Workshop with the NY Humanities Council Public Humanities Fellows

Workshop with the NY Humanities Council Public Humanities Fellows

Earlier this week I met with the NY Council for the Humanities Public Humanities Fellows. This is a fairly new program (started by a former student, Leah Nahmias!) that connects PhD students at NY schools with local communities. The goals are ambitious:

to bring humanities scholarship into the public realm, encourage emerging humanities scholars to conceive of their work in relation to the public sphere, develop scholars’ skills for doing public work, and strengthen the public humanities community in New York State.
The students propose a project, and NY Humanities helps them shape it, helps make connections, and gives them some training in public humanities work.

I was part of that training. Kelli Covey, former co-director of the Project on Civic Reflection, spoke on facilitation best practices, and Liz Sevcenko, director of The New School’s Humanities Action Lab, discussed partnership and community building. Michael Washburn, the program’s organizer, asked me to talk about the work of public humanities, to “host a discussion about planning projects/design thinking.”

Project planning and design thinking suggests an interventionist model of public humanities: come in with a plan and get to work. It’s hard to be against planning, but it seems to me that planning for public humanities should take place in a community context. I believe in a more collaborative model.

That seemed a good place to start. I began my talk with a the three areas of skills that we think students in the Brown public humanities program should know:

  1. Academic knowledge
  2. Theory of public humanities
  3. Practical skills

The PhD students I talked to had that academic knowledge; that’s what they’ve been spending the past few years working on. I asked them to think about what kind of knowledge they had gained in the PhD program—both specific and general. The word “critical” came up a lot. Then I asked, What part of that is useful for the public? For their public work? They had good answers: writing, speaking, some defense of the critical thinking, of being able to bring to bear on their projects the big humanistic questions.

Theory of public humanities… this wasn’t the place for details. I just outline the three big questions: who is the public? What is community? What is culture, and cultural heritage?

Practical skills… I told them that over the years, I’ve focused more and more on these. From really practical, like spreadsheets. To more general, like community organizing.

Over the past few years Brown’s program has become less about bring the academic humanities to bear on the public, and more about working with communities to do what they want. And by communities, we’ve come to mean organizations. And so I stressed the importance of public humanists being useful to organizations, and not trying to create communities on their own.

That was the background… Then the discussion. I used my Seven Rules for Public Humanists to organize my thoughts.

My Rule No. 1 is. It’s not about you… I used this an an opportunity to ask them: what do they offer to the people they’ll be working with? Some of the answers:

  • Research skills
  • Historical knowledge
  • Connections – to power, money, privelege?
  • Energy and enthusiasm — don’t play this down
  • Organizational abilities?
  • Good writing?
  • Teaching ability

I’d asked them to read Woodson’s “Specifying the Scholarship of Engagement 2.0: Skills for Community-based Projects in the Arts and Design” before the workshop. Her list of skills is very useful.

  • Civic Skills
  • Communication Skills
  • Creative and Aesthetic Skills
  • Domain Knowledge and Grounded Theory
  • Group/Ensemble Skills
  • Intercultural Skills
  • Interpretive and Critical Skills
  • Philosophical Skills
  • Project Management Skills
  • Research and Evaluation Skills
  • Skills of Place

We discussed how these skills overlap with what you learn in a phd program? How to get the others? What kinds of classes? What kinds of practice?

My rule number 2 is: Be a facilitator and translator as well as an expert

This raised the opportunity to talk about relationships… I asked them to list the possible relationships they thought might show up in work between an academicly trained person and a community organization, or even just a project. These are some of the roles we came up with:

  • Advocate
  • Consultant
  • Organizer
  • Expert
  • Facilitator
  • Provocateur
  • Researcher
  • Assistant
  • Archivist
  • Connector – Bridge to academic or other experts
  • Ally
  • Advisor
  • Enthusiast
  • Teacher

My rule Number 4. Communities define community

Community get to define themselves, which is why I think it’s best to work with existing organizations than to try to invent them.

And so we discussed briefly how organizations work, and how the students might fit into their work. Organizations are complicated – not just bureacracy – formal and informal systems of communications and control. We considered how to strike the right balance of taking the reins vs. letting organization steer things. Who do you report to? Who gives you advice? Who do you keep informed about what you’re doing?

The students are working with a range of organizations. Some, like local school districts, have strict bureacracies. Others, like community organizations, are wide open. They need to learn how to read the organization.

Julie Ellison argues that public humanists need “an ability to think organizationally and to work sociably.” That seems like particularly good advice for students working in organizations on their own projects.


We ended with a performance, based on Boal’s Theater of the Oppressed roleplaying method. I asked for a volunteer to make a presentation to the rest of the group as though they were making their proposal to the organization they were working with. A few of the other students were assigned roles:

  • Enthusiastic supporter
  • Member of the old guard
  • The organization’s treasurer
  • Local politician
  • Enthusiastic but clueless supporter
  • Activist with no patience for arts and humanities

We were fortunate to have a wonderful presentation, and great responses that raised so many of the concerns students need to think about as they try to navigate the politics of local organizations. At the end we discussed what worked and what didn’t work. How did the initial presentation set up the response? What was the relationship of the presenter to her work, to the organization? How did she pitch her project using the organization’s goals and mission and style? What did she know, what did she offer, what did she ask for? Did she slip into academic talk—did she keep focused not on the academic questions of interest to her, but on the mission of the organization?

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