What does it mean for humanities scholars to engage the public? As part of the 2014 MLA convention Presidential Forum, “Vulnerable Times,” the session “Public Humanities” provided some answers to this perennial question. In her introductory remarks to the session, Laura Wexler sought to redirect the discussion around the public humanities away from the question of crisis and toward one of engagement. Inviting us “to face the public with the rich and much-needed resources of our institutions and organizations,” Wexler cautioned, “it is not advisable to do public humanities unless we have some idea of what we mean by the public and of how the humanities plays an important role in its formation.” The question at issue—What do we mean by the public?—is one of definition and effect, and it is not one that is easily answered. And Wexler did not attempt to answer it. Instead, she turned to the conditions that animate the problem—mainly that, like a digital image, there are no “traditional modes and shared locations of viewing” the public; “the pixel and the bit have left no foundational identity or location, including that of the public, unturned,” Wexler insists, only to surmise, “the problem is that we have to face this fact about the public before we can face the public.”
I found the premises of these questions about the public and Wexler’s conclusion misguided. Michael Warner has argued that “publics exist only by virtue of their imagining” (8); in Wexler’s formulation, the public imagined is not only external to the humanities and humanists but also atomized by digital technologies. While it is true that we in the humanities must reckon with the way digital technologies are changing how we think about the public and ourselves, Wexler’s vision seems too totalizing and preemptive. As Warner further argues, publics do not exist as such until they are imagined through engagement itself, and such engagement is in fact “to engage in struggles—at varying levels of salience to consciousness, from calculated tactic to mute cognitive noise—over the conditions that bring them together as a public” (12). If we prioritize defining the public we hope to engage ahead of actual engagement, we run the risk of conjuring phantoms and directing our energies to no one in particular. We should not, in other words, preemptively define the public we hope to engage insomuch as we should do public work and, in doing so, find a public defined, imagined, and realized through our collaborations with the institutions, communities, and persons we encounter in the process.
We should not, in other words, preemptively define the public we hope to engage . . .
I could not help wondering if the institutional composition of the MLA session had something to do with Wexler’s insistence on defining a public as the necessity for humanists in the digital era. For in this session on the public humanities and vulnerability, the majority of speakers came from elite, private universities (one from Yale, two from Columbia, and one from the University of Chicago) or R1-designated research universities (the University of Illinois, Urbana, a land grant university, and the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, a public university). Perhaps it was the cynic in me that questioned whose vulnerability and what kinds of public were at stake. But it was strange that, in a session about public humanities in vulnerable times, there were no humanities scholars from state universities or community colleges, many of which find themselves especially vulnerable, where the fight is not just for the humanities but often for adequate public funds that would secure the future of the institutions themselves. As an assistant professor of English at Shippensburg University, one of fourteen universities in Pennsylvania’s State System of Higher Education, I am a member of the very public with which I look to engage, and it is a public that is increasingly susceptible to budget cuts. In Pennsylvania, our state system has operated under the perpetual shadow of vulnerability. State funding dollars have evaporated; Pennsylvania funding per student is two-thirds that of the national average (“Financial Data”). In response to funding catastrophe and declining enrollment, two separate system reviews have been conducted in the last two years. Both see similar problems but propose radically different solutions. The first, commissioned by Pennsylvania’s State System of Higher Education, advocates for the nonclosure of state universities (Pennsylvania), while the second, commissioned by the state legislature and conducted by the RAND Corporation, proposes several options, most of which would abolish the state universities in Pennsylvania as they now stand by merging them with each other, converting them to state-related universities (effectively making them private entities), or placing them under the management of current state-related universities, like Penn State (Goldman et al. 36–44). Neither review proposes increasing state funding even though both acknowledge the paucity of funding as a primary problem. It is not just the humanities that are in crisis in the system in which I teach. It is the institutions themselves. It is the public that the humanities constitute, sustain, engage, and support.
