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“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


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