Blog Post

The Future of the Humanities and the (Semi)Public Intellectual

Conversations about the future of humanities tend to follow a predictable recipe: begin with a spoonful of anxiety (see also: fear, despair); add a smattering of nostalgia (for a bygone era when distinguished faculty members landed their first jobs); bring to boil under a fire of realism (kindled by junior faculty); and garnish with pride (enjoyed by all).

Peter Brooks’ seminar at Fordham University’s Lincoln Center campus was one of the more unpredictable conversations I have attended on the future of the humanities, aided in no small part by Brooks’ superb book, Humanities in Public Life, and an eclectic cadre of graduate students, faculty, deans, administration, and interlocutors from business, law, and the sciences. While the contours of conversation adhered to the aforementioned recipe, we cooked up two ostensibly different dishes: The humanities are an island, in the parlance of one participant, to be preserved; and the humanities are a perch, from which its advocates infiltrate and affect other modes of discourse. I intend to use this post to explore how such goals are not mutually exclusive by placing the future of the humanities in dialogue with the (semi)public intellectual.

No, I’m not going to talk about Nicholas Kristof’s article about why academics are “irrelevant,” Corey Robin’s and Laura Tanenbaum’s rebuttals, or Joshua Rothman’s alternative assessment. You’ve read those pieces already, and if you haven’t, you’ve heard enough about them. Rather, I want to think about how the Brooks’ island/perch divide relates to a particularly generative panel on public intellectualism at the 2014 MLA Convention.

The panel The Semipublic Intellectual? Academia, Criticism, and the Internet Ageexemplified MLA’s vibrant DH presence. Attracting a capacity audience, with onlookers spilling into the hallway, this roundtable assembled a diverse panel to discuss the lived experience of scholarship and digital publication. For several panelists in particular, public engagement provides both a reprieve from and complement to their humanities “day jobs.”

As an Assistant Professor of Film and Media Studies at Whitman College, Anne Helen Petersen entered the public fray to compensate for the solitude of studying for comps. Her blog, Celebrity Gossip, Academic Style, applies historical and theoretical understandings to celebrity culture. Blog posts range from musings on celebrity scandal (with the touchstones of Miley Cirus and Chris Brown) to Beyoncé’s unsettling feminism. Petersen argued that one way that humanities scholars can intervene in the outside world—and to promote humanistic values—is to demonstrate that they have “smart things to say about things we encounter each and every day.”

Hua Hsu, an Assistant Professor of English at Vassar College, admits that he couldn’t have finished graduate school without writing for public outlets. Contributing to ESPN, Slate, and The Atlantic enables Hsu to embrace new vocabularies and humors, to pursue different research questions, and to make money. For example, Hsu reflects on the sorry state of the NFL as a Grantland staff member, reviews Sianne Ngai as a Slate contributor, and puts The Simpsons in conversation with Ai Weiweias an Atlantic author.In posts, he brings his humanities work into the public sphere (e.g. Ngai), whereas in other pieces, the two cross-pollinate (Simpsons and Ai Weiwei). Hsu seems to relish the creative tensions between journalists and academics. In his talk, he explained that online writing better connected him with editors and readers than his academic scholarship.

Despite the salubrious effects of public engagement on his academic writing, Hsu admitted that he kept his public work separate, even “secret,” from his institution. Salamishah Tillet, an Associate Professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania, has also written publicly, in private. Tillet has written about domestic violence and George Zimmerman for The Nation and black feminism (and Tyler Perry) for The Root, and she’s even visited MSNBC’s Melissa Harris-Perry to discuss race relations and abortion politics. Although she’s more comfortable occupying the role of public intellectual today, as a graduate student, Tillet didn’t tell her advisors about her activist writings for fear that she wouldn’t be regarded as a “serious scholar.” If, as Tillet observes, the mandate of a scholar is to act as a cultural worker, institutions ought to embrace semi-public intellectualism because it enables scholars to occupy multiple communities simultaneously and to make humanist arguments to wider audiences.

Each panelist models a both/and approach to straddling the island/perch divide. Certainly, I don’t mean to suggest that semi-public contortions are easy. As evident from the closeted writings of Hsu, Tillet, and Petersen, departments still may not know how to evaluate such engagement. Moreover, writing for a wider public entails subjecting oneself to wider scrutiny, placing texts at greater risk of being read out of context.

Natalia Cecire, a Postdoctoral Fellow of English at Yale University, explained how she began blogging as a means of controlling her online identity (in Cecire’s words, “I have an incredibly Googleable name”). However, when she wrote a skeptical postabout statistics wunderkind Nate Silver, she found her online identity—as well as her sex and race—assaulted by young economists who rejected the very notion that the humanities could make knowledge claims. In the words of Cecire, “The audience you’re writing for isn’t necessarily the audience you get.”

Public intellectualism can hurt, but if scholars are serious about charting a path forward for the humanities, these panelists model the courage and entrepreneurism necessary to preserve the island and to expand its terrain.



Thanks for the comments, Caleb and Lauren! I do want to think more about the distinction between public humanities (ph) and public intellectualism (pi). While they bare similarities with regards to their modes of engagement (à la public writing), pi encompasses a myriad of different agendas (contrast those of an historian to those of a climate scientist). Eventually, it seems inevitable that humanities departments will embrace--and assess--their folks' public writings; however, as is clear from Petersen, Hsu, and Tillet, we enter that story in medias res.

I'm also interested in the semi-ness of the proposition. What does it mean to be semi-public? Is it, in the terms of Hsu, "not yet viral," or does the semi enable multiple positions, as per Tillet? There may be untapped value in semi-ness: in addition to disseminating our values to new (and unexpected) audiences, the modes of engagement, particularly deferral to editors and readers alike, may profitably affect how we communicate on the island.

Thank you for your thoughts--you've both given me even more to think about!


I really appreciate this post. I've never understood why academics wouldn't want to be part of a public conversation about contemporary issues.

I also can't help but think that more public engagement (whatever the model is) could be one way to attract more funding for the humanities at universities. If the public sees its humanities profs engaged in the public sphere, they might be better able to understand the "usefulness" of the humanities. Most folks think that engineering departments produce engineers, medical schools produce doctors, and science departments - well, we may not be sure about what exactly they're doing, but we hear about it in the news and we see the fruits of scientific research in medicine, technology, etc. But what do most history or english professors do, aside from teach impractical knowledge to classes of students who won't be able to get a good job with their BA (a caricature of public perception, but its out there)? Public engagement is a way to demonstrate our value. And we might just inform public discourse along the way.


Thank you for this post! One of things I've been struggling with is the term public humanities. Your post got me thinking about the idea of the public intellectual(pi) and the idea of public humanities (ph). While ph is a broad term,  it is for many a way of talking about getting outside the walls of the academy.  Do you see these ideas (pi and ph) as different or sharing certain aspects?

I think it is interesting that some of the examples you give chose to keep their role as a pi quiet within their institution. This seems at odds with the idea of ph, which explicitely looks to make a bridge between the academy and other publics. At the same time, being a pi seems totally in line with ph because it does create that bridge, whether intentional or not. I do think of ph as having a level of intentionality though that is important to the very idea of it. 

I am thinking off the cuff here and would love to hear your thoughts!