There is no immediate solution to this problem—or at least no immediate politically feasible one. The assault on Pennsylvania’s public universities is just one particular manifestation of the more general trend of public higher education divestment that Christopher Newfield examined almost a decade ago. And yet I want to propose some pathways that, if they are not a solution, might mitigate the erosion of the public from public institutions. In what follows, I look to rethink the paradigm that would necessitate imagining the university as external to the public it seeks to engage and the public as an abstraction that must first be defined before meaningful engagement might take place. To do meaningful public humanities work is to forge partnerships that reinforce local, public institutions and that establish clear public-public collaboration. A lot of this work may be downright unoriginal. But its unoriginality can be its strength. Iterability breeds familiarity, and familiarity breeds normalization. Do a new thing, but do a new thing with the goal of establishing it as old hat. At the risk of sounding conventional, I do not think we need to be entirely innovative in our approaches to public engagement, not if these approaches do more to publicize our engagement than to fortify the public engaged.1 We do need to be purposeful, which means we should be looking to partner and collaborate with public institutions both in terms of what we might offer as academics and in terms of what those institutions need or want.
Putting the Public Back into Public Partnerships
Perhaps the easiest way to engage the public is to ask local public institutions how we can be useful to them. That is what I did with my local library. This summer, I will be offering a course called Summer with Shakespeare at the Bosler Memorial Library, one of eight libraries in the Cumberland County Public Library system. The course began with an e-mail to Nicholas Macri, the adult programming assistant at the Bosler. In addition to programs and events, the Bosler hosts the Carlisle Institute for Lifelong Learning (CILL). The CILL was founded in October 2015 and is the result of efforts from a number of people, one of whom, Brenda Leach, was an adjunct instructor at Lebanon Valley College at the time of CILL’s founding. Macri thought a course on Shakespeare would fit well in CILL’s summer program, and so we set up a meeting and ironed out the logistics of the course. The course will meet once a week for six weeks, beginning in June and ending in mid-July. We will cap the participant list at twenty students, though we may schedule another session if there is a surge of interest. The course will coincide with the Bosler’s robust summer program, the Summer Learning Challenge: A Universe of Stories, a series of events, contests, and programs designed to encourage children, young adults, and adults to read and to discuss their reading over the summer months. Everything about the course will be free, including the books, because of the funds the Bosler has available.
I plan on teaching Much Ado about Nothing and Othello. Both are plays that center on the stories we tell about ourselves and others and how those stories supplement prejudicial ideologies—misogyny and racism, not the least among them—to terrible ends. In this respect, these texts complement the Bosler’s Summer Learning Challenge theme. But my teaching of Much Ado about Nothing is also meant to coincide with another act of public engagement by other local actors. The Gamut Theatre Group, a nonprofit theater company local to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, will be performing Much Ado about Nothing for its annual, free Shakespeare in the Park performance. Gamut does public outreach work regularly—in fact, the group performed a version of Julius Caesar at Shippensburg University for local high school students—and my hope is that we will be able to coordinate a discussion forum, or at the very least a field trip to one of the performances.
There is nothing novel in this way of engaging the public. Libraries are a natural ally in public humanities work. That allyship, however, is not unidirectional. While it is tempting for us to imagine that it is we academics who bring our resources to institutions outside our own, it is often the other way around. Describing the microcollege resulting from the Bard at Brooklyn Public Library partnership, Eugene M. Tobin reminds us that local public libraries “continue to be remarkably adaptable, nimble, and effective agencies of reinvention.” In Bard microcollege, the library brings something new to higher education—namely, the publics it serves that remain underserved by universities and colleges, traditionally marginalized persons like those who are homeless, immigrants, or previously incarcerated.
