If we want the humanities to be more than academic—if we want them to make a difference in the world—we need to change the way we work. We need to rethink some of the traditional assumptions of the humanities. I suggest here seven rules of thumb for doing public humanities.
1. It’s not about you
Start not by looking at what you, your discipline, or the university needs and wants, but by what individuals and communities outside the university need and want. It’s not, “we’re from the university, and we’re here to help,” but, “What are you doing already, and how can we participate? How can we be useful?” It’s not about telling people facts. It’s a about a dialogue, a sharing of authority, knowledge, expertise
2. Be a facilitator and translator as well as an expert
Shared authority is complicated. In exhibits, it’s often an invitation to the subject and to the visitor to provide their stories, and points of view, and to share in setting the rules. It’s using oral history in historical projects and exhibits. It’s web 2.0 methods of opening up online conversations. Having that conversation is not easy. Finding the right balance is tricky. The humanist needs to be not only an expert, but also a facilitator, and a translator. Seeking that balance is part of the work of every project.
The work of public engagement comes not after the scholarship, but as part of the scholarship. I don’t like the implications of “applied” or “translational”; those terms suggest we do our work, in our normal way, and that it is then converted into something for the public. There’s a model here in the transformation of public art. In the 1970s, public art was all too often an art project sprung on a community by a government agency. It came from the artist, doing his own work, responding to his own community. Public art has moved to a model of community interaction. It’s not just for the public; it comes from the public. What would humanities scholarship look like if it too developed out of a conversation? What if a humanities department was a hub of a community of artists, educators, scholars and the public?
Community is important, and hard to define. We’re fascinated by the relationship of community and culture. But community is complicated, and best defined by the community, not by academics looking in. And so, in my experience, it’s better to work with existing organizations than to try to invent them. Public humanities programs acknowledge that there already exist community organizations, institutions, and leaders, and try to work with them, rather than come in and try to create programs that we think the communities need.
Calling something art rather than scholarship is a very freeing move. You have more flexibility. But working with artists to both perform and understand culture at the same time is best. You become part of the community culture, you support it, and you help a larger public appreciate it.
The digital opens up new opportunities for outreach, of course. But it is important to go beyond the digital as outreach to take advantage of digital’s promise of a new kind of openness, a chance to share not just the output of a project, but every step along the way. And it opens up the opportunity for many voices, many ways of telling a story.
Doing public humanities takes specific practical skills, and universities should teach them. That means changing PhD programs, and providing new training for faculty. We shouldn’t assume that working with communities is a skill that comes along with a traditional humanities Ph.D. Practical, hands-on skills, everything from oral history to reading balance sheets, is essential to the work of the public humanities.