Spring 2019

Public Humanities

Pride and Presentism: On the Necessity of the Public Humanities for Literary Historians

Charles Dickens’s ubiquitous opening phrase “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” seems all too familiar in any discussion of public humanities as it relates to the state of our profession and, indeed, to academia more broadly. And just as the term public humanities elicits anxieties about definition and praxis, it carries similar precarity in institutions of higher education.1 To many in academic institutions, practicing public humanities starts with increasing the diversity of the students in our classrooms and the faculty members who teach them. On the one hand, major strides have been made toward this diversity: more and more universities seem to understand that they must forge a strong connection to the people and communities that surround their campuses, and terms like service learning and civic engagement have gone from niche to mainstream. Throughout the United States, a handful of universities have even designed centers and programs for public humanities to serve as leaders in the field.

On the other hand, much work remains to be done. Universities sit in the precarious position of both troubling and reinscribing traditional power structures.2 Across humanities departments, particularly in fields like English, most of the tenure-track and tenured faculty is white, the vast majority of the faculty is contingent, and women and faculty members of color remain marginalized in various and troubling ways.3 Students face increasing debt burdens, and people not directly connected with college campuses still largely do not see these institutions as resources for their everyday lives. These continued disparities lead both critics and those involved in the public humanities to wonder if the public humanities are capable of doing the kinds of radical acts that move beyond diversifying the canon and enter into a phase of actively decolonizing our fields.4

The notion of action is central to the public humanities, and we argue that we can and should go even further, moving from action to activism.

While humanists must continue to analyze and rethink the boundaries and contours of the public humanities, we argue that a salient and productive discussion of the term public humanities starts with the assumption that the work and goals of the public humanities constitute a necessary (if imperfect) methodology for humanists in and beyond the academy. Defining the public humanities as a kind of humanities in practice, or principled action,5 we draw on the work of scholars like Teresa Mangum, who calls us to go beyond problematizing issues to doing something about them (5), and Kathleen Woodward, who argues for public scholarship that is purposeful and substantive in the service of “reduc[ing] the distance between the university and life” (123). The notion of action is central to the public humanities, and we argue that we can and should go even further, moving from action to activism.

The kinds of questions, concerns, and projects borne out of public humanities work are, in fact, increasingly crucial for scholars and teachers of historical literary periods before the early twentieth century for two core reasons. First, those of us who study pre-twentieth-century literary periods are seeing authors, public and cultural figures, and texts from our respective fields wielded by hate groups to represent (however accurately or inaccurately) nostalgic signifiers of an idealized white, Western, racist, patriarchal past—a procedure that actively devalues higher education and the democratic ideals in and beyond the university space. Our fields are being co-opted in ways that seek to destroy the very notion of openness and inclusion that the humanities has sought to cultivate. Second, higher education has been complicit in endorsing the white, Western intellectual tradition over and against other peoples’ traditions in myriad ways—such as the norms of the great books curriculum under which many figures of historical literature are categorized. This tradition is further amplified by the factors that determine who attends colleges and universities and under what conditions. Studies have shown that as more people of color began attending college during the 1960s and after, public funding for higher education began dwindling to the point of almost total precarity; in other words, the less white our classrooms have become, the more difficult it has become for the students in those classrooms to attend and to find success.6 These systemic injustices parallel other institutional abuses beyond (but including) the humanities; the most prominent example is the explosion in number of contingent faculty members and the attendant abusive labor practices that surround this hiring strategy.

As scholars and teachers of the literature and culture of the long eighteenth century, a period that gave rise to core elements of today’s academy and that standardized the kinds of colonizing acts we must actively address in our work, we bear out our argument for the value of the public humanities by using Jane Austen as a case study. Austen is perhaps particularly susceptible to the kinds of false equivalencies between past and present that, as Laurie Grobman cautions, reduce complex systemic issues either to an easy teleological narrative of progress (“things were bad then; they are better now”) or, maybe worse, to a narrative that tracks cultural decline (“things were better then; they are bad now”; 130).

Yet we believe that Austen is also ideally situated to demonstrate how engaged public humanities projects can model a form of what we call activist presentism. While the term presentism is usually used pejoratively to describe ways of viewing the past through the lens of the present, we see it as a part of a principled intellectual position that has the means to redress the above-stated issues in humanities departments and academe more broadly and institute more just systems and practices in higher education. If we make the mistake of dismissing oppression because of its historical context, we lose an opportunity and also create real risk of harm. When arguments against presentism are used to shut down conversations about racism, sexism, and other forms of institutionalized oppression, we do a disservice to literature and its readers; in an attempt to be fair to the writer, who arguably can’t be held to contemporary standards of political correctness, we become unjust to the reader.

