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Re-Mediations: some assignments

Note: the below assignments are rough-cuts of the tasks asked of students in ENGL 693B: Public Literary Humanities.  Comments for improvement are strongly suggested.

Public Re-Meditations

Part of the work of doing public humanities is finding ways to translate the work of academic scholarship to various audiences and genres.  Each of the assignments below is an occasion to re-imagine the rhetorical scenario of scholarly work for different iterations of “the public.”

Eight total assignments (including the proposal), earn 1 point each for timely submission, with 2 additional points for timely submission of all of them (10 points total).

Of the seven actual re-mediations, you’ll submit polished versions of five of them for the final portfolio (30 points).  These will be graded as a body of work rather than as an average of 6 individual assignments.

Those assignments are:

9/4: Propose your Corpus—In a page or so, write a proposal for the body of knowledge that you’ll be writing about for most of the semester.  The requirement is that it must be something that you have academic insight about, and that you can sustain an ongoing interest in for the duration of the semester.  This might be a proto-dissertation topic, a transformation of a past academic project, a side interest, an artistic influence, etc.  Your proposal should: articulate what the “general public” perception of the topic seems to be, what informational knowledge you have to convey, what theoretical/interpretive take you bring to the subject, how the subject might be exigent for a non-academic public, and what excites you about bridging that gap.  This assignment does earn its point for completion, but it cannot be included in the final portfolio.

9/11: Op-Ed—Using the range of models available, write a 500-750 word op-ed that suggests a way that your corpus (or some element of that corpus) illuminates our contemporary moment.  In a brief prefatory paragraph, identify the venue and briefly analyze your audience for their defining features, likely advance knowledge they may have on the topic, and pre-existing attitudes that they may have about your subject.  Then: headline and 500-750 words.

9/25:   Event/Flash Talk Proposal—Events are public performances of humanities knowledge.  They may happen on the scale of the local event or a highly curated online venue.  Propose an event that brings your body of knowledge to a wider audience.  TEDxWVU? A Campus Read event?  A WV Humanities Council “Little Lecture”?  Write your proposal in the form of a 1000-word (max) grant proposal that: summarizes your proposed event, defines the intellectual content of the event, identifies the audience, (including the way that your venue/platform is accessible to them) and a brief sense of how this event will enrich that audience on their terms.

10/2: Book Review Essay—for your assigned book (or a book connected to your corpus directed at a similar market-segment, approved in advance)…write a book review (1000-1500 words) that briefly summarizes, assesses, and puts into exigent context the book in question.  Good book reviews achieve this task thoroughly, helping readers to understand the book’s value to them whether or not they agree with the reviewer.  Great book reviews also subtly advance an argument about the subject (often a meta-discursive one) without getting in the way of the review of the book itself.

10/16: Digital Project Proposal—Again in the form of a grant narrative, propose a digital project that makes your corpus accessible and usable in an innovative way and/or to an audience whom might otherwise never have been able to access it meaningfully.  In your proposal, describe the way that the digital interface presents information, what digital tools (to the best of your limited knowledge) might be useful in creating this interface, and how this interface preserves, presents, or allows for interaction with your body of knowledge.  Consider in this case that a digital project proposal might include information including but extending beyond the corpus you’ve already been working on.

10/30:  Letter to a Legislator—Keep it short, sweet, and simple.  Write a persuasive letter to a local, state, or national legislator that marshals a key piece of  literary-humanistic information that illuminates a matter of urgent contemporary political concern.  500 words is likely too many.  In a brief prefatory paragraph, identify the legislator, their relevant educational background, their likely pre-existing views on your subject, and your rhetorical goal (PACT, baby!).  Consider sending this letter.

11/6: Podcast—Using the tools discussed in class, create a 10+ minute podcast that opens up your corpus to a new audience.  If the technology really escapes you, write a 5+ page double-spaced script, exactly as conversational as you’d want your podcast to be.  Avoid monologues. Consider also collaborative podcasts, in which you collaborate with a classmate or two (or dear friend to whom you will forever owe a favor)…still, ten minutes per podcaster, max three podcasters.  Unlike some other genres, bonus points (not real) for scruffy humor and can-do amateurism.  Like other genres, the point is to make deep humanities inquiry accessible for a different audience.

11/27: Open Re-mediation—By now, you will perhaps have devised other genres and media by which to communicate your corpus to new audiences.  A children’s book?  An episode of Drunk History? A script for a biopic?  A public re-enactment? A completely different take on a genre already explored? Pick the genre, audience, and length that you believe is most appropriate to propose (or draft) such a re-mediation.

12/11: Portfolio due (with Final paper)—include a brief (500-1000 word) prefatory memo that frames the five (revised, polished) pieces you’ve chosen to submit and your rationale for doing so.  Describe the strategies you’ve taken in these five pieces and trends in your efforts to bridge the academic-public gap that may correlate with your own interests or perhaps something intrinsic to your corpus.  Be prepared to present a single outstanding piece to the rest of the class.  Possibly be prepared also for it to be shared in some more public way to be brainstormed by our class at a later time.

 

 

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Public Literary Humanities: A syllabus

Below is an online version of syllabus for the Fall 2018 syllabus of ENGL 693B: Public Humanities at West Virginia University.  A fuller version with course and university policies can be found on the class’ eCampus site, and will be distributed in class.  I hope you can read in the course’s excesses (read on!) my enthusiasm for the subject and the discussions I hope it engenders.  I’m looking forward to a fantastic semester!

Ryan Claycomb,  Ryan.claycomb@mail.wvu.edu

Course Description:

You may have heard: there’s a crisis in the humanities.  That statement might take a number of forms and itself be contestable (and we’ll contest it).  But just as sure as discourse may arise around a crisis in the humanities, you can expect to hear about “public humanities” as a remedy.  The logic is thus: our disciplines are “in crisis” because we are in some way “out of touch” with “the public.”  Oh my god, you can see how many scare quotes are in there, just dying to be interrogated.  And we’ll do that this semester.

