The Value of the Public Humanities

Helen Small, Merton Professor of English Language and Literature at the University of Oxford, is an MLA member and the author of The Value of the Humanities. We interviewed her by e-mail about the value of public humanities. An abbreviated version of this interview appeared in the Spring 2021 MLA Newsletter.

What do you think about public humanities as a way of reorienting both undergraduate and graduate studies in the humanities? 

Helen Small: I welcome efforts to train students, at all levels, in writing for audiences beyond the academy, although it’s hard not to feel that something is, or has been, awry if we are especially priding ourselves on reorienting to “outsiders.” Asking students, early in their college careers, who they think they are writing for can be illuminating: the answer (in my experience) tends to run along the lines of “for an imaginary reader who doesn’t know anything about the subject.” That’s at once reasonable—an encouragement to get your subject clear at the outset—and oddly adrift from reality. No such reader is likely to encounter the undergraduate essay or graduate draft. Why not get students to start by admitting the reader they have: the professor or teaching assistant who knows the subject, wants to read something new, and would prefer it to be something that grips their curiosity and intelligence? Public humanities writing is an invitation to address the broader audiences most students are intuitively ambitious to find—widening the frame, adapting the voice, once you have acquired enough knowledge of your field to have something to say.

Learning to anticipate your audience is an education in a generalizable art: the ability to “read shrewdly and write well.” I’m quoting, not for the first time, John Guillory’s nicely nonaggrandizing pitch for the consistently marketable skills that humanities degrees provide (“Critical Response II: The Name of Science, the Name of Politics”; Critical Inquiry, vol. 29, no. 3, 2003, p. 541). I see public humanities as a modulation of address, allowing the work we do within the university to reach the numerous, overlapping audiences who stand to benefit from it. Those audiences come to our writing and our performances with various levels of investment, appetite, trust, or distrust. Some are highly specialized; some are already persuaded that the work matters and want a foothold; some are unpersuaded but interested enough to try to engage with the work. To me, it seems the challenging aspect of outward-facing humanities work is getting the correct gauge of a particular audience’s rough starting point, then putting our trained thinking into forms that don’t just popularize but genuinely mediate it and so broaden the conversation.

Do you embrace more explicitly public-oriented curricula and student projects (e.g., innovative dissertation formats)? 

HS: Yes, so long as they are designed from the inside, by people who understand the humanities’ objects and purposes. Broader terms for dissertation and doctoral work have enriched our disciplines, allowing students to write in mixed forms (critical and creative) or engage with institutions (museums, theaters, schools, external archives) or communities in ways that enlarge the scope of the research and writing. Of course, just adding something of substance to the more conventional secondary literature is no small achievement and can often be enough, but Louis Menand names a key ambition of public humanities advocacy when he writes about the desirability of the university having an eye to “actual social and cultural life” (The Marketplace of Ideas; W. W. Norton, 2010, p. 158). Problems emerge, I think, when the content drops out (accusations of anti-intellectualism aren’t hard to find in the wake of public humanities advocacy) and curriculum designers set aside knowledge of the subject; put relevance or impact first, as an abstract aim; and then try to backfill what should be done to get there. Start with the texts, the cultural objects, the political issue, the historical problem. Find the shape for it that best fires curiosity on the part of teachers and students, then design the form of public orientation that captures the reason for the curiosity and will elicit new curiosity from publics beyond the academy.

What can organizations like the MLA do to help communicate the value of the humanities to a broader public? 

HS: Organizations like the MLA are providing an essential service, supporting the full variety of work in languages and literature across a national and international sector with huge disparities in political commitment to the humanities and in institutional resources to support them. Communicating the work that speaks across our range of disciplines and out to other divisions of the university seems to me essential: using online platforms and, when they resume, face-to-face opportunities to prompt fresh affinities with old and new subject matter. We are all learning all the time, whether we are, say, scholars of nineteenth-century literature or experts in medieval manuscript design or critics of Latinx literature or advocates for disability perspectives or environmental protections. Curriculum evolution is a constant matter of common interest, and one of the tasks of professional organizations is to enable that evolution while sustaining our subjects’ breadth and historic depth. Amid so many threatened and actual departmental closures, it seems to me essential to capture and convey work that makes known the different forms of interpretative value we bring to the culture, admits intelligent audiences to that variety, and provides access to the expertise necessary to do cultural work. Finally, keeping the connections open among critics, creative practitioners, schools, and educational and other public institutions is crucial. The humanities don’t stand alone in their work or in the challenges of their public advocacy, but we are oddly unlike the social and natural sciences, and especially medicine, in having more often to remind others (perhaps also ourselves) that what we do is work and that it has effects in and on society.

What can we learn from comparing trends in the United Kingdom, the United States, and Australia? 

HS: Professional structures in the United Kingdom and Australia have, perhaps more consistently than in the United States, encouraged back-and-forth between specialist and outward-facing activity. That encouragement works to their benefit: it assists the general culture (which finds more routes into the thinking happening at university level); it also makes it easier to recognize and reward careers that balance academic research with cultural engagement activity, trade publication, and writing and editing the student texts that secure the interest of a next generation of college students. The gap between the academy and publics “beyond” tends to look wider in the States, even now. It’s legible in the peculiar self-consciousness that seems to attach to debates in the US about the public humanities: the suggestion that something deliberately civic is happening, a gap being bridged. That the gap remains wide is evident in the persistence of that admirable but difficult beast I think of as “the tenure book”—although it’s only one type of tenure book: brilliant but costive with defended originality. It’s a pleasure and an education reading the increasing number of writers who have declined that mode and are managing to think hard while writing for an audience instead of a committee. In short, there may be something worth learning from more flexible structures of professional reward in other countries—although we, in the UK, certainly have things to learn from the stronger curation of colleagues’ careers in the US.

All our countries are in the grip of a new institutional urgency around demonstrating the humanities’ public benefit to our funders (governments, private funders, loan companies, fee payers). As far as the work of public advocacy for the humanities is concerned, it seems to me that the crucial question before starting is how far there exists a prima facie skepticism about that benefit. The US has just come through (I hope) an exceptionally hostile period of . . . not even scrutiny. Call it preemptive disbelief. Australia has experienced similar periods of hostility, and, with proposed changes to student fees introducing a disincentive to choose the humanities, things may be about to get much worse. If the UK is in a better place, in terms of having high-level defenders and (pre-COVID) stronger integration connecting universities, the arts and heritage sectors, and earlier-stage education, it nevertheless has huge economic challenges ahead. We are not helped by being, for now, systemically wedded to public accounting for public benefit, with government bodies (I am willing to believe) eager for evidence that confirms a value already broadly understood economically, culturally, intuitively, but onerous to provide case by case. I have spent much of the last two years preparing nine impact case studies to demonstrate the public benefit of research in English literature to funders of the UK government in a regular national research-assessment exercise known as the REF (the Research Excellence Framework)—and I don’t recommend attempting to prove the worth of the humanities in this way. If we are defending ourselves with the term public, then public trust—in us, in what we do—seems to me a crucial addition to the repertoire. So, a more informed discussion of trust is in order. Where, and to what extent, do we already have it? How might we gain more of it? Who or what practices can help us do so?

Helen Small is Merton Professor of English Language and Literature at the University of Oxford.

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