For literary historians, much of this process of activist presentism involves reconsidering our syllabi, our archives, and our canon…

Instead, we see presentism as a means to open conversation—not in an easy, flippant way that makes reductive parallels between past and present, but in a messy, complicated way that helps us view both past and present as mutually constitutive and meaningfully connected. In using presentism with this activist agenda, we are following what our colleagues in the V21 Collective call strategic presentism (“Manifesto”), a kind of presentism that actively encourages literary historians and their campuses and professional communities to decenter and decolonize the power structures that have historically limited the participation of many first-generation students, students of color, differently abled students, and myriad people outside the classroom and academy from the work of campuses and of humanities departments in particular.7 This approach also revises our understanding of expertise to include the valuable contributions that students, new scholars, and nonacademics can bring to our teaching and research. Public humanities work in historical literary periods necessarily takes an activist mentality and methodology because it seeks to address the inequities within our individual fields and in and beyond the academy. When we reread the past to rewrite our future, we begin to do the work of activist presentism.

For literary historians, much of this process of activist presentism involves reconsidering our syllabi, our archives, and our canon—both researching and teaching understudied, sometimes anonymous texts that, whenever possible, are written by or represent the experiences of nonwhite, nonmale, nonelite groups. But doing public humanities projects also extends to the way we consider traditional assignments, the way we frame canonical authors like Austen, and how we understand what it means to read, write, and, importantly, collaborate with others as humanists and as members of multiple, overlapping communities. Our professional communities not only should be those to which we pay yearly dues but also must include colleagues from other departments, former and current students and staff members on our campuses, and agents and agencies in our surroundings, from local nonprofit organizations to people on Twitter and other social media platforms. To foster equitable collaboration, we must consider all these agents as equal partners who bring particular forms of expertise. This activist work changes not only what and who we read but also how and why we read and thus how we understand the push and pull between the past and the present. Through this process, the interpretive work of literary scholarship is fundamentally changed and made more inclusive and collaboratively dialogic.

Ultimately, we suggest that revising and valuing the practice of public humanities requires that we stop evaluating ourselves and our fields by the typically separate categories of research (directed only toward those trained like we are in our specialized subfields), teaching (serving only those students who sit in our classrooms), and service (benefitting our professional organizations, our universities, and maybe the communities immediately surrounding them). Instead, we can use the public humanities to revise this evaluative structure by viewing research, teaching, and service as mutually constitutive and as inherently demanding the participation of multiple agents and entities beyond these three typically distinct categories. In so doing, we begin to allow our fields more appropriately to represent the voices and experiences of the past and the present that have remained marginalized or entirely unheard. And through this (admittedly imperfect) process, we become better scholar-teachers of the historical literary periods that we study.

On Activist Presentism

As part of the 2014 MLA convention Presidential Forum, “Vulnerable Times,” in the session “Public Humanities,” our colleagues reflected thoughtfully, eloquently, and rigorously about the importance of engaged literary scholarship at a moment when critics from across the political and ideological spectrums were proclaiming the death of the humanities (a refrain that remains familiar today). Though these presentations, later published in Profession, outlined innovative approaches to a range of public humanities projects, at their core they also evinced an anxiety with the phrase public humanities and actively problematized the concepts of the public and the humanities themselves.8

Yet in gestures that resonate with our argument about activist presentism, all the contributors to the forum outlined their specific version of public humanities practice. Farah Jasmine Griffin described how her scholarship on jazz and African American literature and culture is clarified through her participation in the Jazz Study Group and argued that her scholarship necessarily requires interdisciplinary, cross-cultural, cross-generational participants, theories, and approaches. Griffin finds that this methodology was inspired by her personal experience participating in the black arts movement of Philadelphia in the 1960s and 1970s. During her reflections, which were amplified by the passing of Amiri Baraka, Griffin observed that in her formative experiences, activism and scholarship as a form of the public humanities were necessarily connected:

Here was one practice of public humanities in a community for whom all times are vulnerable, a site that recognized the historic roots of that vulnerability but also called attention to people’s resilience, beauty, and ability to resist. Public humanities in this context was actually about movement building, about informing a people, encouraging them to see themselves as part of a tradition, and feeding and nourishing their intellects and their spirits so that they might be moved to act.