This course is an inquiry into how humanities scholarship (primarily but not exclusively in the literary fields) engages a broader public audience.  To do this, I’ve imagined the syllabus as having four strands that I’ll first articulate as threads of inquiry, and then later more tentatively broken out into a series of objectives for the course.  They are:

  • What are the current debates about the state of the humanities and efforts at public engagement by humanities scholars and artists?
  • How might we rigorously theorize concepts like “the humanities” “the public,” “the common good,” “public intellectuals,” and others?
  • What insights do cultural studies methodologies offer about the ways and sites along which culture is produced and consumed, and through which humanities knowledge is produced and consumed?
  • What tools, genres, and rhetorics might we use to “re-mediate” our own scholarly pursuits for publics beyond our own classrooms and other sites of internal disciplinary conversation?

I’m thinking about this course in this way:  whether you are a first-year MFA student or a PhD student nearing the end of coursework (or wherever else), you’ll probably be thinking about the genres and forms of your work.  So am I.  As the director of our university’s Humanities Center, I have been recently thinking very hard about how to connect the things that happen in this department to things happening in other departments on campus, to large-scale shifts in academia, to public audiences nationwide, and (recently) to Appalachian publics.  I’ve been learning a lot along the way.  I don’t have any great illusions about my “expertise” here, except that I have been thinking hard about this for a couple of years now, but also know that in terms of the tools for public engagement, you all will bring things to the table that I don’t have (such as new media tools, knowledge of fan cultures, explanations for why my teenagers like inexplicable cultural artifacts, etc.).  We’re here to learn together, and I hope this course will be a fertile ground for that.

Because this course is connected to my work in the Humanities Center, I’ll ask that you all be engaged in that entity as well by coming to Center events, subscribing to our communications, and keeping abreast of our work.  In a certain way, the Center is my research lab for this course and likely the best way for us to test some of the ideas we have in this class.  You can see what the Center is up to at http://humanitiescenter.wvu.edu.

Note: Many ideas, readings, and discussion topics derived from my experience this summer at The Mellon School for Theatre and Performance Research.  Thanks to Mellon School Faculty including school director Martin Puchner, Carrie Preston, Andrew Sofer, other faculty and speakers there, and my fellow participants for the inspiration.

Objectives:

By the end of this semester, students will be able to:

  • Bore friends at parties with a passionate defense of humanities disciplines, convince parents of the extraordinary value of your present pursuit, and grind your teeth as you struggle not to comment on this or that attack on/ defense of/ broad generalization about the humanities (or for that matter, the liberal arts more broadly) on Inside Higher Ed because, in all seriousness, you will have a deep and articulated position about the present state of the value of the humanities.
  • Elaborate well theorized definitions of (or the problems of defining) key concepts like “the humanities,” “publics,” “expertise,” “public intellectuals,” and the like—useful for dissertations and dinner parties alike.
  • Engage in informed discussion about a range of ways that various publics engage literary humanities inquiry and knowledge-making, with at least one specific argument about a particular instance that you’ve chosen to analyze deeply. In an ideal world, you should be able to, and also want to present this at a relevant academic conference.
  • Synthesize academic knowledge, rhetorical skill, and new technologies (when appropriate) to reframe work that you have produced in an academic context across several different genres for audiences outside the academy. My baseline objective is that you will be able to reframe the work, period, but perhaps other related objectives include doing so in ways that will be enchanting for your audiences, and that you will be able to reflect on those processes in ways that illuminate our meta-discussions about the value of doing so in the first place.

Readings:

There is a lot of reading (and web-browsing, and listening) in this course, but I have tried to be judicious.  Sometimes, especially early in the semester, I have failed, and there will be lots of prose to work through.  Please do your best to read.  PDFs on eCampus are marked ***, links have the appropriate websites listed in the syllabus, and I have ordered the following books as required:

  • Emily St. John Mandel, Station Eleven
  • Peter Brooks, ed., The Humanities and Public Life
  • Claudia Rankine, Citizen: An American Lyric
  • Caryl Churchill, Cloud 9.

You’ll also note that several books listed for our October 2 class are ordered as “recommended”; you’ll need to purchase only one.  We’ll divide up who will cover which ones on the first evening of class.

Assignments:

  • Public Re-Mediations—at the beginning of the semester you will propose to me the corpus of humanities knowledge you want to work with. To a large degree, the content is incidental, except that it needs to be something that you already have some solid academic knowledge on, and can live with all semester long. Then at various points in the semester, I’ll ask you to present your content within the various genres we’ll be discussing.  There are eight assignments along the way, which will be graded on timely completion (in public work, deadlines matter, but for the first deadlines, these are drafts).  Some of you will do some of these expertly, but I suspect there will be struggles—genre switching is never as easy as it seems it should be.  You’ll submit a revised portfolio of your most successful five at the end of the semester.
    • Timely completion of drafts: 10 points
    • Portfolio: 30 points
  • Public Humanities Analysis—for your final project, I’ll ask you to choose any subject discussed during the semester (or a closely related topic) and analyze/theorize it through a cultural-studies/literary-critical lens. The paper should be conference-length (8-10 pages) and tightly argued.  Topics can range widely, and I’ll ask you to submit a proposal and annotated bibliography on November 13.  The paper will be due during finals week.
    • Annotated Bibliography: 10 points
    • Paper: 40 points
  • Participation—discussion matters, and graduate work is predicated on frequent, substantive participation—the classroom climate is as dependent upon what you bring to the classroom as any other element. It is difficult to express this without sounding authoritarian (which I’m really not), but at this level, attendance is expected for all but the most extreme circumstances, along with significant contribution to classroom discussion from every student, every week. With many of you effectively in some stage of training for the professoriate or another teaching position, you should be able to generate and sustain dialogue about texts and ideas. Obviously, I hope to be an active part of this process, and perhaps even the most regular participant, but this class should never be reduced to monologue or regular lecture. 10 points.

Relatedly, Classroom Climate:

My ideal graduate classroom is one that, once set in motion, allows me to participate merely as a more experienced member among peers. Insofar as I hope to treat you as peers, I hope you will do so with each other as well. Doctoral students (I expect) will be classroom leaders, in bringing a robust knowledge to the classroom, in keeping discussion lively, and, importantly, in helping along other classmates in ways that are neither impatient nor condescending. Less experienced students in whatever program: I expect you to learn quickly when necessary, both from me and from your fellow students, and to actively contribute what you have to contribute. I dislike equally the tendency to sit silently in discussion for fear of failure, and the kind of academic snobbery that engenders that fear of failure in the first place. In a graduate classroom, the boats all rise together.

Course Schedule:

Subject to change pending in-class announcement, or for unavoidable last-minute changes, via email.

Note for off-campus readers: some links may be behind paywalls.

8/21 Introduction, context, definitions, stakes

Today’s key questions:

  • What are the humanities and what are they for?
  • Is there a crisis in the humanities?
  • Is a turn toward broader public audiences an appropriate response?
  • How can we begin to use our existing expertise (both content and skill) to effect such a turn, and what might the consequences be?
  • Who benefits?  Who pays?

 

Please read a few of the following before our first class.

 

8/28 Publics and counterpublics

Today’s key questions:

  • What are publics, and how have they been constituted over time?
  • How do public/private distinctions come to bear on academic work
  • How do market logics and democratic logics change the stakes for humanistic inquiry?

 

Read excerpts from:

  • Jurgen Habermas, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere***
  • Michael Warner, “Publics and Counterpublics
  • Hannah Arendt, from The Human Condition***
  • Martha Nussbaum, from Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities***

Listen:

Attend: “Confluences: multidisciplinary approaches to the human dimensions of water,” 8/30, 4pm, Milano Reading Room, Downtown Library

 

9/4 Who Owns Culture I: Public Intellectuals and the Grassroots

Today’s key questions:

  • What is a public intellectual, and who gets to be one?
  • What is the role of the public intellectual in a democracy, and what fantasies attend that role?
  • Implicitly, what does grassroots and/or populist expertise look like?

 

Read:

Screen:

  • I Am Not Your Negro dir. Raoul Peck.   We’ll discuss a group screening.

Assignment: Propose a corpus

 

9/11 Who Owns Culture II: Cultural Appropriation

Today’s key questions:

  • In this case study about cultural appropriation, what counts as appropriation?
  • How have discourses about cultural appropriation made their way from academia into contemporary discourse?
  • What promise does the op-ed offer academics seeking to engage the public on matters such as this?

 

 Read:

 

9/18 Reading Communities and Community Events

Today’s Key Questions:

  • What are ways that public audiences engage literature beyond the classroom?
  • To what degree does humanities knowledge make its way to these communities?
  • To what degree do these communities create humanities knowledge, and what are the stakes of this creation?
  • What role do live events and the performance of humanities knowledge delivery play in their communication?

 

Read:

  • Janice Radway, from A Feeling for Books, Introduction and Ch. 9***
  • Elizabeth Catte, “Stereotypes on the Syllabus”***
  • Emily St. John Mandel, Station Eleven

Check out sites for NEA Big Read, Pecha Kucha, Nerd Nite, TEDxWVU, 3MT, and this gem.

Attend: Emily St. John Mandel conversation 9/19, 7:30, CAC

Due: Op-Ed draft

 

9/25 Literary Journalism and Book Culture:  The book review, and the feature essay

Today’s Key Questions:

  • What is the shape of literary journalism?
  • Who are the audiences for literary journalism, and to what degree to they constitute a public?
  • Does reaching the publics of literary journalism meet the imperatives to do public humanities?

 

Read:

Check out sites for Avidly, Lit Hub, Public Books, New York Review of Books, London Review of Books, LA Review of Books

Due: Event/ Flash talk proposal

 

10/2 Prose debates, trade books and the book-consuming public

Today’s Key Questions:

  • Can academics write well? j/k…
  • What are the rhetorical and generic dimensions of prose for academic and public audiences?
  • How do recent examples of books written by humanities scholars reveal the promises and pitfalls of a public approach?

 

Read:

And one of the following:

  • Stephen Greenblatt, Tyrant
  • Maureen Corrigan, And So We Read On…
  • DA Miller, Jane Austen: The Secret of Style
  • Tom Santopietro, Why ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ Matters

Due: Book Review essay on one of the above recent popular books in the field, or propose another.

 

10/9 Digital Humanities as Public Humanities

Today’s Key Questions:

  • How does our contemporary digital landscape (re)configure our sense of the public, and our access to that public?
  • How do social media platforms create pathways, obstacles, and limits on our ability to communicate humanities knowledge?
  • What possibilities exist in the wealth of public humanities tools and projects online for transforming individual scholarship?

 

Meet in Downtown Library Room at 5pm for a session with university librarians on Digital Humanities Tools!

Read:

  • Couldry and Hepp, from The Mediated Construction of Reality***

Check out:

 

10/16 Fan Cultures / Podcasts

Today’s Key Questions:

  • How do fan communities consume and produce culture?
  • How do fan communities consume and produce humanities knowledge?
  • How does “legitimate” cultural studies scholarship interact with fan community processed of culture and knowledge production and consumption?
  • Which among us does not yet have a podcast? (Answer: me.  But in 2005, you could substitute “blog” for  “podcast.” True story.)

 

Read:

  • Henry Jenkins III “Star Trek Rerun, Reread, Rewritten”***
  • Joli Jensen, “Fandom as Pathology”***
  • Larsen and Zubernis, Fandom at the Crossroads***
  • —. FanCultures: Theory Practice***

Listen:

Check out:

Due: Imagine a digital project

 

10/23 Humanities into Policy: Environmental Humanities is Public Humanities

Today’s Key Questions:

  • To what degree can and should humanities knowledge inflect public policy?
  • What methods for communicating humanities expertise are most rhetorically powerful?
  • To what degree can environmental humanities scholarship affect environmental policy, and what additional knowledges are important to this engagement?
Attend:  Ann Pancake talk, “Double Vision,” 10/22, 7pm Milano Reading Room

Read:

Guest: Stephanie Foote, Jackson Family Professor of English

 

10/30 Public Ethics and Humanities Knowledge

Today’s key questions:

  • What are the ethical stakes of arguing for the humanities?
  • What are the ethical stakes of reading?
  • How compelled must we be to put the ethics demanded in our theory into activist practice?
  • How does the Appalachian Prison Book Project provide a case study for these questions?

 

Read:

  • Brooks and Jewett, eds. The Humanities and Public Life
  • Michelle Alexander, “The New Jim Crow”***

Check out:

Guest: Katy Ryan, Eberly Family Teaching Professor of English

  • Katy has also made available the first chapter of Megan Sweeney’s Reading is my Window, which you may read at your discretion.

Due: Write a letter to a legislator.  Root it in humanities knowledge.

 

11/6 Class Canceled for Election Day
Due: Podcast

Also due (though unenforceable): YOUR VOTE!

 

11/13 Literary Tourism

Today’s Key Questions:

  • What do actual places of production have to do with texts?
  • What is the tourist appeal of authors’ homes
  • How does tourist practice intersect with literary consumption and knowledge production?
  • To what degree are economics at issue in preservation, curation, and presentation of authors’ homes?

 

Read:

Guest: Melissa Bingmann, Associate Professor, Public History

Due: Annotated Bibliography

 

11/27 Literary Knowledge and Theatrical Performance:  Dramaturgy

Today’s Key Questions:

  • What are the publics of the theatre?
  • Insofar as theatre is a highly public artform, how does humanities scholarship inflect theatre?
  • What is dramaturgy and how does it shape theatrical production and spectatorship?

 

Read:

  • Michael Chemers, from Ghost Light***
  • Lawrence Switzky, “Dramaturgy as Skill, Function, and Verb”***
  • Jane Barnett, “Literary Adaptation for the Stage”***
  • Miriam Westfield, “Framing the Theatrical Experience: Lobby Displays”***
  • Martine Kei Green-Rogers, “Talkbacks for ‘Sensitive Subject Matter Productions’”***
  • Caryl Churchill, Cloud 9

Listen:

Attend: Cloud 9 at CAC

Meet with me this week to discuss your public re-mediation portfolios

Due: Open Re-mediation

 

12/4 Public Intellectuals, revisited:  #BlackLivesMatter

Today’s Key Questions:

  • Is #BlackLivesMatter and the attendant critical discussion surrounding it the most effective public humanities engagement of our day?
  • How are black intellectuals positioned in the public sphere?  As black?  As intellectuals?
  • What fantasies of race are bound up, reinscribed, and challenged in this positioning?
Read:

Check out:

Listen:

 

12/11 Final paper due to me by 4pm.

The Real World: Mellon School 2018

The last formal activities have ended from the 2018 Mellon School for Theatre and Performance Research.  I haven’t blogged in this space for quite a bit, but I did post to the school’s blog a few days ago, and also had the time to conduct a blogged interview with WVU Press Editor Derek Krissoff.

Quick overview: the School was a two-week series of seminars, writing workshops, and public lectures from luminaries in the field. The theme of the school was “Public Humanities.”  Accordingly, I had a lot of ways in to this academy. The writing workshop, run by the inimitable Andrew Sofer, gave me a chance to dust off a scholarly project that has been simmering for years.  Beyond that, the discussions throughout gave me a thousand ideas for programming and activities for the WVU Humanities Center.  Many of those came from the seminar I participated in, run by Martin Puchner, whose esteem in the field seems outstripped only by his erudition.  Those sessions gave me loads of productive material to begin earnest planning for my Fall graduate course in Public Humanities.

While readers can stay tuned for developments in each of those projects, I’m taking a few moments to reflect (publicly) on the experience itself, qua experience.

  • We do not often enough have opportunities for sustained intellectual exchange across sub-fields. While I love conferences for the focus and intensity of an individual panel and working group, they often are too brief to get very deep, and we tend more and more to sort into tinier and tinier coteries.  And while the academic department  as a unit should provide such  model as this, well…familiarity and paperwork alike breed contempt.
  • I was thrilled at the diversity of participants—international participants from (in some way or other) South Korea, China, Russia, India, Turkey, Egypt, Nigeria, Germany, England, France, and Colombia. And folks around the US from a range of critical fields, ethnic backgrounds, institutional contexts, and geographical regions.  I learned about a wide range of scholarly projects.  More to the point, I learned how these worldviews shape those projects.  That was exciting new territory for me  And if the future of our field is represented by these younger scholars, our field is in good shape indeed.
  • Having spent the previous six summers curating and stage-managing experiences like this one, but for younger students via the WV Governor’s Honors Academy and Governor’s School for Math and Science, I should not have been surprised at the intensity and richness of the emotional landscape of this experience. I even went so far as to imagine I might be immune to that richness. But sure enough, I experienced it just this way, with all the warmth and light one hopes for in a tiny utopian gathering of like-minded folks.

