Blog Post

Platform for Public Scholars: Staging the Public Humanities Panel


 Peter Likarish set up a live blog site for participants at the conference to comment on the discussion as it was happening.  The following conversation is excerpted from a live-blog discussion between three graduate and undergraduate conference attendees. This afternoon's presentation Staging the Public Humanities includes talks by Marica S. Tacconi and Anne Davis Basting.


Bridget: Marica starts with the Crisis of the Humanities, and points out that it's a crisis both inside and outside the institution, especially when contrasted with the sciences.  Ralph Waldo Emerson saw this crisis already in 1837: Perhaps the time is already come when the sluggard intellect of this continent will look from under its iron lid, and fill the postponed expectation of the world with something better than the exertions of mechanical skills


Ann: As more and more college[s] became a training ground for specialization, this division [between the sciences and humanities] seems to have grown wider.The real interdisciplinary model leads to fresh thiniking. Is interdisciplanary study within the humanities ever able to achieve this sort of fresh innovation?


Bridget:  "Moments of Change" [at Penn State University] is a model of academic integration--linking scholars to other departments and outside the university.(


AnnThe "monastic model" [of humanities scholarship] reminds me of hearing a scientist talk on NPR yesterday about about the need for scientists to receive communications training - speaking and writing skills  - so that they can share their ideas with the public and for the public good and not keep their ideas (and themselves) isolated in their labs.


Bridget:  The same thing can happen in the humanities, I think--dropping terms like discursive and dialectic are just as alienating and isolating as scientific terms.

AnnAnd can the "fresh ideas" of the humanities include ideas that go beyond the walls of the university, ideas that break through these alienating terms? Does making some accessible to a greater public devalue its contribution to the academy?

The "Moments of Change" receives support from diverse groups from both on and off campus.  Almost every humanities department is involved.


Bridget:  I think [this kind of interdisciplinary and community involvement] increases its value to the academy... because we can justify our work as having an impact outside these narrow specializations.


What a great way to frame [the discussion sessions at Penn]--"brainstorming sessions."   Then participants don't feel pressed to put in a lot of extra preparation time.


Ann:  Nor is anyone coming in with set ideas of what this event will look like. People aren't as tied to their ideas when it's more of a conversation than a proposal meeting.


Laurah:  Lectures open to general public [through the Weiss Seminar lecture series at Penn] is good idea. Bring classroom to the community.

Bridget:  Salon evenings with informal discussion, poetry readings, live music--another great idea [at Penn].   Really accessible to students, community members, and scholars.


I wonder how a class discussion would work with community members and students... do you think students would feel shy about contributing?


Ann:  No, but I love the idea of having students see people from the community who are interested enough to come to a class when it's not required - what a wonderful model of life-long learning.

 Or vice versa? How does it work with the elder hostel groups at Dickens Universe?


Bridget:  "To expand the small world outward, to make a home of the universe, this should be the function of culture in general" (Kurt Spellmeyer)--a good description of how to make the humanities more relevant and meaningful.

I think it would help if it were the same group and people really got to know one another and trust one another.


Ann:  Is there a way to have students lead the discussions for the  community members?

Bridget:  Anne Davis Basting is talking about "The Penelope Project", a center on Age and Community, an interdisciplinary center fixed on bridging the university and community to better the lives of older adults.

Ann:  Good point, about the expert, non-expert. I some ways I think it would be great with the "teacher" can take a back seat to the ideas of the rest of the group.

Laurah:  If students had time to prepare before hand, and come up with intelligent well framed discussions, I think they would be willing to lead. They may even enjoy it. :)

Bridget:  That's a good idea, Ann--teaching is a great way to learn!   It really does require the teacher to be comfortable with taking a backseat role.   You have to let go of some authority.

Laurah:  Story telling as a learning mechanism. Good way to share and build community. Historically human attribute.

Bridget:  So do we cut content to give students more time for these projects?   How do you teach content and include civic engagement without compromising one or the other?

