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Public Literary Humanities: A syllabus

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.claycomb@mail.wvu.edu

Course Description:

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.

Course Schedule:

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:

  • What are the humanities and what are they for?
  • Is there a crisis in the humanities?
  • Is a turn toward broader public audiences an appropriate response?
  • How can we begin to use our existing expertise (both content and skill) to effect such a turn, and what might the consequences be?
  • Who benefits?  Who pays?


Please read a few of the following before our first class.


8/28 Publics and counterpublics

Today’s key questions:

  • What are publics, and how have they been constituted over time?
  • How do public/private distinctions come to bear on academic work
  • How do market logics and democratic logics change the stakes for humanistic inquiry?


Read excerpts from:

  • Jurgen Habermas, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere***
  • Michael Warner, “Publics and Counterpublics
  • Hannah Arendt, from The Human Condition***
  • Martha Nussbaum, from Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities***


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:

  • What is a public intellectual, and who gets to be one?
  • What is the role of the public intellectual in a democracy, and what fantasies attend that role?
  • Implicitly, what does grassroots and/or populist expertise look like?




  • I Am Not Your Negro dir. Raoul Peck.   We’ll discuss a group screening.

Assignment: Propose a corpus


9/11 Who Owns Culture II: Cultural Appropriation

Today’s key questions:

  • In this case study about cultural appropriation, what counts as appropriation?
  • How have discourses about cultural appropriation made their way from academia into contemporary discourse?
  • What promise does the op-ed offer academics seeking to engage the public on matters such as this?




9/18 Reading Communities and Community Events

Today’s Key Questions:

  • What are ways that public audiences engage literature beyond the classroom?
  • To what degree does humanities knowledge make its way to these communities?
  • To what degree do these communities create humanities knowledge, and what are the stakes of this creation?
  • What role do live events and the performance of humanities knowledge delivery play in their communication?



  • Janice Radway, from A Feeling for Books, Introduction and Ch. 9***
  • Elizabeth Catte, “Stereotypes on the Syllabus”***
  • Emily St. John Mandel, Station Eleven

Check out sites for NEA Big Read, Pecha Kucha, Nerd Nite, TEDxWVU, 3MT, and this gem.

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:

  • What is the shape of literary journalism?
  • Who are the audiences for literary journalism, and to what degree to they constitute a public?
  • Does reaching the publics of literary journalism meet the imperatives to do public humanities?



Check out sites for Avidly, Lit Hub, Public Books, New York Review of Books, London Review of Books, LA Review of Books

Due: Event/ Flash talk proposal


10/2 Prose debates, trade books and the book-consuming public

Today’s Key Questions:

  • Can academics write well? j/k…
  • What are the rhetorical and generic dimensions of prose for academic and public audiences?
  • How do recent examples of books written by humanities scholars reveal the promises and pitfalls of a public approach?



And one of the following:

  • Stephen Greenblatt, Tyrant
  • Maureen Corrigan, And So We Read On…
  • DA Miller, Jane Austen: The Secret of Style
  • Tom Santopietro, Why ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ Matters

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:

  • How does our contemporary digital landscape (re)configure our sense of the public, and our access to that public?
  • How do social media platforms create pathways, obstacles, and limits on our ability to communicate humanities knowledge?
  • What possibilities exist in the wealth of public humanities tools and projects online for transforming individual scholarship?


Meet in Downtown Library Room at 5pm for a session with university librarians on Digital Humanities Tools!


  • Couldry and Hepp, from The Mediated Construction of Reality***

Check out:


10/16 Fan Cultures / Podcasts

Today’s Key Questions:

  • How do fan communities consume and produce culture?
  • How do fan communities consume and produce humanities knowledge?
  • How does “legitimate” cultural studies scholarship interact with fan community processed of culture and knowledge production and consumption?
  • Which among us does not yet have a podcast? (Answer: me.  But in 2005, you could substitute “blog” for  “podcast.” True story.)



  • Henry Jenkins III “Star Trek Rerun, Reread, Rewritten”***
  • Joli Jensen, “Fandom as Pathology”***
  • Larsen and Zubernis, Fandom at the Crossroads***
  • —. FanCultures: Theory Practice***


Check out:

Due: Imagine a digital project


10/23 Humanities into Policy: Environmental Humanities is Public Humanities

Today’s Key Questions:

  • To what degree can and should humanities knowledge inflect public policy?
  • What methods for communicating humanities expertise are most rhetorically powerful?
  • To what degree can environmental humanities scholarship affect environmental policy, and what additional knowledges are important to this engagement?
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:

  • What are the ethical stakes of arguing for the humanities?
  • What are the ethical stakes of reading?
  • How compelled must we be to put the ethics demanded in our theory into activist practice?
  • How does the Appalachian Prison Book Project provide a case study for these questions?



  • Brooks and Jewett, eds. The Humanities and Public Life
  • Michelle Alexander, “The New Jim Crow”***

Check out:

Guest: Katy Ryan, Eberly Family Teaching Professor of English

  • Katy has also made available the first chapter of Megan Sweeney’s Reading is my Window, which you may read at your discretion.

Due: Write a letter to a legislator.  Root it in humanities knowledge.


11/6 Class Canceled for Election Day
Due: Podcast

Also due (though unenforceable): YOUR VOTE!


11/13 Literary Tourism

Today’s Key Questions:

  • What do actual places of production have to do with texts?
  • What is the tourist appeal of authors’ homes
  • How does tourist practice intersect with literary consumption and knowledge production?
  • To what degree are economics at issue in preservation, curation, and presentation of authors’ homes?



Guest: Melissa Bingmann, Associate Professor, Public History

Due: Annotated Bibliography


11/27 Literary Knowledge and Theatrical Performance:  Dramaturgy

Today’s Key Questions:

  • What are the publics of the theatre?
  • Insofar as theatre is a highly public artform, how does humanities scholarship inflect theatre?
  • What is dramaturgy and how does it shape theatrical production and spectatorship?



  • Michael Chemers, from Ghost Light***
  • Lawrence Switzky, “Dramaturgy as Skill, Function, and Verb”***
  • Jane Barnett, “Literary Adaptation for the Stage”***
  • Miriam Westfield, “Framing the Theatrical Experience: Lobby Displays”***
  • Martine Kei Green-Rogers, “Talkbacks for ‘Sensitive Subject Matter Productions’”***
  • Caryl Churchill, Cloud 9


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:

  • Is #BlackLivesMatter and the attendant critical discussion surrounding it the most effective public humanities engagement of our day?
  • How are black intellectuals positioned in the public sphere?  As black?  As intellectuals?
  • What fantasies of race are bound up, reinscribed, and challenged in this positioning?

Check out:



12/11 Final paper due to me by 4pm.
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