The pond out the window confirms that my aesthetics have never been so predictable. Though “storm drainage catchment” is more precise, this pond is landscaped to perfection: reeds along the edge, fish stocked in its quarter-acre around. I can watch the gentle Vs of a few ducks that paddle around and I can imagine what kind of marsh might have been here forty years ago, what animals sipped or napped or hunted here two centuries past, whether an Arapahoe hunter or Ute families walked along this marsh.
It’s not just an environmental consciousness I’m trying for, or an awareness of the ghosts of indigenous people I’m remembering in my imagination. It’s not just my complicity in the white bourgeois economy of conspicuous consumption represented by my even sitting in this chair. It’s not just the recognition that I can even be in this house because of a long tradition of heteropatriarchy that makes my marriage fiscally advantageous. It’s not only a sense that this blandly cultivated loveliness has displaced the kinds of creativity I otherwise crave in my towns, the weirdness just around the corner that has otherwise let me play effectively at full-on respectability.
It isn’t just that I’m lonely in what I still can’t help but thinking of as an outpost from home, or that I’m worried that the technology that’s playing melancholy piano music in the background is probably monetizing my aesthetic morning, or that I’m so caught up in my alienation from this aestheticized environment we’ve constructed for ourselves that I can’t get any writing done, or that I’m writing about the Real but can’t see it even out my own window, or even that I’m a ready-made Baudrillard lesson plan, or that I’m terrified that all of this means that, literally, the whole thing is about to collapse with the ecosystem and the president and the racist hatred and that my only immediate solace is to stare out the window at the ducks make their gentle Vs across the reeded pond while melancholy piano music plays in the background.
Ok, maybe it’s that last thing.
I’ve been ruminating on this idea for some weeks now–that change is the only constant–as the circumstances have quite quickly come into focus that occasion my family’s current news: that after 14 years in Morgantown and at WVU, we’ll be moving to Fort Collins, Colorado and taking on new roles at Colorado State University.
Those who know a little about our recent work-life will not be surprised to learn that former WVU Provost and new CSU president Joyce McConnell was eager to invite Ann to join the president’s office there. And while the full details of my future at CSU have not fully disclosed themselves, a warm welcome has been made for me in CSU’s College of Liberal Arts, where I will be a professor of English, and have opportunities to teach in the School of Music, Theatre, and Dance–a lifelong dream that never quite worked out at WVU.
When I first arrived here at WVU I was a dedicated academic blogger in a moment when that was a really flourishing way to kick around ideas, ruminate, and share news. I’ve used this space for that sort of thing much more occasionally over the last two years, but this seemed occasion to write more expansively that the more popular social media platforms would.
So: Here are some things that are true.
- This is a great opportunity for Ann; no brainer, there.
- It’ll be a good career opportunity for me too, if things bounce the right way. (Also, we all know that academia is built for people like me; I’ll be fine, even as I try to level the playing field a little bit more for people for whom academia was not built).
- We also think, for reasons more complex and personal than I’d care to blog about, that this will be a good move for our kids, too.
- I was just settling into a groove in the Honors College, and had started a few things that I would’ve liked to see to fruition. I have great faith in the people who are there, that should they still want to, they will have great success. Moving across campus from them two years ago was difficult, but this will be hard.
- I am more than a little heartbroken to leave behind the WVU Humanities Center that I had the privilege to help build with a group of extraordinary colleagues–those who have served on the advisor board, those who have come to work directly for the Center, those who applied for grants, gave talks, came to coffee, attended an event, whatever. I’ve never been more proud of anything I’ve ever been professionally involved in, mostly because the results of the Center’s work were predicated on relationships, relationships that I value so, so deeply.
- I have a complicated relationship with West Virginia. On the one hand, the first Claycomb (Johann Conrad) in the new world settled near Berkeley Springs, arriving sometime before the America Revolution–early settler colonialism at its best, I have to assume. But, too, my dad is from Appalachian Pennsylvania, and my mom is from Pittsburgh, so I felt a lot of deep affinity for the place, even though I’m a coastal kid, through and through. I’m also most comfortable in a city, and while Morgantown barely meets the threshold, the rural surrounds have never been fully home for me.
- But I’ve tried my hardest to be HERE in the years I’ve been here. My work with Governor’s Schools from 2012 to 2017 really connected me to our public schools and their students in a significant way. On the other hand, the 2016 election made me feel deeply ill-at-ease here, politically. Soon thereafter, I committed to taking the opportunity to invest my time and intellectual labor in making this place more humane and more just. Whether that was through the Appalachian studies work sponsored by the Center, investing a bit more deeply in the state Humanities Council, or simply by calling and writing my state legislators, I was trying to be good for West Virginia, and not just waiting for West Virginia to be good to me. And yet the 2018 elections doubled down on some dispiriting trends, the state legislature continues to make terrible decisions and say terrible things, and in some ways, I feel like it’s important to protect my kids from those legislators. I won’t say more about that, but I will say this: I’ve come to love this place (its legislators aside) for its beauty, its resilience, its fierce and stubborn pride. And also, I am worn down by this place for what the exploiters of the world have made of it–resource-ravaged, water-polluted, opioid-infested, and in too many ways, homophobic, xenophobic, racist, and corrupt. I can imagine coming back someday–really–but also will brace myself for some sadness that it will almost surely entail. But in the meantime, I am sad to be leaving that work behind right now.
- What I am saddest about–in some ways, the saddest I have ever been–is what the distance will mean. Dear, dear friendships will erode, some beyond repair. The ones that persist will do so despite the distance, and with some serious labor. My folks will see somewhat less of my kids. The communities in which we’ve been deeply invested–the university, the schools our kids attend, the Episcopal church, the community theatre program for kids at the Creative Arts Center, the scholarly communities of English, of Theatre and Dance, of the Humanities Center, of the Honors College–man, we laid down some DEEP roots, and uprooting will be hard, and we will be (for a time) less well-nourished because of it.
- There are platitudes that we deploy about folks at WVU–Once a Mountaineer, etc. etc. I suspect that this may be true in some ways, if for no other reason than that I will always brag about these students and my wonderful colleagues. But also, very much of who I am as an academic and as a citizen was forged here. Montani semper montani, I’d wager.
So I am sitting with the sadness for now, and appreciate the less-varnished responses to our departure (Christine’s poop emoji is so far the best) as much as the kind well wishes. But know this. If you’ve been a part of our West Virginia journey, and you haven’t already a new journey of your own (in which case we already miss you), we will surely miss you, and miss you sorely.
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.
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.
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.firstname.lastname@example.org
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.
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.
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.
- 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.
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:
|Please read a few of the following before our first class.
|8/28||Publics and counterpublics
Today’s key questions:
|Read excerpts from:
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:
Assignment: Propose a corpus
|9/11||Who Owns Culture II: Cultural Appropriation
Today’s key questions:
|9/18||Reading Communities and Community Events
Today’s Key Questions:
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:
Due: Event/ Flash talk proposal
|10/2||Prose debates, trade books and the book-consuming public
Today’s Key Questions:
And one of the following:
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:
|Meet in Downtown Library Room at 5pm for a session with university librarians on Digital Humanities Tools!
|10/16||Fan Cultures / Podcasts
Today’s Key Questions:
Due: Imagine a digital project
|10/23||Humanities into Policy: Environmental Humanities is Public Humanities
Today’s Key Questions:
|Attend: Ann Pancake talk, “Double Vision,” 10/22, 7pm Milano Reading Room
Guest: Stephanie Foote, Jackson Family Professor of English
|10/30||Public Ethics and Humanities Knowledge
Today’s key questions:
Guest: Katy Ryan, Eberly Family Teaching Professor of English
Due: Write a letter to a legislator. Root it in humanities knowledge.
|11/6||Class Canceled for Election Day|
Also due (though unenforceable): YOUR VOTE!
Today’s Key Questions:
Guest: Melissa Bingmann, Associate Professor, Public History
Due: Annotated Bibliography
|11/27||Literary Knowledge and Theatrical Performance: Dramaturgy
Today’s Key Questions:
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:
|12/11||Final paper due to me by 4pm.|
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.
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.
I’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
Below 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.
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
- Consider audiences with time to listen: retirement communities, OLLI,
- 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
As 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.
Remarks at the January 29 WVU Humanities Center Coffee Hour.
Earlier this month, Leonard Cassuto, a professor of English at Fordham, published a piece in the Chronicle entitled “How to go Public, and Why we Must.” The article set out to make the case that scholars should “vault themselves out of the ivory tower and into the public square.” The bulk of the piece was a profile of children’s literature scholar Philip Nel, whose work on J.K. Rowling and on Dr. Seuss has garnered him a great deal of public attention, mostly very good.
One piece of Nel’s strategy that Cassuto advocates is to recognize when a subject will be timely—his first Seuss book was timed for the children’s author’s centenary. Another piece of advice was to be vigilant about meeting publishers’ deadlines that might be based on public appetites.