For Griffin, public humanities is at once a rigorous critique of the past and a way forward that grew out of productive resistance to systemic inequalities. Her phrase that such work has happened “in a community for whom all times are vulnerable” captures the points of contact between past and present that creates a foundation for the kind of activist presentism that we advocate as part of the public humanities.

While Griffin’s argument is familiar to scholars who study literary periods during and after the twentieth century, and particularly for those scholars whose research and teaching center on communities of color, queer communities, the differently abled, and other traditionally marginalized groups, this activist-minded agenda is often absent from our peers who study literary and cultural works from earlier periods. The brilliant works of, for instance, Toni Morrison, Louise Erdrich, Alison Bechdel, and Terry Galloway confront readers with issues of systemic prejudice, racism, ableism, and violence and can quite naturally encourage activist-related questions and projects.

But what if you are a scholar of Jane Austen, a figure whose privileged position in literary history, in pop culture, and even on banknotes seems as though it is largely complicit in validating all forms of the status quo? As our fellow eighteenth centuryist Nicole M. Wright recently observed, Austen’s seeming elite, white gentility has been used by hate groups as a means of attempting to validate white supremacist reactionary rhetoric: “To my surprise, invocations of Austen popped up in many alt-right online venues. Venturing into the mire, I found that there are several variations of alt-right Jane Austen: 1) symbol of sexual purity; 2) standard-bearer of a vanished white traditional culture; and 3) exception that proves the rule of female inferiority.” Alt-right figures use this distorted image of Austen (erroneously) as a representation of pure Victorian morals, a move that is of a piece with other alt-right selective misreadings and half-truth representations; for instance, many white supremacists who stormed Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017 appropriated symbols from medieval iconography in the hopes of promoting the cultural values of a time when white racial purity defined dominant culture.9 In the face of such violent, reactionary behavior, the literary historian’s dilemma is this: on the one hand, the canon of literary history remains predominantly white, thus preserving and to various degrees endorsing such use; on the other hand, as most specialists in these historical fields will tell us, no period was without resistance and unrest in response to these kinds of power structures.

While students and other audiences may not initially see Austen and her contemporaries as either complicit or actual participants in such blatant acts of intellectual and actual violence, many are rightly suspicious of how her works are relevant to their own experiences.10 Resolving in heterosexual marriages and including nary a person of color or of the lower classes as significant agents, Austen’s novels might at best seem to endorse a kind of rarefied world that has no bearing on the lived realities of today. But if, for instance, we focus on how Austen uses free indirect discourse to satirize the patriarchal perspectives of a Sir Thomas Bertram or a Henry Tilney (or even a Mr. Darcy), if we pair the uncomfortable silences when the topic of slavery comes up in Mansfield Park and Emma, or the silent nabob Miss Lambe in Sanditon, with contemporary abolitionist texts, we can see the ways in which Austen succeeds (and also fails) at engaging in politically charged topics about human rights. We can reframe the marriage plots in Austen’s novels as a study in the economic norms of the period and thereby understand the housing instability of Elizabeth Bennet, Elinor and Marianne Dashwood, and even Anne Elliot as a critique of both the old feudal system of paternalistic landownership and the emergent system of capitalism; we can reconsider the relational dynamics between Emma Woodhouse and Harriet Smith beyond their superficially heteronormative outcomes, or the class dynamics between Anne Elliot and the disabled, working-class Mrs. Smith, as a comment on (if not an overt indictment of) the social welfare system in England. Standing armies and sailors provide this version of Austen with more than a ready battalion of heartaches.

We can engage students in service-learning projects related to literature and literacy and then use Emma Woodhouse to interrogate the snare of a savior complex. We can frame Northanger Abbey as a novel about a heroine who is overshadowed (and overpowered) by a high-level government official who relies on dubious news sources and a hero who is quick to deny a woman’s accusation of misogynistic violence, set in a city marked by the injustice of a broken system of global trade—and we can interrupt this interpretation with a plea in defense of the novel as, among other things, uniting a community of women against a male-dominated world that would mock and belittle them. When we write and publish about Austen, we can be sure to cite emerging and contingent scholars, as well as trans scholars, differently abled scholars, and scholars of color, at least as often as we cite those well-established, usually white scholars who have come before us; acting in solidarity with victims of sexual harassment or those who have been otherwise oppressed by academics in positions of power, we can question the abuser’s role in our own critical canon and replace that work with works from those people whose professional ethos encourages inclusivity and respect to others.