Such partnerships with local libraries are needful reminders that academics can act in ways that enable an imagining of themselves and their institutions as coextensive with the public they hope to engage. In doing so, they also might reorient us and so awaken us to all the ways the university or college is but one of the many institutions that work to educate the public (and the public the institutions). The rubric of partnership also provides a means of conceiving of public humanities work outside of what Kathleen Woodward describes as “the demoralizing rubric of service or the paternalistic rubric of outreach” (110). Instead, the rubric of partnership brings us closer to something like participation. In working with the Bosler, for instance, I am reminded that intellectual work is not something I bring from the university to the public. Instead, by participating in the Bosler’s ongoing intellectual programming, I am able to extend the work I do at my public university to my public library. I do not imagine my Summer with Shakespeare course as altogether different from the Shakespeare course I teach during the semester because my course at the Bosler is not a special offering either from me or from the library. It will be part of a program the library offers every summer, and the course is a version of one I teach every year. While the teaching of this course in particular will be new to me, my students and I will be working in an institution that has long been versed in doing the hard work of producing knowledge collaboratively by asking shared questions and through processes of serious intellectual inquiry.
Getting Credit for Public Humanities Work
While I find it useful that my work with the Bosler is not merely imagined as outreach or service, I also want to be clear that my imagining it otherwise derives from material causes. The work I will be doing with the Bosler is not extra. It constitutes who I am at present as a professor at a public state university, and it is also a means of securing my future there. If we are serious about supporting public humanities work, we must, well, support public humanities work. At my university, it is part of my department’s culture to partner with local institutions in this way. I was inspired, if not impelled, by the example of my colleagues, nearly all of whom do similar kinds of public engagement work. But my motivation for this course does not just come down to a matter of departmental culture or my spirit of service. It is also a matter of funding, tenure, and promotion. I want to stress this point because the work of public engagement should not be exploited as a form of volunteerism. Public engagement takes work, and it should be counted as such. While it is true that I would be happy to do this kind of work in addition to the work normally tied to promotion at my university, I can say that I am doing it now as a first-year assistant professor because it counts toward the research, teaching, and service I am expected to do for tenure and promotion. Not only does it count, but my institution actively encourages this kind of work through student-faculty summer research grants (what they call SURE—Summer Undergraduate Research Experience—grants).
Public engagement takes work, and it should be counted as such.
In designing this summer course, and through the funding of the SURE grant, I plan to hire an undergraduate teaching and research assistant who will, in accordance with his or her own interests and intellectual goals, create lesson plans with me and locate textual and other supplementary materials to enrich the experience of students in the course. Together, we will produce a course reader filled with synopses, discussion questions, source material, annotated bibliographies, and suggested further reading. At the end of the course, we will donate a copy of this reader to the library. The student will then present the summer research at our fall-semester undergraduate conference, which focuses on this kind of scholarship.
I realize not all universities valorize and promote this kind of public humanities work. In the course of her sustained advocacy for the legitimacy of public scholarship, Julie Ellison has rightly observed, “scholarly legitimacy, supportive infrastructure, and cross-sectoral communities of practice are intermittent realities for public humanities scholars,” and she further contends, “[t]o improve on this partial advance, new public humanists need to find pathways to ‘institutional agency’” (296). But we should also be clear about the sources of such agency. These sources may in fact not be all that new, either. At my university at least, that agency comes not so much through any individual initiative but through a strong, proactive faculty union, for it is my union that secures the forms of support and pathways for public engagement for me, my colleagues, and my students. Public humanists should not merely imagine ways they might support long-standing public institutions and purposeful ways to partner with them. Academics who look for institutional support cannot merely look for it, for it will not be there. They must advocate for its centrality to the mission of public and private universities. After the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Janus v. AFSCME, which nullified the right of public unions to collect fees from nonunion members, academics must also actively pursue institutional support.
