Culture Change: A Look Back at the 2019 NHC Pre-Conference

How can we build support for publicly engaged humanities work at our universities and colleges?

Before kicking off the 2019 National Humanities Conference in Honolulu, we hosted a pre-conference workshop to address this question with over 100 humanities scholars, administrators, and association leaders.

In structuring the workshop, we posited that the challenges to publicly engaged humanities work are rooted in academic culture. Taking “culture” seriously as our starting point, we explored both the practices that work against public engagement and also the beliefs that underlie these practices. This created a basis for the larger work of the workshop: developing approaches to fostering publicly engaged scholarship in our universities, colleges, and associations.

The workshop was divided into three blocks. 

In Block 1, participants brainstormed the beliefs and practices of both “mainstream” and “publicly engaged” humanities work. Building on this intellectual foundation, the remainder of the workshop was devoted to identifying and addressing cultural challenges to building support for publicly engaged scholarship. 

In Block 2, participants identified the top five challenges that emerge from the beliefs and practices collected in Block 1 and then ultimately narrowed this list to one top challenge. These challenges ranged widely, from rewards structures and a lack of training for faculty and graduate students to the complexities of sharing authority with partners and navigating a higher education institution’s legacies in its surrounding communities.

In Block 3, participants drilled into the top challenges and developed actionable interventions. At the end, each group nominated a representative to pitch their intervention to the room. Of the many challenges and interventions, two exemplify the workshop’s thinking:

Challenge: Lack of Training for Faculty and Graduate Students

  • Intervention: This group proposed inviting a faculty member who is doing publicly engaged work and a community partner to campus to discuss their process. University and community members would all be invited to join the event, hosted in the community or in an accessible place. In the long term, this could lead to the creation of a certificate for participants (e.g., the University of Iowa’s Obermann Graduate Institute for Engagement and the Academy).

Challenge: Negative Community Perceptions of Higher Ed Institutions

  • Intervention: This group proposed creating a series of community listening sessions. The deeper issue is why those negative perceptions exist. This would empower the community to tell their stories. An outcome of these sessions could be an action plan to address these perceptions, but that can’t happen until administration, faculty, and students listen to community perspectives and experiences.

We were delighted that conversation about these and other interventions developed in the workshop continued throughout the conference. They will also inspire our next pre-conference workshop at the 2020 National Humanities Conference in Indianapolis on November 5, 2020. 

The 2019 and 2020 pre-conference workshops at the National Humanities Conference are generously supported by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation as a part of NHA’s Humanities for All initiative.

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