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The Public Humanities

I begin by querying what we mean by the public humanities. For me, teaching is where I most often and most deeply engage in the work of the public humanities; that is, the classroom is where I help form the public that will be, tomorrow’s public, and also engage, along with others, the texts that form the humanities. The language of the 1764 charter of Brown University captures something of my understanding of the job of humanities educator: “[I]nstitutions for liberal education are highly beneficial to society by forming the rising generation to virtue, knowledge, and useful literature” (Charter). However quaint the phraseology, I agree with the basic premise: universities serve the public good by educating men and women in liberal learning, and the state, as the charter goes on to say, should support that goal. A liberal education requires the cultivation of certain capacities: for recognizing and respecting the difference of others; for entering into times, places, and subjectivities not one’s own; for critical engagement with language and with difficult ideas, including ideas that go against the grain of whatever common sense we bring with us to the classroom. I see my work as cultivating those capacities and raising hard questions about how they will be used in ways “highly beneficial to society.” So, perhaps counterintuitively, my approach to the public humanities begins in the classroom. If I never did anything but teach, I would not feel guilty about my lack of civic engagement.But there are occasions when I more directly perform what most people consider public humanities work, that is, engaging people outside the academy with works of art that we teach inside that academy. I often do this work for off-Broadway New York theater companies who want their audience to have the chance for postplay talkbacks or discussion events. They feel—rightly, in my view—that their mission is not only to put art before the public but also to create opportunities for certain kinds of public conversation about and through those works. In theater talkbacks, the audience members are not students but theatergoers, a slice of the populace more plentiful in cities than in other places and a public powerfully stratified by race and class. In New York City, ticket prices, location of theaters, and repertory segment the theatergoing public into pieces that sometimes overlap but often do not. I like doing talkbacks in such venues, and the experience has given me the chance to reflect on their potential to promote new engagements with art through engagements with other theatergoers in public space.Whatever a postplay discussion involves, I believe it is most productive when it least resembles a lecture. Few people want instruction of a conventional sort; that is, they don’t like to be told how to understand what they just saw. Most desire to talk back, to have their say about the experience they’ve just had. Some strut a piece of what they believe to be arcane knowledge: Did I know that in the Renaissance boy actors played all the women’s parts? Others want to say something more personal: how they felt about Goneril’s treatment of Lear, for example, and how it reminded them of a dynamic in their own family, often one that does not speak well of difficult old men.

Embarrassments lurk in these occasions, which is why sometimes lecturing seems a safer or easier course. I’ve given thought to where the embarrassment creeps in. Partly it’s my embarrassment for audience members who don’t know that their special knowledge is common knowledge or who are having responses my students have been educated out of having—responses that ignore historical context and difference or conflate lived experience with the stylized representations of canonical texts. I can also be embarrassed for myself when I feel trapped between correcting people who never entered a contract to be corrected or feigning agreement with uncomfortably naive responses. But I have decided to accept my embarrassment—after all, I can’t unlearn my academic training, nor do audiences begin anywhere but where they begin—and consider how better to structure these occasions so that they are productive.

What do we want from such events? Should the performing arts simply speak for themselves, and is any attempt to frame or extend a performance a diminishment of its power? Or can talkbacks initiate conversations among people who temporarily constitute a public body whose interactions can deepen the meaning of what has just been experienced? Because anyone can leave once a show is over, I view the voluntary coming together of a postplay audience as an opportunity. It can create exchanges that reveal things at once simple and important. For example, people talking together discover more than people locked in their own heads. Often, plays fully reveal their complexities and challenges only when one dwells with them—converses with and through them—extending their lives beyond the fall of the curtain.

My most vivid memory of a successful talkback occurred during a brilliant evening at Theater for a New Audience in New York, when Caryl Churchill’s highly controversial fifteen-minute play, Seven Jewish Children, was given a staged reading. The play is constructed of seven vignettes in which Jewish parents discuss what to tell their young daughter about events in Jewish history and in their lives, from the Holocaust to their journey to Palestine to the creation of the new state of Israel to the Israeli bombing of Gaza in December 2008. This staged reading was followed by an hour of talkback facilitated by Alisa Solomon and Tony Kushner, and then the play was staged again. The most striking part of this event, which was attended by people of widely different political views, was that stridently partisan tirades gradually gave way to something much more thoughtful. A certain community formed that was collectively discovering things, though not necessarily agreeing.

So how did this change happen? Solomon and Kushner moderated the conversation but did not lecture about the play or anything else. They set clear ground rules: no one could be interrupted or speak for more than two minutes; they invited responses to controversial points before letting the conversation move to a new speaker or topic. In this way, the event gained momentum as ideas were developed and modified. Solomon and Kushner used the play to triangulate disagreements by getting participants to think with and through the play, asking them how the play spoke to the issue at hand and asking for counterinterpretations. By repeatedly pointing back to the text and the staged reading, the facilitators helped the audience collectively make discoveries about the language and form of the play, the complexity of its political engagement, and the difference that performance choices made to its meaning. This attention to the performance interrupted people’s tendency simply to repeat their deeply held feelings about Israel and Palestine and to take account of a complex event that challenged those feelings in unexpected ways.

It was widely agreed that this talkback worked. People learned from one another. When they saw the play a second time after all the talk, they saw it differently. They felt they had experienced something together, not just the work of art but also the conversation, the way of conversing, which the work of art had stimulated. People felt that they were part of a group; they still differed in their opinions, but the differences were opened to revision by engagement with the play and with other audience members. Maybe, after all is said and done, what had been created was the conditions that obtain in a really good humanities classroom.

The public humanities is not only about making humanistic texts and performances widely available in communities large and small, in prisons, town halls, school auditoriums, and the off-off-Broadway stage, but also about finding ways to engage with art by engaging with one another in public conversation.

Works Cited

The Charter of Brown University. Brown University. Brown U, 1945. Web. 8 Oct. 2014.

Churchill, Caryl. Seven Jewish Children: A Play for Gaza. Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 26 Feb. 2009. Web. 8 Oct. 2014.

Jean E. Howard is George Delacorte Professor in the Humanities at Columbia University. A version of this paper was presented at the 2014 MLA convention in Chicago.

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