Supporting Colleagues in Public Institutions
I want to end this essay by returning to Wexler’s question, What do we mean by the public?, and by offering an answer that turns us back toward the university. It is tempting to imagine public engagement in terms of externalized programming or nonacademic teaching. I am, after all, doing just that kind of work this summer. The public engaged through this kind of work often feels amorphous and depersonalized, at least at first. But another way to engage the public is to reach out to colleagues at your local state universities and community colleges, who not only are a public—their jobs, after all, depend on public funds—but also might provide pathways to publics otherwise overlooked by those in institutions with economic, cultural, and social ties a step or two removed from state subsidy. When I was still an adjunct hoping for a tenure-track position at Shippensburg, Carol Ann Johnston, who teaches at Dickinson College, reached out to me to support me, guide me, and champion me in my precarity. One way she did that was to introduce me, and eventually my students, to Dickinson College’s holding of first editions of Milton’s Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained, among other rare books. Johnston had worked hard in recent years to get these books to Dickinson. Knowing that I was teaching a British literature survey, she offered my class the opportunity to see, touch, and think about these texts that they had only encountered in their Norton Anthology. With the help of the college archivist, she provided a curated, personalized tour of the collection. It was a deeply rewarding experience for us all, but I think a profound one for my students, who can at times feel acutely the frictions of access. What made their experience handling Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained so profound was not just their encounter with 350-year-old rare books. That was part of it. But the other part was entering a space otherwise walled off from them as students. In handling these artefacts and in listening to Johnston explain the histories of print and production of Milton’s books—and this book in their hands—my students came to understand that they too had permission to know things they might not otherwise dare to know, let alone touch.
What Johnston did was a small gesture with large consequences. She quite literally opened a door for my students, one closed to them by steep costs of tuition and their not knowing what they need to know common to first-generation college students. I recount her generosity here as a means of encouragement, if not galvanization. Public engagement need not look like summer programs or large, publicly visible initiatives. It can look a lot like hospitality. Public engagement can look like those of you in private institutions partnering with and supporting your colleagues at public ones. Research with them. Write and publish with them. Provide access. Go local, and leverage your institutional privileges, whatever they are, to the benefit of the public right outside your door.
1. See Leary, who has argued recently that universities should resist market-derived conceptualizations of innovation, especially as such ideas come to reconstitute the identities and mission of public universities. His concern is over how the university imagines what or who it serves. As he claims, the turn toward the marketing of universities as “storehouses of innovation and engines of the ‘knowledge economy’ . . . marks a shift in the way universities see themselves and their students: as servants of industry rather than the public.”
Ellison, Julie. “The New Public Humanists.” PMLA, vol. 128, no. 2, 2018, pp. 289–98.
“Financial Data.” Pennsylvania’s State System of Higher Education, www.passhe.edu/FactCenter/Pages/Financial.aspx. Accessed 7 May 2019.
Goldman, Charles A., et al. Promoting the Long-Term Sustainability and Viability of Universities in the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education. RAND, 2018.
Leary, John Patrick. “Enough with All the Innovation.” The Chronicle of Higher Education, 11 Nov. 2018, www.chronicle.com/article/Enough-With-All-the-Innovation/245044.
Newfield, Christopher. Unmaking the Public University: The Forty-Year Assault on the Middle Class. Harvard UP, 2011.
Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education Strategic System Review: Findings and Recommendations. NCHEMS, 12 July 2017, www.nchemsproject.com/system-review. Accessed 4 Mar. 2019.
Tobin, Eugene M. “Public Libraries Are Reinventing Access to Higher Education.” Shared Experiences Blog / The Andrew M. Mellon Foundation, Feb. 2018, mellon.org/resources/shared-experiences-blog/public-libraries-are-reinventing-access-higher-education/.
Warner, Michael. Publics and Counterpublics. Zone Books, 2002.
Wexler, Laura. “MLA Presidential Forum: The Public Humanities in Vulnerable Times.” Profession, Nov. 2014, profession.mla.org/mla-presidential-forum-the-public-humanities-in-vulnerable-times/.
Woodward, Kathleen. “The Future of the Humanities—in the Present and in Public.” Daedalus, vol. 138, no. 1, 2009, pp. 110–23.
Jordan Windholz is an assistant professor of English at Shippensburg University, where he teaches courses on early modern British literature, creative writing, and technical and professional writing. His scholarly work has been published in English Literary Renaissance and Modern Philology, and his poems have appeared in such venues as Boston Review, 32poems, Barrow Street, and Best New Poets. His book of poetry, Other Psalms, won the 2014 Vassar Miller Prize in Poetry. You can find him online at www.jordanwindholz.com and on Twitter @jwindholz.