Report on the Publicly Engaged Humanities at the National Humanities Conference

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?”

It is in this same spirit that NHC participants engaged in conversations about how public humanities programming can be used as a tool to serve the public in times of crisis and change. At the crossroads of a global pandemic and an increased national focus on social and racial justice, panelists across sessions asked how public humanities initiatives can be a site for action-based interventions into pressing social issues. In turn, conference participants offered specific examples of successful programming from their own institutions and shared resources related to grant funding, program evaluation, and organizational partnership.

During a panel on “Politics and Public Humanities Programs,” Oregon Humanities Executive Director Adam Davis led a conversation about “how public humanities organizations respond to and sometimes directly address (or avoid addressing) politics with our programs.” Participants shared a range of opinions about the relationship between the subject of politics and public humanities programming—with some finding the subject of politics and the politics of program participants unavoidable and therefore best to confront head on and others struggling for ways to avoid politics as much as possible so as to avoid alienating different audiences. In response, Davis shared Oregon Humanities’ criteria for their programming that seeks to engage in difficult and rigorous conversation. These events must:

  1. build trust and strengthen relationships; 
  2. provide a space for inquiry and reflection so that the questions engaged are more important than the answers; and 
  3. help build for participants a stronger sense of agency and commitment in their community or workplace. 

Thinking through the infrastructure of supporting public humanities work across campuses, during the “Humanities and Health Intersections in Undergraduate Education” session, Tracy Leavelle, director of the Kingfisher Institute for the Liberal Arts and Professions at Creighton University, facilitated a conversation on how to do work at the intersection of health and humanities. The session particularly focused on how to garner support for these projects through governmental and higher-ed based funding lines. Leavelle, who briefly shared Creighton’s new health humanities pathway through their English major, argued that public humanities projects are a low-monetary cost intervention into public health problems relative to other health interventions. Noting how the critical thinking and personal engagement that come with humanities initiatives have a “monumental impact on health outcomes,” Lavelle pointed to the strength of this argument for project directors looking to persuade donors to fund public health and humanities projects. 

At the heavily attended publicly engaged scholars constituent group meeting, which  gathered publicly engaged practitioners and administrators around their common work, participants touched on the impact of current events on humanities work as they engaged with four key topics: 

  1. How can we maintain partnerships with community organizations during the pandemic and/or during urgent discussions of systemic racism?  
  2. What does the scholarship of public humanities look like?  
  3. How can we do community engaged work, either teaching or research, in a pandemic with closed museums and archives?
  4. How should this moment of racial reckoning change your work? 

Attendees discussed in breakout groups how their various programs have worked to address these questions, and brought together relevant resources in a shared document. 

To learn more about projects and presenters, check out the conference program to browse the full slate of public humanities projects highlighted.

Read more: humanities for all