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

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

old-letters-old-letter-handwriting-51343.jpeg

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.]

 

%d bloggers like this: