Spring 2019

Public Humanities

The Hows and Whys of Public Humanities

I was at an MLA Annual Convention reception a few years ago, talking to a senior colleague in my subfield. Our conversation was animated, but when it turned to the scholarship of a third colleague—a mutual acquaintance whose work falls outside our area of expertise—things got strange. I said I thought highly of our acquaintance’s research. He strongly disagreed. He found the work substandard.

“But it was featured on the front page of The New York Times!” I said.

“Exactly!” he replied, as if that fact better supported his point about its insubstantiality, rather than mine about its significance.

I’ve thought about this exchange a lot since it happened. I’m certain this man didn’t have greater knowledge of the subject than our headliner colleague. I suspect he loves public radio and public television. Does he have a problem with the public humanities?

We should all want our ideas to find many audiences, not just the fewest, best, or supposedly smartest readers, viewers, or listeners.

The academic humanities have a public problem. We can’t decide if we should value—or how much value we should assign to—speaking to those who aren’t seen as “one of us.” Yet our profession will be strengthened, and research outputs of all kinds improved, if more of us choose to engage with a public beyond our students and scholarly communities. In the long run, research addressed to nonacademics may be just as beneficial to the creation and dissemination of knowledge as our peer-reviewed scholarly books and articles. Ultimately, faculty members, staff members, and students depend on public support for our efforts in classrooms and libraries—in person, in print, or digitally—whether we work at private or public institutions. We should all want our ideas to find many audiences, not just the fewest, best, or supposedly smartest readers, viewers, or listeners.

That’s why I join colleagues who advocate for more public-facing scholarship and for our valuing and evaluating such scholarship more fairly in academic performance reviews.1 Those of us already doing this work also need to step up to demystify the process of beginning it. This essay contributes to those aims in two parts—first with a story describing my unplanned start down a public humanities path, and second with the anatomy of a pitch.

The Accidental Public Humanist

My launch into public humanities work was neither sensational nor glamorous. This is important for me to communicate, especially to those who think you must begin with a big splash. On the contrary, you can, and probably should, start slow and small. As with any new area of expertise, the building of public writing and speaking skills will happen over a period of years, not on a single good day or a whim. I’ve written about the nuts and bolts of some of this process for The Chronicle of Higher Education (Looser, “Writing” and “Making”). I haven’t yet made it clear that my commitment is long-standing and that it started decades ago with a particular audience.

My accidental origins in the public humanities date to 1994, with an invitation to speak at the Jane Austen Society of North America’s Annual General Meeting. JASNA is made up of thousands of members whom academics have traditionally depreciated as enthusiasts or fans. Its annual meeting draws 500 to 750 attendees. JASNA also consists of some eighty regional groups across the United States and Canada (“Regional Groups”). Speaking to its audiences, large and small, provided me with an early training ground in public humanities, despite the fact that initially I wasn’t looking for the training. I didn’t know I needed or should want it.

The JASNA meeting was unlike other conferences I attended. Academics were a distinct minority, most brought in as speaker-outsiders. Some of us enjoyed diving into this subculture more than others. I appreciated that JASNA events featured a lot of laughter. Whether Austen studies should have a sense of humor wasn’t something I’d thought much about. I certainly could have. In Public Access: Literary Theory and American Cultural Politics, Michael Bérubé tells a story of visiting his wife’s Aunt Judy on Cape Cod. When Bérubé shares that he’s turning his dissertation into a book, Aunt Judy “snapped, ‘What’s your book like? Is it funny?’” He admits that the question “was a stopper” and decides it’s an important consideration if he “ever wanted to write for people other than my dissertation committee and their colleagues” (xi). That question—Is it funny?—began to loom large for me after JASNA meetings. Reading Austen’s fiction aloud could make audiences laugh. Why was so little Austen scholarship humorous?

