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.