Vulnerability Without and Within

The overall conference theme this year was vulnerability, so I address two issues of vulnerability specifically associated with the role of humanities centers in this endeavor we call public humanities. The first has to do with a vulnerable population who can be better served by public humanities programming, the second with a subtler kind of vulnerability in academic humanities itself.The center I have directed for the last twelve years, the Franke Institute for the Humanities, has long been committed to public humanities programming. As it happens, the institute and the Chicago Humanities Festival, represented on the panel by its director, Matti Bunzl, were planned in the same year, 1989, though they were planned by groups working independently. This circumstance was not entirely coincidental, however, for both the festival and the institute are profoundly indebted to Richard Franke and Barbara Franke, whose support for public humanities is a matter of record. For this reason alone, one might guess that the Franke Institute was committed to that cause from the start. By now, humanities centers across the continent and around the world routinely think of themselves as involved with what some call outreach. Many of them, like the Franke, have been at it for some time. In the Midwest, humanities centers have collaborated in a variety of ways with the festival, which has many such partners in the region.Part of our collaboration involves a sector of the humanities public that is in an especially precarious position: high school teachers. The festival offers a range of programming for this group. Until recently, with the help of Chicago area humanities centers and libraries, it ran a program for teachers called Classics in Contexts, which brought teachers from the Chicago public schools for a day of lectures and discussion of a predesignated book. Similar programs are offered by the Newberry Library, and I have participated in them on several occasions. Valuable as these one-day programs are, I focus on a more ambitious model of such programming that dates back to the NEH summer institutes for high school teachers, who were invited to a campus for a period of two to three weeks of intensive seminar work. Two such institutes that I helped staff in the 1980s, both focused on Romanticism, were run out of the humanities center at the University of Illinois, Chicago. Both, it was generally agreed, were great successes, and I believe there were many such successes across the country in those years.

The summer institutes became one of the casualties of the draconian cuts suffered by the NEH over these past decades. The collapse of that program is one reason why such work is now being taken up in piecemeal fashion by local institutions, sometimes indeed with the help of humanities centers. The Jackman Humanities Institute at the University of Toronto, for example, recently launched a successful summer humanities program for high school teachers in Ontario. In the United States, the Yale–New Haven Teachers Institute, directed by Jim Vivian, has a robust agenda for addressing the problem, and high school teachers are part of the target audience for other private initiatives as well, such as Imagining America, represented in this forum by Julie Ellison.

These are all important initiatives. When we take in the larger picture, however, it is hard not to conclude that they have been inadequate. In my experience, high school teachers have a pressing need for this kind of professional development and, if you reach them soon enough, a large appetite for it. If you fail to reach them in time, they run a greater risk of burning out—I saw such burnout firsthand as a teacher of an inner-city school at Boston forty years ago, and I have often seen it secondhand in the years since. Just last week a former student sat at my kitchen table telling me about the overwhelming stress of teaching English at a high school in Brooklyn. She’d had this job for three years and wasn’t sure how much longer she could hold out. It is a problem that increasingly comes home to us as MLA members, as more and more of the degree holders from our literature graduate programs find themselves landing in positions as high school teachers.

Ramping up our public humanities programming directed at teachers like my former student will not, needless to say, solve all the problems of the school where she works; nor will it save all the children who attend that school. Those are vulnerabilities of another order. But the vulnerability of the teachers in these schools can surely be mitigated by such programs—especially programs of the summer institute variety—for many teachers emerge from them refreshed and ready for the coming year. Serving this sector of the public with humanities programming, moreover, involves an important knock-on effect, because the gain to teachers is also a gain for the students they teach. Teachers so rejuvenated and reengaged with their subjects are likely to teach better and to stay longer in this demanding line of work.

I pivot now to that second, rather different issue of vulnerability raised by the role of humanities centers in public humanities, and I examine it in the light of a longer historical perspective. The idea of public humanities is not new, not even if we set aside two very old and more capacious understandings of the term, both of which remain in current use: Michel Foucault’s universal intellectual, which originates in the Enlightenment, and the tradition of civic-minded reflection, which surely dates from antiquity. Even if narrowed in scope to a mediation between university and nonuniversity intellectual environments, the relevant sense of public humanities has been around as long as the modern research university itself and, on this continent, at least, is coeval with the founding of the university.