A final story from #MellonSchool2018: During our glorious, generous, final gathering, we shared our impressions and gratitudes about the week.  Not long into this collective love fest, one of participants recalled the moment he found he had been accepted into the school.  Of course, he googled us all, cowed by the things he had found.  “I was so intimidated when I learned about Ryan, I thought, how am I coming here?”  laughter burbled up from the group—he had been a robust participant, and I certainly didn’t bear my claws.  This became a running joke through the rest of the session, how frightening I was.  It’s funy because it’s not true, but it’s funny because it’s true.  I think I’ve shown myself this week to be very not scary, but my new friend’s reaction, it turns out wasn’t an uncommon experience.  Most participants were graduate students or early career faculty—the target audience.  The presence of a fully-promoted professor as a participant (who was a classmate, and not faculty) seemed to set a high bar that initiated some impostor syndrome.

While to my mind #ScaryRyan might be the silliest of all possible hashtags, I am coming to understand that for some, it was a little too real.  Perhaps it goes without saying that my own anxieties were very present in the run-up to the program.  I was worried that being a senior scholar with little publishing or writing or even grad teaching in the past six years meant I’m an old dog with outdated tricks.  These brilliant, beautiful young minds were just as prone to rip me to shreds as to learn from my experiences.   But learning that I felt intimidating to international scholars, women, and people of color made me realize something important. Even by following the standard pathway of academia—an institution built to support ableist, middle-class, straight white male norms—I implicitly do some small (or not-so-small) violence on those who experience difference simply when I show up on the guest list.

In these weeks, I tried to ask questions about how to more gently and generously navigate these spaces of contact, to listen to the answers I was gifted and to hear the honest advocacy from which others spoke and asked their own questions.  I also tried in some ways to advocate for certain kinds of attention to the vulnerable places that my own presence represented in this conversation—for Appalachian publics, for theatre in rural places, for environmental justice—even though that has not been my work, per se.

I sensed a spirit of generosity, gratitude, and joy in this afternoon’s gathering.  I suspect that whatever trepidations people had the person I might have turned out to be, that I did not remain in any particular way intimidating; nonetheless it was a learning experience to recognize that for some, merely the path I have navigated thus far might pose a risk for them.  At that’s important to know—that the power of those with privilege is not just a shield against violence or discrimination, it’s a sharpened dagger with which we move through the world, and we need to be careful where we’re pointing that thing. And as often as possible, put both the shield and dagger down, and be vulnerable to the world.

***

Of course I miss Ann and the kids palpably, and I’m ready to go home.  But I already miss the presence of the friendships and frientorships I’ve formed this week.  No doubt they will be present in my scholarly life well into the future, whatever shape that may take. I’m grateful in great and small ways for every interaction I’ve been privileged to have.

I moved into the dorms with a bunch of adults two weeks ago.  It was a scene right out of The Real World. Moving out tonight felt, well, a bit unreal.  There was a kind of regression to young adulthood in these two weeks, and I tried as hard as I could to be as open to this experience and the people I’ve met as I was in those first years of college all those years ago.  And it was extraordinary.

On the humane life of the academy

That’s the magnolia tree from my backyard in that picture, looking like in just a few days it might be fully splendourous in pink, or in the freeze of the next couple of nights might drop those petals to the ground in a browned mess.  Even now, there’s a sepia tone to the blossoms that leaves little confidence in the rebirth motifs of spring.  Something something lilacs something dead land.

IMG_0861I’ve had a packed few days in the life of the academy this week, full of fantastic experiences with incredibly promising students and colleagues.  In just the last eight days I’ve learned about a grant that I’ll be very enthusiastic and less vague about next week; I’ve sat in on interviews with the most promising incoming in-state undergraduate students; I’ve gotten to listen to and be a judge at the finale of our campus three-minute thesis competition; I’ve given a talk about personal statements to students on track for outstanding fellowships and scholarships like the Fulbright; I’ve heard news that tells me that we’ll have big news to report about this year’s WVU Fulbright applicants (I’m the faculty advisor); and I got to prepare and participate in the elections for our newest Phi Beta Kappa inductees (I’m the acting chapter secretary).  I also, significantly, got to teach my class, which is turning into one of the most wonderful teaching experiences I could have hoped for in this semester.  Nothing extraordinary–just a great group of students willing to dive in to almost any discussion.

But amidst all of this hope and celebration and joy, I’ve also worked in some way with three different students in crisis: friend and family deaths, accidents, traumas (I won’t say more since these are ongoing issues).  Another is trying desperately to return to school after years off fielding health and financial crises, so that she can earn the degree that she roundly deserves to earn. And for all of those astounding opportunities that I had a hand in offering to students this past week, there is the disappointment that inevitably comes with those not offered them and a strange ambivalence about being a gatekeeper in this way at all.

To round it out, I saw a student pedestrian hit by a pick-up truck yesterday afternoon (this story turns out ok).  The accident was hardly reckless negligence on the part of the driver (the pedestrian did not seem to be looking, was wearing earbuds, and was darting through traffic), but that pedestrian did not ask to be hip-checked hard enough to crack the truck’s fiberglass bumper, to be sent flying and rolling and sprawling, to feel the shame of having been laid low in public.

I was the first person to this student, and another driver pulled over to call 911 and assist. As is often the case with a shockingly unexpected injury, adrenaline had flooded his body and he really seemed to just want to skitter away to nurse his limping hip and his scraped hands, but I got him to sit down and collect himself, wait for the EMTs (who located nothing more than scrapes and bruises), and file a report.  I also helped calm the driver, who was understandably rattled, himself ashamed and upset, as the student drivers who passed by shouted “idiots!” out their windows: retribution for the traffic delay.