I’d been reading funny, public-facing work by smart feminists that was busting the stereotype of the humorless women’s libber. Regina Barreca’s They Used to Call Me Snow White . . . but I Drifted and the cartoons of Jennifer Berman (Adult Children and Why) imprinted themselves on me then, although I didn’t grasp that they were shaping me as a scholar. At the time, I bought into the idea that academic success meant addressing, and impressing, senior scholar-stars. The goal was to become what Tressie McMillan Cottom dubs an academic “micro-celebrity”—to become “extremely well known with a small group of people, as opposed to popularly well known among the popular masses” (Hayes and Cottom). That micro-celebrity system’s implicit message to those of us just starting out was to accept its narrow terms and its claims to be meritocratic. Try to publish in the right refereed journals or with the right presses, seek a tenure-track job to prove yourself, and let your ideas sink or swim with the gatekeepers.

As part of that standard academic quest, I’d decided there ought to be a collection of essays on Austen and feminist theory—there wasn’t one yet—and that I should propose to edit it. I mailed letters to admired, established scholars, explaining my plan and soliciting essays on the subject. One of them wrote back to advise me not to waste my time on an edited collection and to publish my book instead. Another suggested I should contact her most talented graduate student. (I did, and we remain close colleagues.) A third told me to republish an essay of his that had already appeared in a European journal but hadn’t yet attracted the readership it warranted.

It was the scholar Alison Sulloway’s response to me that had the greatest impact. She sent back a touching letter explaining that she’d just moved into a nursing home and was ending her research efforts. I replied to her letter, expressing gratitude for her groundbreaking book, Jane Austen and the Province of Womanhood. We began corresponding back and forth, about our commitment to feminist scholarship and our complicated personal lives. Her letters were unusual, beautiful, and painful. Soon she was describing her physical and cognitive decline, using stick figure drawings of herself. When she had to withdraw from giving her scheduled lecture to JASNA’s 1994 Annual General Meeting, Sulloway suggested that the conference organizers invite me to speak in New Orleans in her stead. They did, offering to waive the hefty conference registration fee and to pay for a night in a nice hotel. I’d just completed my first year as an assistant professor at Indiana State University. I was twenty-seven, I’d never been to New Orleans, and I hadn’t stayed in many nice hotels. It was an easy yes. I had no idea what I was doing.

I delivered an abstruse presentation on Austen and feminism to fifty or so audience members. I didn’t conceive of them any differently than I would have an audience at an MLA convention or an American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies meeting. These were the audiences I’d previously presented papers to, six or so times. Planted safely behind the podium, I read my prepared remarks declaratively off of a printed page. I believe I did try to look up every so often. When we arrived at the dreaded question-and-answer part of the hour, a middle-aged man in the audience raised his hand.

He asked me, politely, “What do you mean by feminism?”

Colleague, I got defensive.

I haphazardly backed my rhetorical truck into the parking spot of his question.

“Well,” I said, “of course, no one agrees what feminism is. There are debates about what it is. I’m not saying that I think it’s just one thing. Obviously, I don’t think that. I mean to say that there are feminisms, plural, not just singular, and we need to be very conscious of that fact.”

Then I said something like, “Judith Butler, blah, blah, blah. Denise Riley! Is there really such a thing as a woman? Or truth? Gender is performance, because . . . social construction. And poststructuralism! So there you have it. No one knows what’s feminism.”

I don’t recall if he said a thing in response. What I do remember, very clearly, is that from the back of the room, a hand shot up. It was Professor Ruth Perry, another speaker on the JASNA program. She addressed herself first to the man with the question. The exchange now feels seared into my brain.

“Feminism,” she said, “is a social justice movement that argues that women have not been treated equally or fairly over the course of history and up to the present day.”2

Then, addressing me, she said something like, “Feminism seeks to remedy that inequality both through political activism and through research, writing, and sharing knowledge.”

I think—or at least I hope—I said “Thank you.” I may have gone into a fugue state. I knew I’d messed up. I’d answered an unpretentious question as if in a nightmare version of my comprehensive exam or as if transported to week 5 of a feminist theory seminar. I’d utterly mistaken the audience, not to mention what my role was in presenting information and leading a conversation.

Perry was graciously and powerfully showing me how to do it better. Her example encouraged me to begin to develop new habits and skills: Listen better for tone. Start positively and declaratively, if you can. Be brief. You don’t have to say it all. You’re pointing the way forward. Consider your questioner’s needs, of course, but think about the entire room as you frame your answer. Don’t question the question. Don’t immediately turn to the debate’s fine points. Think broad brushstrokes. Above all, practice this stuff.