The ways in which our students and other participants discuss these characters’ experiences as familiar or alien become an opportunity for productive comparison that can help frame and clarify the relation of past and present and give all participants a more complicated understanding of issues of social justice in both the period in which the work was written and the present. These kinds of discussions alone will not solve the inequities that prompted them, but they are a necessary intellectual step toward the kinds of activism that we see as essential to the public humanities and to the humanities more broadly.

To move these discussions into action, we pair the questions and considerations we bring to bear as literary scholars with work done alongside students and community members in ways that value their expertise—bringing analyses of Austen’s portrayal of women’s agency into focus through conversations about the women’s marches in both the eighteenth and twenty-first centuries in, for instance, a multigenerational reading group that takes place in a public library. In this scenario, we would encourage the participants in the space, as well as the librarians, archivists, and other staff members who operate the library, to share their knowledge and questions instead of assuming that we would be lecturing and they would be listening.

Or, we consider how Austen’s portrayal of women’s education chimes with contemporary issues of educational access in public schools and in local educational nonprofits, locations where students, volunteer managers, public educators, and community members have spent countless hours, making them the experts of these spaces and their community members’ needs. We begin a conversation in class about how Austen’s own illness introduces questions of ableism that prompt us and our students to devise a public digitization project that makes historical literary works accessible for differently abled readers. In our classes and in these public spaces, in addition to assigning written forms of assessment (essays or surveys, respectively), we encourage participants to create free and online materials or podcasts where they take the initiative to discuss and interpret Austen in relation to topics that are meaningful to them—some might care about Austen’s role in pop culture, while others might want to consider how they can engage in a queer interpretation of Austen—all in ways that validate their knowledge and analyses.

In inviting this more democratic, multidirectional exchange, which we see as essential to the public humanities, we need to do the work of, first, reining ourselves in, admitting the limits of our own knowledge and experiences, and making ourselves vulnerable both in terms of controlling the direction of the discussion and in presenting our own intersectional identities, and, second, bringing others up, giving participants the confidence and agency to see their own knowledge and experiences as worthy and authoritative. This task of flattening potential power dynamics is eased with a figure like Austen; with five thousand members of the Jane Austen Society of North America scattered across our continent, we regularly meet nonacademic readers who have a more thorough and exact knowledge of Austen’s novels than we do, referring to particular chapters and lines with an ease and familiarity we can only aspire to. But we believe that any reader can offer a meaningful interpretation of any text, because we all come to that text with our unique lived experiences that will give us perspectives, opinions, and interpretations that can illumine that text for others. In all these instances, we reconsider the place and possessors of expertise by working with our collaborators in ways that underscore how their interpretations help us better understand Austen’s historical moment and our own.

On Activist Presentist Practices

These kinds of public humanities projects in literary history cannot happen without a series of strategic choices and considerable planning. The projects also must be flexible enough to allow for what we call productive failure: the notion that public humanities projects can and will involve trial and error but that the understanding they provide can allow for a flexibility that makes mistakes a source of productive change, rather than stasis or regression.11 We outline here six steps that make public humanities work a collaborative effort among various agents and experts that stands to make our field more radically inclusive.

1. Active Questioning

Like any research or teaching, public humanities projects must begin with a series of questions. However, unlike traditional humanities scholarship, these questions must involve an actual dialogue with prospective partners—students, community groups, and other agents—and perform a kind of needs-based assessment of how to design a project that addresses the goals of all partners and participants. A professor might think that a local nonprofit would benefit from being inundated by forty undergraduate tutors, when in fact the nonprofit might be financially and temporally overburdened by such a presence and instead need help creating copy for its Web site or for other documents to help publicize its services.

Likewise, faculty members must design engaged projects, both in teaching and research, based in varying degrees on the interests and needs of students and community partners, instead of considering these stakeholders after the fact. While our initial instinct might be to figure out how to do this on our own, it is crucial to identify other participants and solicit their feedback in the earliest moments of the process, instead of waiting until a project has been framed and proposed.