After the EMTs arrived, I just stuck around in case I was needed, offering sympathetic glances to the driver and pedestrian alike, though not speaking to either.  When I was free to go, I went home and told my kids about the afternoon’s drama, forging lesson from incident.  But how close I had been from witnessing something terrible yesterday afternoon!

I read something in passing last week that mentioned that it was very difficult to incentivize good teaching, because teaching as an impulse was largely driven by intrinsic motivation, a commitment to the business of serving our service, or maybe just to the business of making and conveying knowledge.  While we may say much about a college education being a kind of luxury, for so many of the students I felt connected to this week, this time felt like the blossoms on that magnolia tree: just on the verge of splendor, still at great risk of wilting in exposure to the elements.  Sometimes I’m thrilled to help them fully bloom, but sometimes it’s most important to help them to the side of the road.

 

Some brief reflections on the direction of national support of the humanities, or, my brief chat with Jon Parrish Peede

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Instead of attending JD Vance’s talk on campus last night, I went to a reception at the WVU Humanities Council in Charleston with Senior Deputy Chairman Jon Parrish Peede (though he seems to have been appointed as acting chairman last the summer, there is not a current chair, and he is being referred to under this, his permanent title).  Peede is in town to participate in today’s West Virginia History Day activities (something I’d like to be more aware of in the future!).
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Peede’s imprimatur as chairman-in-action-if-not-in-name is an interesting one.  Though he’s done scholarly work he’s not an academic. He’s a publisher first: he made his name at VQR where he did genuinely great work in raising the profile of that august publication, and got his start at Mercer University Press.  I know nothing about his political affiliations, but there are all kinds of clues to a kind of disciplinary conservatism in Peede’s bio (and I say this not to cast aspersions, but rather to read the tea leaves, as it were).  The literary profile here is of a “great books” mindset–the belletristic cast of his interest in Southern literature, the fact that “excellence” as a standard comes up often enough around his tenure overseeing literature grants at NEH, the limited-edition book publishing company he started in his 20s (which published Dana Gioia, the republican NEA chairman under George W. Bush who brought Peede to the NEA), the mention of being a member of American Mensa. I’d encourage readers to do their own close reading of his National Humanities Alliance speech from November.
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For what it’s worth, Peede was also accompanied by the NEH Congressional Affairs director Tim Robison, a long-time Republican congressional staffer (Orrin Hatch, Phil Crane, Chris Stewart, Tom Price).  All of this is to say that (not surprisingly) Peede seems to represent a vision of the National Endowment for Humanities shaped by an administration that is interested in eliminating the office, or at least stripping it of liberal or progressive influence.
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My takeaway from Peede’s brief remarks last evening, and a brief chat we had afterwards, is that the agenda for the current leadership is “preserving cultural resources.” (I could say more about the very brief chat we shared, but that’s all more observational, and almost certainly featured dynamics surrounding the fact that I have a pending grant application at the NEH, one that is perhaps a long-shot.)  But I was really there to listen carefully to the values he extolled for the humanities, and the ones on which he remained silent.
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So  my sense is this: while the vision of the previous NEH chair, Bro Adams, was to encourage public humanities as a relevance-and-survival strategy, this leadership is investing the the material resources of the humanities themselves.  Admittedly, in a vacuum, this is an important priority for archives, libraries, museums, etc. But it became increasingly apparent that there’s less (maybe significantly less) space for the scholarly work that might make use of those resources.
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This communicated difference in priorities is also certainly tempered by Peede’s audience last evening: the state Humanities council is very much in this same business of preservation and public access of humanities resources, and these things are easier pitches to the state legislators also in the room–so he could have been crafting specific appeals to the audience.
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That said, he also talked about two initiatives that he was excited about.  One was the “Common Heritage” program (and let’s unpack that title, shall we?), a series of small grants designed (as he described it) specifically to get preservation experts to local and regional sites to consult on proper storage and preservation techniques for things like public records–think courthouses and hospitals as much as libraries and museums.  The grant seems to encompass more than this in execution, but his rhetoric was telling: that this is a move that shifts resources to non-experts–people who need the resources to be sure. But his description was definitely not referencing those who make their expertise out of the interpretation of those resources.  On its face, it’s a democratizing move: humanities for the people.  But it also seems part-and-parcel of a general cultural shift that devalues expertise.
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He also discussed with great enthusiasm the return of the infrastructure grants–large-scale grants ($500k with a 3:1 fundraising match) to ramp up humanities infrastructure.  In their last iteration a decade or so ago, these were often the ground work for Humanities Centers, and so you can see that I’m cautiously excited about this one.  In fact, the gorgeous building that houses the WV Humanities Council was supported by an infrastructure grant.  It is important to note, however, that this grant is no longer in their Challenge Grants office (though this is a challenge grant), but rather in the Division of Preservation and Access).  Peede here was excited to talk about the idea that infrastructure might be more than just bricks-and-mortar; he specifically mentioned digital infrastructure as a way of thinking flexibly about this grant.  But even so, this strikes me as a rhetorical move similar to the  Common Heritage grants–an emphasis of the materials of Humanities research, rather than the research itself. This mitigates my enthusiasm about the Center’s chances for the grant, though we shall see.
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So let’s take this at face value:  we all know that the NEH is a political football with an outsized symbolic impact relative to its actual budget.  If I’m reading the current situation correctly (and I’m surely missing a lot of detail), then it’s likely that many of the things coming out of that office in the very near future are going to looknonpartisan,” to borrow a word from Peede’s November speech.  Whether this is (like Adams’s approach in the last administration) a survival strategy, or instead a specific political stance, I can’t say.  But it seems likely that the work of scholars doing politically inflected work is likely going to have to supported by their academic institutions rather than the Endowment. But for those working with material cultural resources, now is your time.
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[Edited to add:  NEH just announced that they were upping fellowship grants, so maybe I’ll back off of that zero-sum theory a bit.]

