What We Have Wrought and Whither We Go: Some Questions about the Public Humanities

Currently, I fear, the digital humanities are not ready to take up their full responsibility because the field does not yet possess an adequate critical awareness of the larger social, economic, and cultural issues at stake. The side of the digital humanities that descends from humanities computing lacks almost all cultural–critical awareness, and the side that descends from new media studies is indiscriminately critical of society and global informational ‘empire’ without sufficient focus on the specifically institutional – in this case, higher education – issues at stake. (Liu, “State of the Digital Humanities” 11)

It would be difficult to deny that the Humanities are in some distress at this particular juncture of their history, and face an imposing and worrisome array of challenges — economic, political, and cultural — if they are to survive in some recognizable form into the next decade or so. The Humanities have not faced this threat quietly or complacently, but have also, I think, not been terribly effective in formulating a response. Reactions have varied, from ideologically-driven (and utterly unrealistic) demands for a simple turn-around in government funding policies and attitudes, to enthusiastically naive (or perhaps exceedingly cynical) calls for techno-utopian solutions such as MOOCs.

The most promising response, I think, has been one that steers something of a middle course, and imagines ways in which a dynamic collaboration of the Public Humanities with the Digital Humanities can both revitalize our fields while at the same time answer in an effective manner the strident critiques being levelled against the Humanities from outside the academy. There a number of obstacles to be overcome if such as an approach is to succeed, as the epigraph citing Alan Liu at the head of his post suggests. But there have also been some imaginative and thoughtful attempts to negotiate such an approach, by such scholars as Liu, Julia Flanders, and others. (I’ve listed just a few in “References,” below.) This post, and a few that will follow on it, are an attempt to make a modest contribution to this task.

If the Humanities are in some disarray at the moment, this in part because we have been forced onto the defensive. We have become reactive and, perhaps inevitably in that context, somewhat conservative. And having conceded the initiative, our responses have also become confused, ineffective, and often contradictory or counterproductive.  Part of the problem is that I think that this is an unnatural place for the Humanities to be: ours has, historically, been an evangelical and outward-looking movement, and I don’t think we are as effective when we are instead circling the wagons. So, I am not going to deny the facts of the criticisms being levelled against the Humanities, but I am, for the most part, not going to address them directly. I do so for strategic reasons, and not because I am in denial.

Another reason the Humanities are having such a difficult time marshalling an effective defence is that this assault from without coincides with the turmoil instigated by a powerful new force that is reshaping (some might say distorting) our disciplines from within. I refer, of course, to the so-called “digital turn” that is profoundly transforming not merely our fields, but our entire educational system, and indeed our very culture. To many Humanists, the advent of new computational approaches within our traditional fields seems profoundly “anti-humanist.” Others may be unable to clearly distinguish the upheaval that digital technology and approaches are bring about from the damage being done the Humanities by external forces. And indeed, we are wise to be vigilant that the digital turn, or at least its rhetoric, is not co-opted by the besiegers.

From a historical perspective, this fear within the Humanities of the change wrought by technology is an aberration. In fact, historically, the Humanities have been the beneficiaries, and not the victims, of new communication technologies. The volumen and the marvellously versatile codex were both technological innovations that helped preserve and disseminate the products of humanistic endeavour. This is even more true, of course, of the printing press: one of the most successful early exploiters of this new technology was Desiderius Erasmus, who actively engaged with the technical aspects of printing:

Erasmus was acutely aware of the role that the printer played in the success of a volume. Throughout his career he gave close attention to the production process, seeking out the best printers and working closely with them to ensure that the text was both elegant and accurate.  (Pettigrew 83)

Had Erasmus lived today, he might perhaps have become a Digital Humanist. He would certainly have been eager to make use of these new ways of disseminating knowledge and ideas. It would be odd, therefore, if the Humanities did not choose to exploit the power of a new technology to engage with our society, just as the Renaissance Humanists did before us.

Map of More's UtopiaAnd engaging with our society, rather than with the politicians, bureaucrats, and corporatists who have taken aim against the Humanities, is precisely what I propose to do. Personally, I am tired of feeling defensive, and of fighting this battle on grounds of the enemy’s choosing. It is time to take the offensive, and, moreover, to do so by engaging directly with those who are not being consulted in this debate, the “public.” It is time to resuscitate what I have called a militant Humanities, one that proves its cultural value not merely by force of argument, but by our choice of weapons. The best response to those who claim that the Humanities have become valueless is to demonstrate how vital and important a component of our culture they actually are. We can best prove that we are dynamic and relevant by actually being dynamic and relevant, and to show that we are a vital and positive cultural force by impacting, in positive ways, upon our culture.