Sulloway and Perry gave me gifts. They gave of themselves generously, not only to me but to many scholars and nonacademic publics. But what kept me coming back to JASNA was not just such colleagues. It was a growing and eventually a complete appreciation for the organization’s nonacademic audience. Made up of teachers, accountants, nurses, lawyers, stay-at-home parents, librarians, and one fierce theology student with an Austen tattoo on her thigh, JASNA conferees were the most prepared and hungry “students” I’d ever had. They made me see clearly what Paulo Freire meant in Pedagogy of the Oppressed when he talked about cocreators of knowledge.

I floated new ideas with people who often knew Austen’s texts far better than I, on the level of the word and sentence. Many thought differently, which challenged me. They were usually exceptionally grateful for the expertise that speakers brought. I have a friend who refers to the academic world as having an affirmation deficit. If so, then by comparison JASNA has an affirmation surfeit. At JASNA meetings, with encouragement and exchange, I grew as a critic and public speaker. I began to reconceive what I could, or should, write. I practiced thinking, writing, and speaking outside of traditional academic modes of communication.

More than anything, though, these exchanges were fun. A scholar could be playful at JASNA and not take oneself so seriously. Academic conferences then seemed to me, by contrast, full of people grasping at opportunities to hold the floor—posturing, squabbling, belittling. The fun at academic conferences, if it happened, seemed confined to late-night drinking, with cathartic rehashings of the day’s posturings, debates, and takedowns. Or maybe I was just in with the wrong crowd. In any case, I might not have noticed these patterns without experiencing JASNA.

In a group of people devoted to author appreciation, it’s not only OK but expected to say that you love what you’re doing there. You aren’t asked to interrogate perpetually whether your positive take is inappropriately unreconstructed. (How rarely we academics ask ourselves if our negative takes are inappropriately unreconstructed.) It seemed to me that few academic conferences then were building in opportunities that harnessed affirmative energy, celebrated the unserious, or acknowledged the power of the glass half full, or a third full, or with any sober splash in it at all.

JASNA helped me see the price of using relentless wet blanket, top-down, and preachy approaches with nonacademic audiences. It rarely got your ideas the hearing they deserved. I want to be clear: I am not advocating for ridding one’s scholarship of the delivering of bad news. There are plenty of good reasons for righteous anger and rigorous critique, not to mention many situations in which they ought to be deployed. What I’m saying is that it does not serve us well to stick to one script. Smug outrage should not be an academic’s default mode of communication with the public. We need to use a variety of approaches to persuade. What I observed is that ritual condemnation did not inspire most readers or listeners to reflection, learning, or action.

That’s not to say all was sanguine positivity at JASNA meetings. Difficult conversations about the past and the present have been happening, too. Especially in more recent years, considering cultural conflicts through the lens of the inequalities of Austen’s era has come front and center. JASNA members do not share a common politics. It’s one of the membership’s proud features and a notable strength at a time when it’s difficult even for nonpoliticians to “talk across the aisle.” But when Cornel West—who describes himself as an Austen fanatic—spoke at the annual meeting in 2012 about Austen’s understanding of human suffering, he received a standing ovation (Schuessler).

Public-facing work carries a greater imperative to talk across, rather than down. It prompts thinking inside and outside at once.

Although not every humanities area has its JASNA equivalent, there are thankfully many ways forward. Scores of organizations may prove a similar training ground. Many of them welcome public-facing scholars who seek to engage listeners, such as public and private libraries, civic clubs, senior retirement communities, and Osher Lifelong Learning Institutes. Bridget Draxler and Danielle Spratt’s Engaging the Age of Jane Austen: Public Humanities in Practice outlines opportunities and emerging methods for building public engagement. Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s Generous Thinking: A Radical Approach to Saving the University describes why we should seek out these methods.