Scholarship, too, can benefit from this kind of collaborative practice. Open-access discussions that take place on social media and other Internet forums, along with free talks at public libraries and other open venues, invite conversations and questions from people who bring their own experiences and expertise, in ways that can better shape the kinds of research questions we use when we go to an archive or a research library. Likewise, working with archivists and library professionals to open up and expand how the archives work for our individual research and for our profession as a whole is a crucial way of addressing the critical silences and gaps in these spaces, especially when it comes to traditionally marginalized groups.

2. Networking

Part of the process of asking questions involves networking, both in person and virtually. In addition to conversations with academic and university colleagues (including departmental colleagues, faculty and staff members performing related public research and teaching, and administrative staff members who run civic-engagement programs and student activities), students, and community agents, would-be practitioners of the public humanities would do well to consult social media forums like Twitter, which offer a useful space for querying other scholars and public humanities practitioners to discover current projects, best practices, and methodologies in real time.

3. Community Building

Through the process of questioning and networking, we can build a specific community of partners for each project to accomplish a shared goal, while also working together to support the specific goals of each contributor. We make a mistake if we see a singular public as distinct from and opposed to our campus communities. However isolated we may seem to be in our campus bubbles, we must understand that within and beyond our campuses there are multiple communities and publics, and by understanding and respecting the points of overlap and distinction among them, we are better able to do the work of public humanism.

4. Syllabizing

While we tend to consider the creation of a syllabus as a kind of course schedule and contract between instructor and student, we admire the work of the Charlottesville Syllabus and similar resources that consider distilling important readings and other activities as a significant form of response, activism, and critical activity that is not limited to the classroom. These online resources are sometimes traditional syllabi and other times various bibliographic lists with attached critical commentary or examples of projects, and they are accessible and useful for a variety of audiences and project participants.

5. Publishing

During and after the course or project, it is time to share this work in various forums: in campus communities, online, and in social media outlets. Making these scholarly and teaching resources available for others who have related interests helps expand the community that we have begun to build and create a larger collective set of actions that organically address the local needs of a given community. These open-access materials can also work to displace and replace problematic messaging from or about the academy or the authors, figures, and texts we teach and study.

6. Reflecting

Throughout the process of designing and implementing a public humanities project, it is crucial to scaffold reflection exercises for all participants on the successes and failures, starts and stops. In class and in other projects, reflection should include both formal and informal writing prompts, some cumulative and revised through a writing process, and occasional opportunities for anonymous feedback. Just as important is to set aside time for our own critical reflection, both individually and with project partners; social media forums might be another appropriate place to perform such thoughtful and self-critical evaluative work. Ongoing reflection allows us to honestly identify what may not be working and respond with humility and flexibility. Reflection also helps us pause, recognize, and celebrate what is going well. An iterative process of assessing and recalibrating the course is an essential part of a dynamic, relational project, and it reminds us that we, too, are still learning and can benefit from pedagogical practices we demand of our students.

Ideally, these final two steps—engaging in individual critical reflection and in community conversation about the course—may also open formal publishing possibilities on the scholarship of teaching and learning, creating additional synergism among our research, teaching, and service. Indeed, while we’ve broken down the above into discrete steps, these three roles—research, teaching, and service—often occur simultaneously and at multiple moments throughout the process.


In many ways, the public humanities are fundamentally political, liberatory, feminist, antiracist, and even transgressive, interrogating systemic privilege and power, opportunity and oppression. Within the public humanities, literature is a medium uniquely positioned to work on the deep beliefs we hold about ourselves and other people, and we believe that reconsidering these beliefs is the first step toward creating sustainable, actionable change in our departments, our communities, and our nation. To students or onlookers for whom literature seems at best an extravagant luxury and at worst an irrelevant distraction, this activist approach to historical literature can make their learning (and our professional lives) deeper, more critical, more meaningful, and ultimately more inclusive. In the face of an expert-scoffing, diversity-averse, post-truth society that rejects care for language as mere political correctness, it has never been more crucial to teach the past with a public purpose.


We thank Frank T. Boyle for his feedback on an early draft of this essay.

1. Wickman’s cheekily titled essay points to this crisis of connotative and denotative identity.

2. For a sustained critique of the public humanities within these contexts, see Mullen; for a discussion of this topic as it relates to service learning in literary studies, see Grobman. For a comprehensive overview of the tensions across the rise of public humanities, see Schroeder.

