Last month during the Virtual National Humanities Conference, we had the opportunity to hear from Johnetta Cole, this year’s Capps Lecturer, in conversation with Smithsonian secretary Lonnie Bunch. Bunch noted how he is often asked whether he has a “political agenda.” The assumption behind this question, he suggested, was that as a historian and museum professional he might be partisan or biased due to his commitment to racial justice. He takes inspiration from Cole who throughout her long career in museums and higher education has fought for racial justice, when he answers swiftly “yes: to make the country better. What’s wrong with that?”
This year’s sweeping challenges have made the need to make sense of our histories even more clear, and cultural organizations are undertaking this crucial work in a variety of creative ways. The International Storytelling Center in Jonesborough, Tennessee’s new Freedom Stories project offers virtual discussions about African American heritage and Appalachian history with Black scholars, storytellers, thought leaders, and community experts. Each event features a live storytelling performance followed by a panel discussion on African American and Appalachian history, as well as life in the region in the present day.
At the Virtual National Humanities Conference, which took place earlier this month, Emily McDonald and I conducted a workshop on evaluating the impact of humanities programming. The workshop aimed to introduce participants to our Impact Survey Toolkit, as well as to offer tips about how to write stronger questions for surveys they might be pulling together. In addition, participants had the chance to discuss programs they were considering evaluating and practice writing some questions for those programs.
In April 2020, the Humanities for All team partnered with the Council of Independent Colleges (CIC) to conduct focus groups with students who had participated in publicly engaged projects funded by the CIC’s Humanities Research for the Public Good (HRPG) grants. We held five focus groups with 20 students from 15 institutions who generously shared their thoughts on what they learned and the skills they gained through publicly engaged humanities work. We present a summary of the focus group responses here, while individual posts written by four focus group participants are on the Humanities for All blog:
During National Arts and Humanities Month, Humanities for All has been exploring how higher ed-based humanists are using the tools of public humanities and partnership to promote social and racial justice. In recent decades, many American colleges and universities have begun uncovering their historic support and involvement with the institution of slavery (and the ongoing denial of these linkages) as a way of mending a broken sense of trust between students, colleges, and the surrounding community.
Over the past 18 months, NHA has worked with 14 project directors of NEH-funded summer seminars, institutes, and landmarks workshops. These residential, thematic professional development programs help K-12 educators access engaging and up-to-date humanities scholarship and immerse them in the histories and cultures of American regions. Together, we have surveyed participants in these programs, documenting their impact on teachers’ classroom practice. In addition to pre- and post-program surveys, we followed up with teachers a year later, asking about how they had incorporated their work in the programs into their praxis.
Each October, we celebrate National Arts and Humanities Month by calling attention to the many ways humanities research, teaching, and programs serve students and communities across the country.
By Emily McDonald and Younger Oliver
Advocacy on behalf of our cultural institutions is as crucial now as ever. The COVID-19 crisis has cast a shadow of deep uncertainty on all areas of American life, and how far these social and economic impacts may reach is still very much unknown. Over the past six months, we have been working to better understand the challenges humanities organizations are facing and how they are serving their communities in the face of crisis. We’ve found our peers are not only providing informative programming, but also extending their missions to serve their communities in creative ways. To fully capture the impact of this work, we have been partnering with humanities organizations across the country, leveraging the data collection resources we’ve developed at NHA, to highlight how humanities organizations serve as anchors in their communities during times of crisis.