Ann:  Laurah, I would be interested in your response to Bridget's question. Do you feel your experience is compromise[d] if we cover less material in class, but you are given an opportunity to apply that content we do cover to your greater community?

And I also agree that storytelling is a wonderful way to remember things that you've learned. It tends to stay with you longer than memorization.

Ann:  What a great point, Laurah! It seems like it would be so fruitful to find a way, especially in a literature course, to have students tell story as both a way to retain information and also to reach out to their larger community.

As Bridget said earlier, we only have so much time. On long term projects, like the one being described, how do we make it a meaningful event for students at all points of the process (especially when they might not see its completion during the term)?


Bridget:  And likewise, when our students are only participating for a few short months, how can we make it seem worthwhile for community partners?   It's hard to really develop real relationships when the time frame is so limited.


Laurah:  Ann, that's a good point. It may have to be something short and just for the term. However I feel that if it is the type of project that people enjoy, they may stay with it, to watch the results progress even after one term.


Bridget:  I really like this idea [Anne Davis Basting proposes] of working with older adults.   Have either of you had any classroom experiences working with older adults?

AnnI only have experience working with children, but Miriam Gilbert runs a Shakespeare course for a Senior College offered through the IC community center. A program like that seems like it would be a great place to establish a multi-generational learning community.


Ann:  There is also a graduate of the Obermann Service Learning institute  who worked with the IC community center to produce video with the seniors there.


Bridget:  Yes--Jonathan Rattner.  


Ann: Such a good strategy to ask, "What do you need to make the sale?" A simple question, but it seems like one we forget to ask.

IRB is also particularly stressful, especially for someone in the humanities who is not at all familiar with the process.




Bridget:  So many service learning projects rely on an urban setting--the really exciting thing about Anne's project is that even small communities in rural areas have retirement communities and nursing homes.  


Ann: Fantastic point! And the number of adults who will need this care will continue to rise in the coming years.


Bridget:  Marica says, of older adults attending the Moments of Change events, that "They are so thirsty for these types of activities and these ways to engage"

Ann: Just to echo Bridget's point, my husband works in a church, and I often find it disheartening that the older generation and the younger generation are so divided. I love that projects like these has the potential to bring these two groups together. And once that connection is made, I think members of both generations will be more likely to seek each other out again.


Laurah:  Connection between the generations is absolutley important. Both older and younger members of society have to realize that they have a lot to learn from each other. There is no other culture in human history that i know of that has had this extensive division between the two generations. I feel like both groups miss out on a lot.


Bridget:  I like how these "Moments of Change" events provide opportunities for engagement beyond a single semester.  

 Anne brings up a good point about getting good press.   And in my experiences, newspapers and local radio are really excited about projects like these.


Laurah:  Agreed. Press is vital.

Ann:  These discussions about the public scholar as a facilitator and an administrator: In my experience as a graduate student trying to do this work, this portion of public scholarship is so overwhelming. It seems like it would just be easier to not do it, to go the traditional route. This is why it is so important to bring senior mentors in conversation with graduate students.


  I think that many people think service/public learning is something that should happen at the elective level or within the major classes, but I think it might be as, if not more, important to find a way to show students why their humanities  general education credits  are important to their overall growth as both a learner and a member of their community.


Kim Marra brings up a good point about the moment of change event - does it change the artist participants' view of their own work when they are  a part of  a series of interdisciplinarian events?


Bridget:  Anne's stories about her undergraduate student projects are really exciting--but again, it requires teachers to give up a lot of control and authority.


Laurah:  Do teachers need lots of control during a humanities course? Is there no other way to interact with students?


Ann:  A good point, Laurah. One problem in the University system is that many of the gen. ed. instructors are inexperienced. Inexperienced teachers often feel more comfortable if they have "control." Are there ways that we can teach teachers to help them to see the benefit of a collaborative classroom?


Bridget:  I can say that working with Teresa [Mangum] and hearing about projects like these are the most inspiring things for me as a teacher.


Laurah:  Good idea. Modeling may work well. Maybe if they realize college kids aren't as scary as high school ones. :)



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