3. According to the American Association of University Professors, more than seventy percent of all higher education faculty members are contingent (“Background Facts”). Likewise, women who are full-time faculty members earn roughly eighty percent of their male counterparts, and far more women than men are contingent faculty members (Curtis). Matters are even more dire in terms of faculty members of color: according to the National Center for Education Statistics, just among the full-time faculty, “in fall 2016, 41 percent were White males; 35 percent were White females; 6 percent were Asian/Pacific Islander males; 4 percent were Asian/Pacific Islander females; 3 percent each were Black males, Black females, and Hispanic males; and 2 percent were Hispanic females” (“Fast Facts”).

4. On decolonization as a process that “advance[s] the undoing of Eurocentrism’s totalizing claim and frame, including the Eurocentric legacies incarnated in U.S.-centrism and perpetuated in the Western geopolitics of knowledge,” see Mignolo and Walsh (2); see also Patel; Smith et al.

5. The term principled action is borrowed from Cooper (12).

6. See Garcia; Greenwald; and Mitchell et al.

7. As Coombs and Coriale argue, “What if, by insisting on the recognition of the past’s difference from the present, we’ve made it more difficult to conceptualize why studying the past matters for the present? … Strategic presentism requires that we think of the past as something other than an object of knowledge that is sealed off, separated from the present by the onrush of sequential time. … To make presentism a strategy means asking how presentism might help us better understand and address the ways the past is at work in the exigencies of the present, from the recursive afterlives of British imperialism in our own era of war to the long arc of ongoing processes of dispossession under capitalism; from the economies of consciousness as a so-called global workspace to the anthropocene” (87–88).

8. On the subject of the need for action in public humanities work, see Mangum.

9. On this troubling form of citation, see Perry.

10. We discuss many of these projects in more detail, with contributions from dozens of collaborators, in Engaging the Age of Jane Austen: Public Humanities in Practice (Draxler and Spratt).

11. For more on the benefits of productive failure, see Draxler and Spratt 66–67.

Works Cited

“Background Facts on Contingent Faculty Positions.” American Association of University Professors, www.aaup.org/issues/contingency/background-facts. Accessed 10 Jan. 2019.

Coombs, David Sweeney, and Danielle Coriale. “V21 Forum on Strategic Presentism: Introduction.” Victorian Studies, vol. 59, no. 1, Autumn 2016, pp. 87–89.

Cooper, David D. Learning in the Plural: Essays on the Humanities in Public Life. Michigan State UP, 2014.

Curtis, John W. “Persistent Inequity: Gender and Academic Employment.” American Association of University Professors, 11 Apr. 2011, www.aaup.org/NR/rdonlyres/08E023AB-E6D8-4DBD-99A0-24E5EB73A760/0/persistent_inequity.pdf.

Draxler, Bridget, and Danielle Spratt. Engaging the Age of Jane Austen: Public Humanities in Practice. U of Iowa P, 2018.

“Fast Facts: Race/Ethnicity of College Faculty.” National Center for Education Statistics, nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/display.asp?id=61. Accessed 28 Dec. 2018.

Garcia, Sara. “Gaps in College Spending Shortchange Students of Color.” Center for American Progress, 5 Apr. 2018, www.americanprogress.org/issues/education-postsecondary/reports/2018/04/05/448761/gaps-college-spending-shortchange-students-color/.

Greenwald, Richard A. “Just as More Minorities Access Higher Education, Public Support Recedes.” The Daily Beast, 12 May 2018, www.thedailybeast.com/just-as-more-minorities-access-higher-education-public-support-recedes.

Griffin, Farah Jasmine. “Public Humanities: Crisis and Possibility.” Profession, Nov. 2014, profession.mla.org/public-humanities-crisis-and-possibility/.

Grobman, Laurie. “Is There a Place for Service Learning in Literary Studies?” Profession, 2005, pp. 129–40.

Mangum, Teresa. “Going Public: From the Perspective of the Classroom.” Pedagogy, vol. 12, no. 1, Winter 2012, pp. 5–18.

“Manifesto of the V21 Collective: Ten Theses.” v21collective.org/manifesto-of-the-v21-collective-ten-theses/. Accessed 10 Jan. 2019.

Mignolo, Walter D., and Catherine E. Walsh. On Decoloniality: Concepts, Analytics, Praxis. Duke UP, 2018.

Mitchell, Michael, et al. “Unkept Promises: State Cuts to Higher Education Threaten Access and Equity.” Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, 4 Oct. 2018, www.cbpp.org/research/state-budget-and-tax/unkept-promises-state-cuts-to-higher-education-threaten-access-and/.

