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


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!).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
[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.