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.