Mullen, Mary L. “Public Humanities’ (Victorian) Culture Problem.” Cultural Studies, vol. 30, no. 2, 2016, pp. 183–204.

Patel, Leigh. Decolonizing Educational Research: From Ownership to Answerability. Routledge, 2015.

Perry, David M. “How Can We Untangle White Supremacy from Medieval Studies? A Conversation with Australian Scholar Helen Young.” Pacific Standard, 9 Oct. 2017, psmag.com/education/untangling-white-supremacy-from-medieval-studies.

Schroeder, Robyn. “What Is Public Humanities?” Day of Public Humanities, Apr. 2017, dayofph.wordpress.com/what-is-public-humanities/.

Smith, Linda Tuhiwai, et al. Indigenous and Decolonizing Studies in Education: Mapping the Long View. Routledge, 2018.

Wickman, Matthew. “What Are the Public Humanities? No, Really, What Are They?” University of Toronto Quarterly, vol. 85, no. 4, Fall 2016, pp. 6–11, muse-jhu-edu.libproxy.csun.edu/article/643351/pdf.

Woodward, Kathleen. “The Future of the Humanities—In the Present and in Public.” Daedalus, vol. 138, no. 1, Winter 2009, pp. 110–23.

Wright, Nicole M. “Alt-Right Jane Austen.” The Chronicle of Higher Education, 12 Mar. 2017, www.chronicle.com/article/Alt-Right-Jane-Austen/239435.



The Activist Classroom

#ArchivesSoWhite in the Words of Jarrett Drake,” Issues and Advocacy, Society of American Archivists

Charlottesville Syllabus

Manifesto of the V21 Collective,” V21 Collective

Syllabus Bank,” V21 Collective


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Danielle Spratt is an associate professor of English at California State University, Northridge, where she teaches the literature of the long eighteenth century, the history of science, and courses in book history and digital humanities; she is also Director of Faculty Engaged Practices and Service Learning in the Office of Community Engagement, where she specializes in public humanities projects.

Bridget Draxler teaches writing courses and mentors peer writing and speaking tutors at St. Olaf College. Originally trained in eighteenth-century British literature, her current teaching and research focus on public humanities and the scholarship of teaching and learning. Spratt and Draxler are the coauthors of Engaging the Age of Jane Austen: Public Humanities in Practice (U of Iowa P, 2018; Humanities in Public Life).

4 comments on “Pride and Presentism: On the Necessity of the Public Humanities for Literary Historians”

  • I heartily applaud this idea and program. But I wish the authors had given pretty credit for, as far as I know, the earliest use of “presentism” as a positive force, meaning more or less what the authors here define, in Shakespeare studies many years ago. The late Terence Hawkes and I published the anthology _Presentist Shakespeares_ (Routledge, 2007), which explored the idea at length in several versions. Both of us had also used the term earlier–as early as 1996 in my case. Presentism in Shakespeare studies continues and even flourishes today.–Hugh Grady

  • Danielle Spratt says:

    Thank you so much for this helpful reminder of your important work! We will be attending the MLA convention this January to discuss this topic with a group of 19c public humanists, and we will be sure there and going forward to emphasize the groundbreaking work you’ve done on this topic in Shakespeare studies (in fact one of the earliest pieces on pre-20c lit and community engagement is by your colleague Matthew Hansen, so you Shakespeareans have been on the cutting edge for quite some time!). Thanks so much for reading, Danielle Spratt

  • I am struck by a passage above: “activist presentism involves reconsidering our syllabi, our archives, and our canon—both researching and teaching understudied, sometimes anonymous texts that, whenever possible, are written by or represent the experiences of nonwhite, nonmale, nonelite groups. ”

    I am struck because I have been doing this exact process for nearly 30 years–both at a state-supported community college and an HBCU. I called my activities “DWEM-busting” (dead white European males) and had reading lists, movies, and music videos the encouraged students to recognize and, perhaps, value “other”–as well as themselves. This latter point is, I believe — the heart and soul of humanities.

    Why is this issue STILL being debated in this era? I have ideas and encourage colleagues to engage with this idea about how we still have to discuss a problem that I thought we’d already addressed.

  • Misty Krueger says:

    This work is important, and I am grateful to Draxler and Spratt for bringing this discussion to Profession now. Thank you, too, for the six steps. Clearly stated. Easy to follow. A how-to guide for all of us.

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