What We Know Now: Humanities for All One Year Later
The National Humanities Alliance (NHA) is a nationwide coalition of organizations that advocates for the humanities on campuses of every kind, in local communities, and on Capitol Hill. It receives support from—and works on behalf of—more than 200 member organizations, including the American Historical Association. Since its founding in 1981, the NHA has endeavored to bring together the wide-ranging humanities community as a whole.
Last summer, the NHA launched Humanities for All, a website dedicated to helping foster publicly engaged humanities scholarship in the US. By gathering over 1,500 examples of publicly engaged research, teaching, preservation, and programming into one place, Humanities for All not only honors the contribution this work makes to academic and public life, but ensures that the material is searchable, sortable, and illustrated with select in-depth profiles. The website offers models for beginning and deepening publicly engaged scholarship across disciplines, as well as a unique view of a growing field within the humanities.
Over the year that followed the project’s launch, we analyzed what had become a robust dataset. This work sparked countless conversations, at conferences and with practitioners across the country, about the impact of the work they do and the challenges they face. It also led directly to three essays, one of which drew on the projects we profiled to synthesize five overarching goals that many of the initiatives share:
- Informing contemporary discussions on subjects such as the environment, race, and local history and culture
- Ensuring that voices often left out of the historical record are amplified and shared with the academic and broader communities
- Helping individuals and communities navigate difficult experiences, such as veterans returning from war
- Expanding educational access for K–12 students and people of all ages
- Preserving culture in times of crisis and change, from natural disasters to gentrification
Humanities for All brings together a diverse cross section of projects and disciplinary practices that strive to achieve these five objectives. Within the discipline of history, for instance, you might read about the Behind the Big House Program, a community-driven series that incorporates the stories of enslaved people and their quarters into tours of historic homes in Holly Springs, Mississippi. Jodi Skipper of the University of Mississippi joined the grassroots project in its first year, supporting its efforts by producing content and curricular materials. This work accomplished many of the goals listed above: preserving and providing access to the material culture of slavery in Holly Springs; amplifying community voices and histories; and engaging slave dwellings to inform contemporary conversations about race in the region’s history.
The profiles in Humanities for All also showcase the impact that publicly engaged work can have on academic life, creating innovative teaching experiences and empowering project-based learning that benefits both institutions of higher education and their community partners. One of the innovations profiled is Clio, a GPS-enabled app and website for sharing local history that uses digital technologies to incorporate public engagement into undergraduate humanities classes. Illinois College’s Jenny Barker-Devine used Clio in a first-year classroom to create entries for historically significant locations in Jacksonville, Illinois. “Clio offered an ideal entry-level platform,” Barker-Devine writes in Perspectives on History. “I wanted students to not only learn technical skills, but also to take on a local history project that would develop their research capabilities, promote civic engagement, and foster a connection with Jacksonville, the students’ home for the next four years.”
Discussing this kind of work in a variety of contexts—at conferences and in individual conversations—made clear to us the concern that scholars feel about how publicly engaged work is credited in the context of traditional expectations for faculty promotion and tenure: research, teaching, and service. With these concerns in mind, we have been working to highlight how publicly engaged work and scholarship can go hand in hand.
To that end, we are delighted to partner with Routledge, Taylor & Francis to release Publishing and the Publicly Engaged Humanities. The collection is freely available online and will continue to grow through the end of 2019. It includes not only the journals and edited volumes that publish articles on publicly engaged humanities work, but the outlets dedicated entirely to that work (e.g., Public, The Public Historian, and the Humanities and Public Life book series), and to public engagement writ large. The breadth of both format and venue suggests that scholars consider different approaches to publishing both in their own disciplines and in connection with their work’s areas of impact.
In the year ahead, we will continue adding content to Humanities for All, creating new opportunities for connecting with practitioners of publicly engaged humanities. In addition to representing a wider and ever more diverse collection of projects, the site will soon include a blog featuring posts by outside writers, and a series of long-form transcribed interviews with publicly engaged scholars and their partners. At the same time, we are beginning qualitative and quantitative research into the impact of select publicly engaged humanities initiatives on faculty, students, and their community partners and participants.
To learn more about publicly engaged humanities work in US higher education, we encourage you to explore and share the Humanities for All website as well as the articles collected in Publishing and the Publicly Engaged Humanities.
Daniel Fisher is project director for Humanities for All.
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