Consider the resonant example of the University of Chicago, which is often identified, for better or for worse, as the most self-conscious embodiment of that ideal—a point argued most recently in Jonathan Cole’s weighty The Great American University. A century and a quarter ago, in that decisive period when the modern research university assumed its current shape, Chicago’s first president, William Rainey Harper, made a plan to implement the founding gift from John D. Rockefeller. It called for the university to have three major divisions, and one might imagine that these divisions would correspond to the college, the graduate programs, and the professional schools. In fact, all these aspects of on-campus pedagogy and research constituted only one of Harper’s three divisions. The other two? One was the press (University Publications), the organ by which faculty members, and notably humanities faculty members, could make public their scholarship in print circulation. The third was the University Extension Division, which evolved into the Office of Continuing Education and later into today’s humanities-dominated Graham School for General Studies.

So despite—or precisely because of—the university’s early commitment to both advanced research and pedagogy, the university was also publicly and civically oriented from the start, and again not least in the humanities and related fields. Modern university research, it seems, was answerable across the board both to the scholarly communities and wider publics. With advanced study comes the study of broader advancement. Or, as Peter Parker’s Uncle Ben would have it, with great academic power comes great public responsibility.

But now the interesting question: Why should the modern humanities center prove to be the particular site in the contemporary university where public humanities is most evidently on offer? This question turns on a certain evolving asymmetry between public science and public humanities. These two enterprises have taken divergent paths since the nineteenth-century founding moment: public science stayed distinct from research, whereas public humanities assumed some intimacy with research. To give a concrete example: the Franke Institute sometimes mistakenly receives mail intended for the James Franck Institute in advanced physics just down the street, but neither the James Franck Institute nor the Enrico Fermi Institute next door to it would be identified as a site in the university for doing public science. This asymmetry is worth pausing over, both for the opportunities it offers us and the risks it exposes us to.

One opportunity is our being able to test the human reach of our arguments in a range of rhetorical situations, with differently constituted horizons of expectation. Humanities centers tend to generate a variety of audiences or publics for scholarly work, beginning with the often challenging interdisciplinary fellows seminar. Various audiences and publics for our work can indeed be indexed to correlate them with what we might call stakes parameters: the question of just what can be taken for granted in respect to what someone cares about. Moving in and out of these different horizons can often reveal something important about our work, which is not to say that the broadest level of the public should always be understood to define it. The inner circles matter too, and often they matter most. Specialized rhetoric can be appropriate for certain occasions: nothing is more absurd, in my view, than the annual send-up of an MLA session by some journalist who drops in expecting that everything said in it will be immediately intelligible to the nonexpert. When we talk to the public, of course, we need to do it well, to get the pitch and the stakes right, and we can learn something from the scholarship about that in a way that our colleagues doing public science cannot, despite some recent interest in the theory and practice of citizen science or volunteer science.

There are also risks to attend to in the way the public humanities is now linked with our research centers. As is now widely recognized, the humanities’ place in the modern German-influenced, American-styled research university, initially foundational, has become anomalous: the university ranked number 1 in the world right now by the Times Higher Education supplement is the California Institute of Technology. Although the distinction between scholarship and public discourse may thus be less distinct in the humanities than in the natural sciences, it would be a grave mistake to imagine that legitimate claims to scholarly authority could be maintained if that distinction were dissolved altogether. The question of public humanities raises the equally pressing question of what constitutes humanities research in our moment.

Two recent books give less than satisfactory answers to this question. If Cole asks the humanities to meet a scholarly standard too narrowly fitted to the natural sciences, Anthony Kronman would have the humanities withdraw from the university’s research mission altogether in order to teach, as he puts it, the meaning of life. There is a middle way between these (in my opinion) untenable positions: we should acknowledge differences between scientific and humanities research, both in their processes and outcomes, while nonetheless insisting that the humanities maintain a distinct set of scholarly standards. These standards are roughly those that presses, journals, and universities have developed and been refining over many decades of practice. Needless to say, our vetting and credentializing procedures are in need of some overhaul. But if we lose sight of the academic norms and standards that inform them, if we fail to articulate those norms and standards anew as we increasingly assimilate both creative work and digital work into what must pass muster professionally, both university intellectual environments and public ones will be the poorer for it.

Works Cited

Cole, Jonathan R. The Great American University: Its Rise to Preeminence, Its Indispensable National Role, Why It Must Be Protected. New York: PublicAffairs, 2009. Print.

Kronman, Anthony. Education’s End: Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given Up on the Meaning of Life. New Haven: Yale UP, 2007. Print.

Times Higher Education World University Rankings, 2013–14. TES Global, n.d. Web. 7 Oct. 2014. <>.

James Chandler is Barbara E. and Richard J. Franke Distinguished Service Professor at the University of Chicago. A version of this paper was presented at the 2014 MLA convention in Chicago.


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