There are endless digital ways to interact with new audiences. Social media may not be a social good, but it can be used to extend the reach of good scholarly ideas, in ways that were formerly available to just a handful of elite academics. There is new potential for getting your ideas heard. That route may seem a loss to the cohort of academics who came of age in the halcyon days when the overworked department secretary, or your put-upon wife, typed up your book manuscript and when university libraries ordered each and every university press book. Lament the passing of those days or welcome them, as you see fit. Either way, you are increasingly responsible for building your own audience for your research. Shrug that off at your own risk.

Fortunately, you don’t have to begin a podcast series or launch a digital magazine to forge new connections. It’s not difficult to get in contact with someone who hosts or edits one, to express your admiration, and to offer your services. No matter what your scholarly expertise is, some aspect of it might be reframed to speak to nonexperts. This doesn’t have to mean selling out or dumbing down. It can be an act of creative translation. This also doesn’t mean giving up being a scholar who speaks to other scholars. It should be a both/and situation. For my part, I wish we academics would get in the habit of devising a public-facing companion piece to highlight our discoveries and conclusions each time we publish a traditional work of scholarship.

Public-facing work carries a greater imperative to talk across, rather than down. It prompts thinking inside and outside at once. Faculty members like to say that research informs our teaching and vice versa, but the synergy that public humanities work brings has in some ways, for me, been more transformative. Public humanities work has fostered risk taking. It convinced me to try out new, and even weird, things. It inspired me to take my research in different directions and to write a book on Austen’s reception history that takes seriously the cultural, political, and educational contributions of those outside the academic and cultural elite (Looser, Making). JASNA’s audiences were the impetus to my noticing blind spots in scholarly histories of Austen’s reception and to digging in to evidence most critics had wrongly dismissed as lightweight. Janeites helped me resee how previous scholars had fallen short, how we’d glossed over significant parts of the historical record.

My involvement with JASNA had other unanticipated practical, positive effects. Through speaking about Austen to nonacademic groups, and by writing for JASNA’s publications, I’d inadvertently been gathering a wider audience for my public-facing writing.3 When academics talk about a desire to write a crossover book, we often imagine that so-called general readers will simply pop up out of nowhere to find our work. I’d already crossed over to connect. Some of those connections became close friends. I am grateful to be a part of that community, too.

The Anatomy of a Pitch

How do you decide if a public-facing scholarly path is for you? Having certain personal qualities and aspirational goals will make the decision easier. It helps to like the unfamiliar, because the learning curve can be steep. Public-facing scholarship is a good path for those who enjoy meeting and talking to people who don’t have PhDs. It is not a good fit for people who enjoy making others feel small or preening about their intellectual superiority. It’s a good fit if you can think flexibly about ideas, audiences, and genres, because you’ll need to learn to speak and write in new ways. One of those ways is pitching. The former journalists and entrepreneurs among our academic ranks know this well. It, too, deserves to be demystified by more of us.

Pitching involves reaching out to editors with an idea for a piece of writing (or voice or video), in whatever way their editorial directions stipulate, to try to persuade them that the idea provides fresh, timely content that’s a good fit for their publication or venue. Editors either accept or reject your piece or, as often happens, ignore your message. (No sense getting angry about being ignored. Follow up once, then move on.) To become better at writing a pitch, you need to practice distilling your ideas into short, accessible chunks that crystallize why anyone who doesn’t do what we do ought to care.

To learn how to pitch, I recommend the online resources of the OpEd Project (www.theopedproject.org). The OpEd Project’s mission is to increase women’s and other underrepresented voices in mainstream media, but its advice works for anyone. If you can convince institutional administrators to bring the OpEd Project’s team to your campus for a workshop, then do.4 The project’s preliminary data suggest that women make up just ten percent of op-ed contributors in major newspapers. That number may be explained, in part, by women constituting little more than ten percent of those who pitch to editors (“FAQs”). The message is clear: if you want to publish more public-facing pieces, then you need to pitch more often. (Colleagues who are successful grant writers will tell you this principle applies equally there.)