In other words, I’m less interested in “advocating” for the Humanities per se (as important a task as this is) than I am in weaving it back into the fabric of our public culture in a way that makes it, ultimately, inextricable from the whole. I want to see the the Humanities made public, but that is only half of the equation: it is more important, ultimately, to make the Public humanist.*

What I am talking about is, of course, a particular version of what we have come to know as the “Public Humanities.” While, as I have suggested, my own interest is in the intersections and possible collaborations of Public Humanities with Digital Humanities, I will actually have relatively little to say about the latter below. This is because I want first to establish the nature and scope of the challenges that a Public Humanities faces, in order to better identify the role that I think the Digital Humanities can play in overcoming those. I have therefore begun by asking a series of questions about our field. These can be thought of as a series of reference points on a sort of conceptual map of the Humanities: taken together, I hope that they provide a useful (if of course limited) perspective on where the Humanities are now — “what we have wrought” — while gesturing towards what we might become — “Whither We Go.”

In a few future posts, I will build on these questions, and the answers that I think they demand, to discuss in more detail the actual role that DH might come to play in a “militant Humanities.”

Whom do we think we mean when we talk about about a “public” for the Humanities?

By and large, academics live, I think, an existence that produces a rather odd perspective on “public.” On the one hand, our on-campus jobs, in our classrooms, seminar rooms, and offices, are in some regards already very public. We are in some sense performing before a kind of public, albeit a rarefied one, every time we teach.

On the other hand, the work/personal time distinction for academics tends to be rather fuzzy:  we don’t generally work 9 to 5 hours, but we also usually do a great deal of work outside of those times: in the evenings and on weekends, for instance. (I wrote most of this blog post on a Sunday morning.) So, just as the public sphere tends to intrude upon our working time on campus, so too does our working time intrude upon the lives that we lead at large, “in the public.”

What this may mean is that we do not, perhaps, always have a very clear sense of what we mean by “public.” Understandably, we tend to think of the public, or at least our “public,” as comprised of people like ourselves, or like our students, except not quite so. Our public tends to look a bit like our classrooms, except that it congregates in museums and libraries and art galleries. It is generally pretty well educated, and reads a lot. And, most importantly, it is already interested in what we have to say. It likes and admires us, and is quiet and respectful when we speak. It asks intelligent questions when given the opportunity (at a time of our choosing), and doesn’t need to be told that what we are telling them is terribly, terribly important.

This all sounds very cosy and intimate, and this is a good thing. Unfortunately, however, this sense of cosiness and intimacy may largely be an effect of the fact that “our” public is also terribly, terribly small.

There is nothing at all wrong with reaching out to those who already wish to engage with us. But if we truly wish to communicate the values represented by the arts and humanities to those who don’t already share those values with us, we need to find new venues for engagement. And to do that, we have to be willing to step outside of our comfort zone more than just a little.

So we must identify new publics, and in so doing, make note of what it is that makes each distinct. We must learn how each sees itself with the context of the larger cultural matrix, and how it might see itself in relation to the Humanities. And, in order to engage with and serve each of these new publics, we must accommodate ourselves to them in a manner that is both sensitive to them, and true to our own values.

Where is “the public” to be found?

This question relates in fairly obvious ways to the one above, because there is an obvious correlation between whom we address and where we find them.  Or, more pertinently, where we look for them, because the size and nature of the publics we address will be a function of where we seek them out.

So, where do we look for our public?

There is a book, a collection of short essays, by Canadian writer Sheila Heti (with Misha Glouberman) entitled The Chairs Are Where the People Go. I’m not actually a particular fan of the book, but the title essay (which is, in fact, about arranging audiences for public lectures) might almost have been written for most academics. We tend to look for our “public” where the chairs are. And the chairs are mostly on campuses, or in libraries, or at museums.

Where do the people mostly go? Well, actually, most of them don’t congregate in such places, in chairs or otherwise. They are instead in a great many other places. And an awful lot of them are, as we know, online. Social media is very often where the people go.

Are we in the Humanities online, in social media, too? Well, yes, some of us, some of the time. But are we really employing the digital public sphere to engage a public, or do we mostly use it to network among ourselves? To answer that question, we all might glance over our Facebook “friends” list, or the lists of those we follow, and those who follow us, on Twitter. How many of these constitute our “public” . . . and how many are really “us”?

What is it, exactly, within the Humanities that we want to “make public”?

