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The Engaged Humanities Scholar as Public Intellectual

The Engaged Humanities Scholar as Public Intellectual

A 2009-2010 Alice Kaplan Humanities Institute/Center for Civic Engagement Research Workshop, Northwestern University


Crucial to scholarship in the humanities is the non-instrumentality of our studies: the pursuit of specialized knowledge for knowledges sake. However, the place of this kind of humanities scholarship in the changing university setting has long been a topic of concern. Recently, this concern has grown even more fretful. As a February 2009 New York Times article reported, in this new era of lengthening unemployment lines and shrinking university endowments, questions about the importance of the humanities in a complex and technologically demanding world have taken on new urgency (Patricia Cohen, In Tough Times, the Humanities Must Justify Their Worth, 24 February 2009).

As this quotation suggests, there is a tendency, particularly in the United States, to pose humanities scholarship in opposition to practical knowledge. This research workshop takes a different tack: by investigating debates about the humanities and the definition of the public intellectual, the workshop explores potential connections between specialized research in the humanities and the larger practical world of shared civic life.

Our broadest questions include:

  • How might we develop more robust relationships between advanced scholarship and shared public life in a complex, modern, mediated world?
  • How might scholars participate in society as public intellectuals beyond the lecture circuit and the presence of a few celebrity talking heads in the media?
  • How might scholars utilize new communication technologies to shape and contribute to the emerging field of the digital humanities?

Our workshop will take place in multiple spaces:

  • On campus through seminars, talks, film screenings, art exhibits, and informal gatherings
  • Throughout Chicago in trips to humanities-related events
  • Online through the digital components of a blog, Facebook and Twitter accounts, and a discussion board.

Additionally, nominated graduate and advanced undergraduate students will participate in the HASTAC (Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Advanced Collaboratory) Scholars Program, which will link our research workshop to a consortium of scholars engaged in discovering alternative modes of learning and research that better address the interconnected, interactive global nature of knowledge today, both in the classroom and beyond (

The research workshop itself will consist of a concentrated cluster of related-events each quarter. Participants can also organize additional events, excursions, and gatherings in connection to their own interests in the research workshops themes. The main events include:

  • In the fall, Michael Brub will join us to investigate the humanities broadly conceived. Paterno Professor in English Literature and Science, Technology, and Society at Penn State University, author of Whats Liberal About the Liberal Arts, The Utility of the Arts and Humanities, and founding director of the Illinois Program for Research in the Humanities at the University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana, Brub will participate in a seminar on the idea of the engaged humanities. As a case study, Brub will also present material from his book The Left at War (NYU Press, forthcoming November 2009), and we will view a number of Iraq War/War on Terror documentaries to consider the dilemmas of engaged scholarship and the role of the public intellectual during recent times.
  • In the winter, we will turn to the new field of the digital humanities. Robert Hariman, chair of the Program in Rhetoric and Public Culture in the Department of Communication Studies at Northwestern, will join us for a seminar to discuss his No Caption Needed book and blog, which examines the role that photojournalism and other visual practices play in a vital democratic society. David Theo Goldberg, Director of the Humanities Research Institute at the University of California and co-author of The Future of Learning Institutions in a Digital Age, will join us as well for a talk and discussion (pending confirmation). To further explore the idea of the public intellectual, we will view The Examined Life, a documentary film by Astra Taylor that features interviews with contemporary philosophers such as Cornel West, Judith Butler, and Slavoj iek, and engage in an online discussion of the film and a set of short articles related to the idea of the public.
  • In the spring, we will investigate the intersection of the arts, humanities, and public life through a roundtable on cultural policy featuring former National Endowment for the Arts chair Bill Ivey, National Endowment for the Humanities chair (and Northwestern alumnus) Bill Ferris, and Illinois Humanities Council executive director Kristina A. Valaitis. Additionally, Dr. Ivey will join us for a seminar discussion on his book Arts, Inc.: How Greed and Neglect Have Destroyed Our Cultural Rights, and selections from Steven J. Tepper and Bill Ivey, eds., Engaging Art: The Next Great Transformation of Americas Cultural Life (pending confirmation). The music/arts duo Mecca Normal will also visit campus to present their talk/concert/exhibit How Art and Music Can Change the World at the Block Museum and Norris Centers Dittmar Gallery (pending confirmation).

Future Goals

Our hope is that the research workshop will continue to serve in the coming years as a laboratory for theorizing and studying the engaged humanities scholar as public intellectual. So too, the workshop might develop further through future cooperative ventures with the Chicago Cultural Alliance, HASTAC, and other institutions. It could eventually offer a curriculum in engaged humanities scholarship that would allow graduate and undergraduate students to connect their research to broader audiences and communities in rewarding ways. And the research workshop might eventually become a published multimedia website that would allow students and faculty to document, support, and investigate arts and humanities scholarship at the Alice Kaplan Institute, on the Northwestern campus, in the Chicago region, and online.


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