A pitch describes what you are writing and why it needs to get in front of that specific set of readers. You have to get the editor’s attention, in a paragraph or two. This is not the place to situate your work among that of others or to describe the gaps that it allegedly fills. The pitch needs to stand on its own. A claim to originality is great—discoveries are worthy—but boring discoveries happen all the time, too. You have to make it clear that this idea or insight or discovery is interesting and that its findings are timely. In the endnotes I’m including an actual cold pitch I wrote for a piece that ended up in Salon.5 After the pitch, I closed my message with a sentence describing who I am and where I previously published, saying I looked forward to hearing back. I’m still learning how to pitch. I invite others to share their successful pitches with colleagues.

I tried to make my pitch enjoyable to read, while explaining how my research findings on the literary past connect to the present—a hook. I tried to match the pitch’s tone and diction to the writing in Salon, after having read lots of its articles. Before pressing send on my pitch e-mail, I’d set up my own ad hoc system of peer review, running the piece by my trusted expert-friends who read it for red flags and errors. It was about a week before I heard back from the editor.

If you want to publish essays in popular periodicals, then you’ll need to become less possessive of your prose. I’ve had editors aggressively slash and flat-out change my content, expecting I’d accept the changes. (I usually do, because good editors have an expert sense of the perceived needs of their particular audience; the majority of editors are good ones.) Once your editor decides when to run your piece, you work to that deadline. “By the end of the day” means 5:00 p.m. in the editor’s time zone. Give the editor your cell phone number. Answer e-mails immediately. I didn’t understand, and should have, that editors write headlines. The author’s suggested headlines are often nixed. If that’s going to infuriate you, then you may want to stick to publishing blog posts. With a blog, you’ll need to build your own connections to readers, but you’ll have editorial control.

Publishing in public-facing venues means increased visibility, which has pleasures and pains. I now get e-mails from strangers asking strange questions. Some are charming. I was recently contacted by a woman in Korea asking me to settle a ten-thousand-won bet with her husband over a line from Pride and Prejudice. Her husband turned out to be more right, but I encouraged him to treat her to a beverage with his winnings, because he obviously had a clever spouse with whom he is having interesting conversations. It was my first marital dispute resolution e-mail. Occasionally, I get messages from someone telling me that reading my work meant something to them. That means a lot to me in turn. It also makes me vow to send out more such gratitude-filled messages to fellow authors. All of us who put ideas out in the world appreciate learning when those words make a positive difference with readers.

It’s important to acknowledge that not all interactions with readers, listeners, or viewers are pleasant. An Atlantic essay I published prompted one commenter to opine that I should be fired from my job. (I no longer read the comments.) I’ve had readers publicly and privately take issue with my judgments. These are pretty standard happenings. They come with the territory.6 The more readers who see or hear your words, the more likely it is that some will find them deeply and personally harmful. In the end, these negative comments are rarely more cutting (or more constructive) than the worst of the signed book reviews or anonymous manuscript reviews I’ve received from colleagues over the years, even if more public and less polite. One way I try to keep those naysaying voices out of my head is to concentrate  instead on the people who say they have found my work meaningful. Getting ideas that you care about—and that you worked hard to create—before more eyes and ears gives your work new potential for impact. That’s worthwhile. Stay focused.

In The Value of the Humanities, Helen Small offers core reasons for doing public-facing work. She argues for the distinctiveness of the humanities in being tied to human subjectivity, for their ability to preserve and interpret culture, for their contribution to individual and group happiness, and for their vitality in maintaining democracy and keeping it healthy. She notes, too, that the humanities are a good, in and of themselves, with or without public notice (174–75). The latter argument—humanities for humanities’ sake—is perhaps the most difficult position to communicate to a wider audience.

But none of these arguments will be winning ones if the only people we’re trying to communicate them to are part of the less than two percent of the United States population with a doctoral degree, the thirteen percent with any advanced degree, or the thirty-five percent who’ve earned a bachelor’s degree (America). If we believe in the value of the humanities and want them to have a future, then more of us need to serve as ambassadors to audiences beyond these degree-attainment cohorts. We need to regularly seek public connections—to find or create them.

There’s every reason to approach public humanities work with joy and a sense of positive possibility. One good reason for that approach is that, in taking it, we’re more likely to inspire others. How can we expect to move an audience if our underlying message is, “You don’t understand me? You’re not interested in what I have to say? That’s your problem.” It’s one reason I make it a point to reread regularly Audre Lorde’s essay “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action.” Her work inspires me to try harder and do better.

