Blog Post

A Blog-o-festo: The Engaged Humanities Scholar as Public Intellectual

Back to Work

While most universities and colleges are off and running on the semester schedule, Northwestern is just starting to hum and buzz in these first weeks of September. Since we are on the quarter system, the rhythm of the school year is quite different. September here is the is the seasonal equivalent of what filmmakers call the golden hour: that dusk when the last rays of sunlight make everything feel and look a little bit magical. It is also, as my wife remarked, like one big long Sunday afternoon, filled with that sense of dread we all have about going back to work even when we kind of like our work.


An Engagement

With this mix of feelings in mind, I am using this inaugural post to explain my goal for this blog. It starts with a non-digital event that I hope will have a robust digital presence.

This year I am convening a research workshop at Northwestern University on the topic of The Engaged Humanities Scholar as Public Intellectual. The research workshop welcomes participation from graduate students, faculty, and upper-level undergraduates on campus.

My goal for the workshop is this: to rethink the boundary between specialized academic scholarship and larger public interactions without either "dumbing down" specialized scholarship or ignoring the potential links between knowledge production in the university and broader public debates, discussions, moods, and sensibilities. The pressing question is: how might humanities scholars move between the wonderful (I almost want to describe them as sacred, which fits, in a way, with the monastic origins of the academy) spaces of academic work, which are purposefully and usefully cloistered, and the larger world?

The issues at hand are at once conceptual and practical. Conceptually, the workshop focuses on critical investigations of what the humanities consists of, what the public is, exactly, and what an intellectual is. Practically, the workshop recognizes the difficult realities of the humanities job market in academia. Rather than simply shooing away graduate students or intriqued undergraduates who dream of being professors, what if we sought to expand the domain of all that is rewarding and enriching about the scholarly life, while facing up to its shortcomings as well? Maybe the world could be a bit better place if the broader public sphere adopted some of the qualities of scholarship: grounding claims in evidence; thinking carefully about method; participating in robust but civil (most of the time) debate and maybe the academy can benefit from grappling the demands of broader public life: the real-world dilemmas and limitations people face; the pragmatic need to communicate effectively; the challenge of showing how ideas and research matter.

To achieve something as grand as that means pursuing new ways of navigating existing institutions and perhaps even building new kinds of social organizations. It requires a deepening of what the word "engagement" means. It means that we think carefully about different registers of critical inquiry and varying modes and media for expressing ideas.


A Tentative Schedule

But this is all very grandiose. Let's get a bit more down to earth and humble. (And also tentative since we are still making arrangements for our winter and spring quarter events.)

Thanks to generous support from the Northwestern Kaplan Institute for the Humanities and the Center for Civic Engagement, the research workshop will convene once a quarter to explore different themes, case studies, and aspects of the "engaged humanities."

We are very excited to have Michael Brub visiting us this fall to discuss his latest book, The Left at War, which investigates intellectual life during the War on Terror. In an additional meeting, Michael will also discuss his work on conceptualizing the humanities, which he has written about in What's Liberal About the Liberal Arts? and Rhetorical Occasions: Essays on Humans and the Humanities.

In Northwestern's Winter Quarter, we plan to focus on the emerging field of the Digital Humanities and how it connects to the idea of the Engaged Humanities. HASTAC's own David Theo Goldberg plans to visit us. We wish to explore the possibilities and also, crucially, the dilemmas, of the Digital Humanities. Additionally, Northwestern's own Robert Hariman will share his observations about developing a successful blog based on his book, No Caption Needed.

In Spring Quarter, we will turn our attention to the field of Cultural Policy, with a still-developing plan for an online forum on the relationship between humanities scholars on campus and arts and cultural people and institutions in the broader world. Drawing on the work of Bill Ivey, Northwestern alum Bill Ferris, Andrew Taylor, and the amazing work that the Illinois Humanities Council does, we plan to develop a rewarding conversation that builds both conceptually and practically on our wintertime look at the Digital Humanities. We also are working to bring the art-punk-lecture duo Mecca Normal to campus for an exhibition, concert, and lecture to bring another level of humanities engagement in non-academic spaces into play.


Hastac Scholars

We have three very talented Hastac Scholars on board for the year's proceedings:

-Kimberly Singletary, a graduate student in the Rhetoric and Public Culture program in the School of Communication.

-James Coltrain, a graduate student in History.

-Chase Jackson, an undergraduate Philosophy major who is the editor of Quire Journal, a student-run interdisciplinary humanities journal on campus.

More about them and from them soon!



I will be posting updates, announcements, developments, roadblocks, and other matters of intrigue or vague interest here as the academic year moves forward.

Thanks to Hastac for developing this promising website and network!


1 comment

That's Michael Berube above as our fall visiting scholar for the research workshop, not Michael Brub!