 

“Becoming a Public Humanist”: workshop notes

pexels-photo-326496.jpegBelow are my (very subjective) notes on the “Becoming a Public Humanist” panel, held February 15, 2018, at the WVU College of Law, hosted by the WVU Humanities Center.

Panelists were Dr. Janet Snyder (Art History), Dr. Kirk Hazen (English, Linguistics), and Dr. Melissa Bingmann (Public History), and the panel was moderated by Prof. Atiba Ellis (Law).

Janet Snyder from Art History was the first presenter, and she set the stage by posing some big-picture (no pun intended) questions for the remainder of the panel

  • Who is the public for the Artist?
  • Who is the public for the Art Historian? Students, people who express particular interest, more broadly those who come to the art museum.

Professor Snyder espoused a baseline practice of “looking closely together”:

  • –Looking closely allows you to ask questions: This struck me as an important way of translating what we do in the classroom to other interactions–that in many ways, we need to be teaching broader publics (not just our students) how to ask questions, not just of us, but of the objects, texts, discourses, and scenarios they encounter.
  • –Looking closely is a tool to understanding the real thing.
  • –Travel as a crucial component: I noted this particularly out of a personal interest…how does travel and tourism (both scholars’ travel to archives, etc. as well as our mobility to meet public audiences where they are) condition our work? What are the ethical and environmental implications of those kinds of travel?
  • I also noted that Professor Snyder’s slides were not images of art itself, but of students/ colleagues looking closely at art.  The act of looking (or more broadly, inquiring) becomes crucial.

Professor Snyder proposed “global positioning studies”  to ask, persistently, “What kind of art should artists be making here and now?”

Professor Melissa Bingmann presented attendees with more pragmatic ideas borne of working directly with local public history organizations.

  • Like Prof. Snyder, she began with: How do you define public? For her, that work happened in two key ways:
    • Museums—Museum professionals do not always have the smoothest of relationships with academic for some justified reasons, which may in turn lead to tension between academic and public history sites.
    • Working with institutions
      • Institutions often want labor/organizational expertise as much as expertise.
      • Institutions are valuable for public humanities based on relationships built over time. (e.g. Interns, associations, advocacy orgs)
      • One key, connected from Prof. Snyder’s talk was the idea of learning together: scholars and institutions and–by extension–publics collectively developing public knowledge.
    • It’s important to ask questions about what publics/organizations really want.
      • Is a new institution viable?
      • Assess: are oral histories (or any rpre-defined project) the best pathway?
      • Is the idea the institution has going to give them the result they want?
    • Public memory is a huge component of how public history works–we might all do well to think a bit more broadly about how public memory functions for our fields.
    • Avoid being “the parachute scholar”!
      • Be a participant beyond the talk itself.
      • Treat others (teachers, curators, etc.) as scholar/experts in their own right.
      • Avoid critique without being asked to supply it—this can hurt relationships, even though it can be difficult to refrain from offering commentary based on expertise.

Professor Bingmann underscored that relationships are often as important the content, an acknowledgement that requires negotiating differences in standards of work, negotiating differences in priorities (e.g. raising money for preservation vs. scholarly rigor), and considering the potential value of failure.

She also urged participants to recall  the idea of writing as a public enterprise, esp. collaborating with public institutions that may or may not have that expertise on staff.

Professor Kirk Hazen began by noting that for his field of sociolinguistics, public outreach has been field-sustaining at a moment beyond when the academy alone might have sustained it.  (This raised, quietly, the spectre that socio-linguistics might provide a model for humanities surviving into the future if/as robust institutional support dries up.)

Professor Hazen described a series of tactics by way of a series of historical and current examples, beginning with:

  • Noah Webster: spelling book leads to spelling bees, broad cultural impact, which connected to the historical impact of the dictionary itself.
  • Appalshop (Non-profit)
    • Multimedia work, creative acts of listening and telling, etc.
    • Seriously, check out their link.  Wow.
  • “SKILLS” (app)
  • Language and Life project
    • Developed statewide (NC) curriculum modules
    • Produced series of documentaries

Professor Hazen then laid out a series of basic maxims that guided his interactions with the public (often k-12) beyond the university classroom

  • Start with very simple goals
  • Develop interactive lessons
  • Engage audience actively
  • Pique interest through ideas that matter to the audience
  • Understand the assumptions the audience brings to the table
  • In grant-writing: determine and articulate “BROADER IMPACTS”

 

From there, the session broke into a lively Q&A/discussion.  My notes there are a little more scattered, since I participated, too.

  • With a “target public” – how do we find out what a public wants?
    • Starting with the assumption that no one’s prima facie interested in our work.
    • How do you figure out where to go?
      • Consider audiences with time to listen: retirement communities, OLLI,
        • Young folk and old folk—people who have time
      • It’s important to developing materials/ approaches before the time may appear.  That way, there’s less scrambling when opportunities do arise.
      • Social media is effective
      • Department of Ed grants
  • How to negotiate differing starting points on “What the public wants ” vs. “challenging material” vs. “what they don’t yet know they want or need”?
    • Build on what people already have
    • Building trust, building relationships first
    • Work on self-interest
    • How do we follow idealistic goals in the face of public resistance?
  • Dialogue about “What one should value”
    • Already a political question
    • What do we let go and what/when do we correct?
  • Writing for different audiences?
    • Online resources with a wide audience (anxiety provoking)
    • Recycle things/ “re-usable assets”
    • Clarity and concision vs. density and complexity
    • Wikipedia/ other wikis/ hackathons
    • Medium.com (now behind a paywall) / blogs
    • The Conversation
  • Remember that a key element with students is about encouraging discovery over mastery–how do we help publics value discovery as part of the humanities ethic?
  • The Humanities Center could play a role in DIY public humanities skills (Section on website, videos, etc. that offers how-to’s)
    • Technical skills
    • Scholarly skills for everyday folks

 

Notes on a Pragmatic Humanities

pexels-photo.jpgAs yet another proposed White House  budget zeroes out funding for the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities, and as Sharon O’Dair’s hot take (behind the paywall) in the Chronicle of Higher Education asks whether efforts at career diversity prep in Humanities PhD programs is hypocrisy (I simplify), and as our Humanities Center at WVU poses questions about how and when scholars should consider pushing their inquiry out to a broader public audience, a set of questions (re)emerges:  How pragmatic should the Humanities be?  How pragmatic must they be?

