Blog Post

How to Teach Public Humanities: Notes from the Chicago Humanities Summit

The Chicago Humanities Summit opened this morning with an interview with members of the Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences. Their discussion focused on the report "The Heart of the Matter," and the specific ways individuals can take action to elevate the profile of the humanities for a broader public. "The single most important thing we do is work with young people" to give them "more exposure" to forms of cultural knowledge, said John Rowe, retired Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Exelon Corporation. "When it comes to making choices, the humanities are seen as almost a luxury we can't afford, so correction of the factual record" is a first step, noted Federal Judge Diane Wood. "Yes, there are IT jobs," she continued, "but there are also thousands of jobs that require communication and creativity." 

Following this introduction, eight how-to sessions were held on topics ranging from grant writing to digital humanities to starting your own humanities festival. I attended "How to Teach Public Humanities," facilitated by Sara Guyer, Director of the Center for Humanities and Professor of English, University of Wisconsin at Madison, who has established a fellowship program in public humanities. She discussed the practical challenges and lessons of the undertaking. She noted that there is "a sense that turning toward the public requires watering down our research," but in fact, work being done in the public humanities is "finding new ways to communicate complexity." She recommended that other institutions with an interest in the development of such a program give support to both faculty and graduate students, as many professors have interests in publicly engaged scholarship, and such support makes their work institutionally visible. One motivation of creating this program is to effect change in the way scholarly work is "counted" for tenure; another is "to make possible the training of graduate students for many types of work beyond the academy." When fellows were surveyed, all responded that their research was changed by their public humanities work. This speaks to the capacity of such programs to "broaden the opportunities for which the PhD is preparation," which Guyer described as "a service to our students." 

The emphasis on graduate student training and research resonated with participants. Questions were also raised about the possibility of extending the conversation to include teaching undergraduates the public humanities. What would this look like? Guyer remarked that "undergraduate involvement [with publics] is a culture of service and volunteering," and asked, "how can we change that culture to be one instead of exchange?" This is a question that I will take up in future posts, and one that I would be very interested to pursue in discussion here at HASTAC.





Hi Rachel. 

We have an informal, interdisciplinary "Community Engaged Teaching and Learning" group at the University of Otago (Dunedin, New Zealand), and we are wrestling with the issue of volunteering (for no credit) vs connecting coursework with community agencies (for credit). The former is supported by our Vice Chancellor (a certificate to recognise volunteer work is under discussion, and the University has hired a full-time volunteer coordinator). We are also in the process of supporting students in the development of a student-designed 'course' (whether for credit or not has not been decided) on sustainability, involving academics from Humanities, Sciences and the Business School. This is a new, small scale experiment for us. As with MOOCs, the decision about whether these initiatives (experiences, courses, or whatever we call them) earn credits like any course (and are, therefore normalised), is an important decision. Also, the degree to which students are 'in charge' and the extent to which community agencies are involved and have real input is also important. 

Service and volunteering, which normally fall under the "Service" category and count for much less than Research and Teaching (in that order), offer strategic opportunities for those of us who are eager to shift away from the constraints and limitations of the course/class/lecture. The best argument for the value and efficacy of a more open, connected and collaborative approach to teaching and learning is a good experience that has shown real results for all participants. I think we have to be constantly on the lookout for strategic opportunities that enable us to demonstrate what we mean when we say that things can be different — and better.

Thanks for taking the trouble to write this informative post. I will follow your future posts on this topic and I look foreward to what other have to say. 

Mark McGuire


I'm not sure how this is more "humanities" than "technology" or any other discipline, but service learning programs have a long - and spotty - history. They're usually invented by activist faculty or faculty-student collaboratives, and involve students in social change through social service - ranging from tutoring to construction to planning to finance to therapy to nutrition. The most successful I know of is the model at MIT, which integrates academic and social credit, academic supervision, and work-study pre-career employment. That model has been replicated at a few places, but rarely do colleges build academic credit into social change activities. Most are like Tisch College at Tufts, where students do social service as a philanthropic activity, and thereby are exploited by their "clients" rather than recognized for their knowledge and skills. That model has the added problem of ignoring such service in the academic calendar of student activities, which makes that philanthropy most one-directional.

In contrast, the MIT model also includes an interterm - a month between semesters when students (and faculty) can focus full time on a single subject and/or problem and actually solve it. Such interterm credit represents a full course in 30 days, which, again, integrates the service with academic goals.


Many thanks to both of you for these comments! I have not worked in the area of service learning, nor in the coordination of student volunteering efforts in communities surrounding the university. As the case studies you provide here make clear, these initiatives have complicated histories. My concern is with the one-directional emphasis; while a philanthropic ethos is certainly not something to deter in our students, I think that public humanities (or, as you mentioned, Joe, public scholarship across many disciplines beyond the humanities) allows us to do something different. I think that there is space enough for both approaches.

Service learning seems to be conceptualized as a complete, transformative process/project for students. In a determined amount of time, students will be introduced to a community and social issue, respond to this intellectually and concretely (sometimes for academic credit), make varying degrees of direct contribution to the community, and take something away from the experience that will inform their future work and/or civic committments. In experimenting with the public humanities at the undergraduate level, I would like to suggest that we see ourselves as making one intervention into the student's intellectual and public life, rather than staging a full process. For example, most compostion courses require students to show an understanding of audience. We can give writing assignments that challenge students to imagine multiple public audiences outside of the university, and how they might address these audiences as scholars. Furthermore, we can teach students a reciprocal, rather than philanthropic, habit of mind by asking them to consider the many forms of knowledge contributed to scholarship by communities outside of the university. 

As for the important question of building academic credit into this work, I wonder if we can give credit to students for writing a collaborative grant proposal in which voices from the community in question are heard as forcefully as the student-academic's voice? That could be a major quarter-long project in a composition course that would introduce students to a new, practical genre, and to the habit of mind of reciprocity in a public intellectual frame. An open question: would these ideas be appropriate and useful for undergraduates?



After I finished my BSci I did a year of service in the AmeriCorps*VISTA program and that was a fantastic experience and I am constantly advocating it to anyone that will listen.

Doing a year of national service provided me with not only insight into ways my education was valuable, but also helped me to reconceptualize how philosophy and critical theory can work outside of a humanities department at a university.

I'd definitely advocate for and participate in AAAS' Culture Corps.

What was really crucial for my VISTA work was being reminded every quarter that my position was created to provide indirect service to my host organization.

To clarify indirect service: If I had been assigned to a River Keepers chapter, my job was not to go down to the river every week and collect rubbish from the shore. Rather, I was supposed to form relationships with relevant stakeholders in the area. These might include a local high school, or a paper company upstream, or a bird watching group. I would be responsible for building my host organization's capactity for meeting their mission by getting these stakeholders to work with the host organization and oversee their collaboration. I might then go out to the river for a clean-up day on occassion, but only in so far as it better enabled all the stakeholders.

The key is capacity building.