa Mangum is the director of the Obermann Center for Advanced Studies and associate professor of English at the University of Iowa.

 

 

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