I’ll confess to being divided on the issue.

As a scholar, I trained in modern and contemporary experimental drama and performance.  I find the material extraordinarily thought-provoking, intellectually challenging in a way that produces great pleasure, politically engaged in both direct and indirect ways, and in the end, accessible to only a very small audience.  That training has led me down a path that has lent me (I flatter myself to believe) a great deal of insight into the histrionic world around me, how much our sense of ourselves is a performance, what is theatrical about “real life,” and how different ways of being-in-our-bodies teach us reciprocity and mutuality.  Those are lessons that I am sometimes able to show my students; sometimes I’m just able to show them how to use the tools that have led me to these insights.

These tools have great value, because they help me navigate the culture around me, to communicate with other humans, and to be (I flatter myself to believe) a better person.  In a late-market capitalist economy, these tools have less immediate value because they are very difficult to attain–years of study and some amount of “natural” inclination–difficult to measure, difficult to quantify, and therefore difficult to commodify.  I can take them to market only in the sense that a literary education is still (though tenuously) a signal part of American liberal higher education.  Separated out on their own, spots in the literature classroom would be very difficult to sell.  It would be hard to counter the argument that those seats were a luxury.

Of course, those of us on the inside of this field feel quite confident that the decline in a robust and complex humanistic education is connected to the fraying social fabric and deteriorating political discourse–that we might be better equipped to spot fake news, specious political argument, inhumane stances if we were better-trained interpreters of our culture present and past.  So: pragmatic indeed, but neither simply so, quantifiably so, nor commodifiably so.

And so, as American liberal higher education sets itself about the task of marketing, measuring, quantifying, and commodifying its various courses of study, those most resistant, those that themselves don’t sell like widgets in the marketplace of majors (which is different than the marketplace of ideas) are being called upon to be pragmatic.  This seems to be taking several forms (as my opening suggests): a certain kind of blunting of the political edges of our scholarly conclusions, a mandate to change the training to meet labor-market demands, and a call to make our work more accessible and (one presumes) more palatable to a wider swath to the public.

So while my training as a scholar resists these impulses (radical feminist autobiographical performance art is political, esoteric, and lacking in transferable skills), my training as a teacher of writing and rhetoric kicks in.  This other training asks me to know my audiences, and analyze how to appeal to them in different contexts.  It tells me that I have been taught in my primary training to address a very specific audience, thereby meeting very rigorous standards but with very limited efficacy.  It tells me that I might concede that there is luxury in the critical unpacking of a novel, but only as a bridge to declaring my desire to make it a much more accessible luxury, simply by bringing more people to the college classroom, or that it might someday be seen as a civic necessity.

This is, I think, the pragmatic turn that we witnessed at the NEH during the tenure of William “Bro” Adams.  His advocacy of public humanities, under the banner “The Common Good: Humanities in the Public Square” seemed then to be, at its heart, a rhetorical move as much as a scholarly one.  Does Bro Adams believe that public humanities makes for more valuable insights?  Maybe. Was the program a gambit to help shore up the perceived  value of our insights?  Almost certainly.  Did the NEH fund projects under this banner that were able to thread the needle of rigor and accessibility?  Check them out.  They look great, if limited in scope–which is to say, only some kinds of projects fit.  Postings about new projects also seem to have ceased sometime around Adams’s resignation as NEH Chair (though his essay, “Valuing the Humanities,” to accompany the recent AAAS study on employment outcomes for humanities majors, reveals his continued commitment to this pragmatic turn).

And so I am torn.  In my classrooms (especially at the general education level) I insist that students can disagree on political terms without fear of being shot down on those terms (though I will persistently defend the logic that I’ve used to occupy my own position, which I make clear). This past fall, I wrote a grant application to build different kinds of professional training in alongside the training that we offer PhD students as scholars and teachers, so they might also learn to do advising and program coordination and public-facing jobs.  And we are organizing activities in the Humanities Center to help our colleagues facilitate a conversation about presenting our fascinating paths of inquiry to both a rigorous audience of our peers AND also to broader audiences beyond the academy.

In each of those cases, I see the danger: backing off of the political implications of real wisdom I see through my inquiry of texts and performances; potentially diluting of, if not the quality, then the perceived value of a focused training in academic humanities; dialing back on a critical conversation that is able to achieve its levels of intense concentration precisely because we are not breaking our address to each other to see who else might be listening.

For the moment, my approach, and my vision for the WVU Humanities Center is to continue to celebrate and amplify the work done by specialists and for specialists for the wisdom and insight that work provides, but to create incentivize that encourage scholars to present their work more pragmatically and publicly.  Though perhaps no less politically.  That’s where I think my invitations to pragmatism reach their limits.

The WVU Humanities Center has just released its first RFP for internal grants each of which supports insightful humanistic inquiry that seeks to interpret human thought, culture, and history while emphasizing interdisciplinary,  and/or collaborative, and/or publicly accessible and or innovatively presented scholarly and teaching projects.  At some level, these grants are wide open for all manner of projects.  And at another level, they are trying to thread the needle: rigorous scholarship that nonetheless might make the pragmatic turn.  We’ll see what happens.