Where our scholarly research is concerned, it’s got to be about more than telling our truths and sharing our findings with those we assume are most like us. We must also sometimes seek to gain a fair hearing beyond the confines of our classrooms, journals, and professional organizations. Skeptical colleagues in cocktail conversations may never be won over, and that’s a macro-shame—for them. But I’m confident that as more of us take unapologetic joy in sharing our public-facing research, the influence of the diehard academic skeptics who deny its value will dwindle. For the rest of us, then, our numbers and our power—inside and outside the academy—must grow.


1. There are initiatives in progress devoted to changing how academic structures evaluate public-facing work in the humanities. See, for instance, “Outcomes.” I’m grateful to Teresa Mangum for bringing these initiatives to my attention and for the public humanities leadership she provides as director of the University of Iowa’s Obermann Center for Advanced Studies.

2. Thanks to Ruth Perry for reading this section of my essay in draft, sharing her memory of this day, and approving of my quoting her in this way. We remember the day similarly.

3. This is similar to what Susan Perabo has written about realizing that her past students have become an audience for her writing.

4. The MLA sponsored one such workshop in 2017, led by the founder of the OpEd Project, Katie Orenstein. I attended, and it was invaluable.

5. Here is an example of an actual pitch I wrote: “Dear Erin Keane: I’m writing to pitch a piece, ‘Jane Austen, Prim or Porn?’ Is Jane Austen best suited to prim tradition or racy porn? She used to be sold to readers as the most vanilla of marriage endorsers, but in some circles, she’s been reborn as the Melissa McCarthy of classic novelists. The BBC’s wet-white-shirted hunk heroes usually get the credit—or blame—for the explosion of Austen erotica. That’s hardly the beginning of the story. Making sense of Austen’s rebirth as literary history’s hilarious best horny girlfriend requires grappling with a further shade of grey: the slow, successful rise of Austen-inspired porn, which predated them all.

My piece unmasks the identity of the author who first turned Austen into print porn in 1980. He wrote under a female pseudonym, but his given name is perfect for porn. The piece describes him and his Austen-inspired smut, following it forward on a trail to today’s satirical and serious porn efforts, from The Jane Austen Kama Sutra to Spank Me, Mr. Darcy. Whatever you might think of it, today’s spate of Austen porn is shifting how we read her original fiction, making it more difficult for readers to see her cigars as ever just cigars, so to speak. But Porn Austen’s longevity alone, and its becoming less rather than more shocking as it’s evolved, suggests that its supposedly ruinous influence on her reputation is puffed up.”

This piece was eventually published as “Fifty Shades of Mr. Darcy.”

6. Many academics have endured far worse repercussions in sharing their research findings. I believe these situations remain rare, albeit not rare enough. If you’re concerned about whether your public-facing work will put your job or career prospects at risk (and if you’re not deliberately setting out to risk them), then consult a campus-based mentor. Institutional priorities and politics vary so widely that one can’t really offer generalities here, except to say that if you’re worried, then maybe you’re right to be.

Works Cited

America Counts Staff. “Number of People with Master’s and Doctoral Degrees Doubles since 2000.” United States Census Bureau, 23 May 2019, www.census.gov/library/stories/2019/02/number-of-people-with-masters-and-phd-degrees-double-since-2000.html.

Barreca, Regina. They Used to Call Me Snow White . . . but I Drifted: Women’s Strategic Use of Humor. Penguin, 1992.

Berman, Jennifer. Adult Children of Normal Parents. Pocket, 1994.

———. Why Dogs Are Better Than Men. Pocket, 1993.

Bérubé, Michael. Public Access: Literary Theory and American Cultural Politics. Verso, 1994.

Draxler, Bridget, and Danielle Spratt. Engaging the Age of Jane Austen: Public Humanities in Practice. U of Iowa P, 2019.

“FAQs: Q. What Is the Actual Submission Ratio of Men to Women?” The OpEd Project, www.theopedproject.org/oped-basics/#faqs. Accessed 6 May 2019.