As the WVU Humanities Center has taken on as one of its goals the idea of facilitating scholarship that is accessible to the public (and that may occur in many ways), Cassuto’s piece interested me. I even posted it on the Center’s Facebook site (I hope you’re following, if you’re on Facebook, by the way).
But buried at the end of the article, a single paragraph: “Not every scholar’s work translates easily into public terms, but everyone — both graduate students and professors — ‘should try, if they can,’ [Nel] said. ‘Public scholarship can be an expression of good citizenship.’”
That line: “Not every scholar’s work translates easily into public terms,” struck me as the understatement of the month. What has 17th century Spanish drama to tell us about the latest tweets from a short-fingered Twitterer? Well, perhaps plenty, but also–perhaps to its credit–nothing at all.
So as I have been thinking about the public humanities, about making humanities work more publicly engaged, I’ve been thinking about issues of timeliness. Rhetoric gives us the term “kairos,” the proper moment for acting or speaking, the notion that it’s not just a good argument, but the right moment. Propitiety becomes relevant.
But humanities scholarship is slow. It takes time in the archive, time in the library, time at the writing desk to hammer out ideas. We often collectively look askance at scholars who seem to be chasing trends. Rushed work, we know, is rarely rigorous or sound work.
How then, do we balance the absolute necessity of taking time with our ideas with the increasingly rapid pace of our news cycles and the short attention span of our public sphere? I don’t have a perfect answer, though the Humanities Center is working in that direction. First of all, WVU faculty members (and Humanities Center Advisory Board members) Travis Stimeling and Atiba Ellis are currently working together to help the Center realize the goal of helping people go public. In our fall survey of faculty, many folks indicated an interest in reaching out to a public audience but had little sense of how to go that direction.
Travis’s work on country music has had a great deal of appeal in our local environment and so he has some important insights about our local context. Atiba’s work on civil rights law is also particularly timely right now, and I’ve read his blog and social media posts on “the meme of voter fraud” with interest. The two of them are hosting a workshop (get out your calendars) on Thursday February 15 at 5 pm at the College of Law called “Becoming a Public Humanist.”
Like many humanities folks, I like the word “becoming” there, as it rejects a kind of absolute identity for humanities scholars, the idea that someone IS or ISN’T a public intellectual.
Other things too. I am trying to keep myself attuned to creating opportunities to discuss contemporary events in a humanistic context. I follow the example of my colleagues in our History department who organized a very successful panel last fall on thinking through the Confederate monuments question through the lenses of the Civil War, US Civil Rights, European public memorials, and art-history criticism.
Later this month, in an event co-hosted with the WVU ADVANCE Advocates group, I’ll be moderating a panel on the role male faculty can play in this post-#MeToo moment. We’ll have scholars of multiple genders from women’s and gender studies, leadership studies, law, and sociology there to discuss this issue in a way that doesn’t focus simply on institutional policies, but also on the broader issues of violence against women, allyship, construction of gender roles, and other issues of broad humanistic concern.
But I also want to underscore this: despite a focus on timeliness, I don’t mean this to become a shorthand or substitute for academic value. The search for eudaimonia—better living through philosophy, language, and letters—that underscores not just humanistic inquiry but the university as an institution generally has been focused on something like timelessness. Studying French or Russian just because of US national interests in francophone Africa or Eurasia is simultaneously exigent and beside the point. There is wisdom in those linguistic and cultural traditions that transcends timely knowledge.
The Center’s program on Thursday afternoon, launching WVU Press’ new edition of Muriel Rukeyser’s The Book of the Dead might be an example. Of course, labor history in West Virginia is an ongoing issue of timely concern and Rukeyser’s poems speak in unexpected ways to our current moment. But there’s not an anniversary to commemorate or a current controversy upon which to comment. What there is, though–in those poems and in Catherine Venable Moore’s gorgeous introductory essay–is a set of powerful meditations on resilience, memory, justice, and our sense of place. And dwelling on those meditations might, for a time, help us live better.
So whether the work is of-the-moment or transhistorical, I return to Philip Nel’s exhortation that we should all try to engage the public as an act of scholarly citizenship. And I echo it, but with a caveat: that the public works on a different timetable than we do, so when we can engage the public, yes let’s…and come out to the workshop on February 15 to consider practical ways to do that. But also remember that there is value to thinking beyond the timely, for something deeper, something more enduring. The public may well come back around to it yet. And we’ll be glad for that work, too.