Fitzpatrick, Kathleen. Generous Thinking: A Radical Approach to Saving the University. Johns Hopkins UP, 2019.

Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy of the Oppressed: Fiftieth Anniversary Edition. Translated by Myra Bergman Ramos, Bloomsbury Academic, 2018.

Hayes, Chris, and Tressie McMillan Cottom. “Why Is This Happening? Talking ‘Thick’ Descriptions with Tressie McMillan Cottom.” Think / NBC News, 6 Feb. 2019, www.nbcnews.com/think/opinion/talking-thick-descriptions-tressie-mcmillan-cottom-ncna967286.

Looser, Devoney. “Fifty Shades of Mr. Darcy: A Brief History of X-Rated Jane Austen Adaptations.” Salon, 16 July 2017, www.salon.com/2017/07/16/fifty-shades-of-mr-darcy-a-brief-history-of-x-rated-jane-austen-adaptations/.

———. The Making of Jane Austen. Johns Hopkins UP, 2017.

———. “The Making of a Public Intellectual.” The Chronicle of Higher Education, 1 Oct. 2017, www.chronicle.com/article/The-Making-of-a-Public/241332.

———. “Writing a Book or Article? Now’s the Time to Create Your ‘Author Platform.’” The Chronicle of Higher Education, 15 July 2018, www.chronicle.com/article/Writing-a-Book-or-Article-/243911.

Lorde, Audre. Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches. Crossing Press, 1984.

“Outcomes: 2018 Working Group in New Orleans.” Humanities PhDs and Public Humanities, phdpublichumanities.com/outcomes/?fbclid=IwAR0luTXZe8LDQpLUW9G91_1UV2EZp9CczelFzFhPGdHDFRbzKyJz_mrjYrg. Accessed 6 May 2019.

Perabo, Susan. “‘If It Weren’t for This Pesky Teaching Job. . . .” The Chronicle of Higher Education, 23 Jan. 2019, www.chronicle.com/article/If-It-Weren-t-for-This/245515.

“Regional Groups.” The Jane Austen Society of North America, 2019, www.jasna.org/about/regions/.

Schuessler, Jennifer. “Lots of Pride, a Little Prejudice.” The New York Times, 8 Oct. 2012, www.nytimes.com/2012/10/09/books/jane-austen-society-of-north-america-meets-in-brooklyn.html.

Small, Helen. The Value of the Humanities. Oxford UP, 2013.

Sulloway, Alison. Jane Austen and the Province of Womanhood. U of Pennsylvania P, 1989.



Devoney Looser is Foundation Professor of English at Arizona State University, a Guggenheim Fellow, and a National Endowment for the Humanities Public Scholar. Her most recent book is The Making of Jane Austen, and her essays have appeared in The AtlanticThe New York Times, SalonThe TLS, and Entertainment Weekly. A participant in this year’s MLA Humanities in Five event, she can be found on Twitter @devoneylooser and shares stories on the history of women in a bimonthly newsletter.

4 comments on “The Hows and Whys of Public Humanities”

  • Emily Griesinger says:

    Thanks for an excellent article. I recently attended my first JASNA conference at the Huntington Library in Pasadena, CA. I was inspired that so many people LOVE Jane Austen, know how to read aloud, and enjoy eating scones, drinking tea, waving fans, and laughing together. I am teaching P/P and Emma over the next year in a “Great Texts” Honors College Senior Capstone. I will share your article with my students and (maybe) take them to an upcoming JASNA event in our region.

  • Meg F Pearson says:

    Fabulous piece and an exciting issue. WELL DONE, ALL!! I firmly think that we go public or we go gently into that good night.

  • Evocative piece. Thanks. This should not be a radical idea for any hied research institution, but it appears to be. Actively and publicly spreading the good news about the humanities and our research, is not marketing and branding. It is collaboration and we have to make certain that more of the public feel part of that collaboration

    I am reminded of the readers at Cuban cigar factories.(https://kottke.org/18/04/the-storytellers-who-read-aloud-to-cuban-cigar-rollers) Now that is public humanities!

    Here’s a YT vid with more on the lectors above. (https://youtu.be/nkcy2nyPFDE)

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