When faced with criticisms of the utility of the Humanities from the public media, it has become a reflex to speak about the importance of “critical thinking.” We tend to say this as though critical thinking was self-evidently at the heart of what we actually research about and teach (is it, really?), and also as though critical thinking were the exclusive preserve of the Humanities — a claim that I know that those in other fields would challenge.

One of our tasks then should be to interrogate what we mean by “critical thinking,” and to analyze the ways in which the particular flavour of such thinking in the Humanities differs (if indeed it does) from that offered by other fields in the sciences and social sciences. What, in other words, do we have to offer that is unique to our disciplines?

Stepping back from that fundamental question, we also need to ask ourselves what it is that we actually deliver to “our” public. When we give public lectures, place our research in the public domain, or blog and tweet about what we are doing in a publicly available venue, are we really offering insights into critical thinking?

Well, sometimes perhaps we do. My own perception, however, is that most often what we offer up is not an insight into humanistic modes of perception and thought, but rather what I will call, for want of a better word, “content.” By content, I mean something rather like “facts.” We lecture on the life and oeuvre of a particular poet, or talk about the evolution of an artist’s aesthetic vision, or we discuss the philosophical and ethical implications of a particular public policy.

This is all good stuff, I believe, but it is for the most part communicating the fruit of our own critical thinking and research, rather than demonstrating how we think and research. It tends to be built around a narrative that we have already constructed, rather than around the power and implications of building narratives.

So the question is this: if we believe (as most of us do) that it is more important that our students learn how to read (in all the multivalent senses of that word) and think critically than that they remember the dates of such and such an author or work of art, then why do we not think that this same set of intellectual priorities should apply to our non-academic public as well? If we believe (as most of us probably do) that the Humanities have a transformative power, and that they are of inestimable value to the thinking citizen of a democratic society, why do we think that we are performing an especially valuable service by lecturing on materials that we would probably relegate to secondary status in evaluation of student progress?

Do we believe that our broader public is less capable of, or less interested in, learning how to think in humanistic ways than our students?

Do we apply what we have come to know about teaching to our engagement with the broader public(s)?

This question in some ways follows naturally upon the one immediately above. We have, as a profession, expended a fair amount of thought over the last decade or more on learning and teaching strategies.  The advent of digital teaching tools and resources over that time, ranging from the homely Powerpoint slideshow to the might MOOC, has done much to change the way that we approach pedagogy, and these new resources have become, to greater or lesser degrees, an accepted part of our arsenal of teaching tools.

And, because tools change what we do, and how we think about it, as much as they transform the way in which we do things, our pedagogy has changed in interesting and (mostly) positive ways. Blended learning, peer-to-peer teaching, visualizations and project-based learning are among the more important new strategies we employ because we have come to believe that they are effective ways of communicating and instilling the skills and information that we wish to impart to our students.

But how many of us employ these when interacting with a public not comprised of our peers or our students? The Powerpoint (or Prezi, or Keynote) has certainly become ubiquitous, but what other tools do we use to engage with a broader public?

More importantly than the technology, have we sought to introduce new and innovative strategies for engaging with such publics? Have we thought about how blended or collaborative learning, or project-based interactions might assist us in such engagements? Have we tried to empower our public, to treat them as equals in dialogue with the Academy, to learn from them as they (we hope) will learn from us?

Do we listen to our public?

For whom do we build?

Looking beyond, for a moment, the perpetual debates within Digital Humanities about who is “in,” and what constitutes “building,” we can say truthfully that all academics “create” things, whether those things are monographs, articles, works of fiction or art, or digital tools. We create all of these things for particular audiences or communities of potential users. The classic scholarly monograph or peer-reviewed article, for instance, are invariably written for those who are like ourselves: for specialists in this or that field. Books and articles written for a popular audience — the latter might include, for instance, guest columns in a newspaper or a magazine article — are obviously produced for a larger audience, while a novel, poem, performance, or work of visual art is intended to appeal more broadly still.

All of these, whether of broad or narrow focus, seem to me to one degree or another to be cases of preaching to the choir. This is not to say that they are not useful, or valuable, or relevant, or even that they are not, sometimes, “public humanities.” But, because the forms that they take delimit the intended audience, they are all, by generic definition, addressing those who are already engaged with the humanities. Volumes of poetry, for instance, tend to be purchased or borrowed, and read, by lovers of poetry. Art exhibits are viewed by art lovers. Popular histories attract people who are interested in, yes, history. (The sole exceptions here might be newspaper articles. Or maybe not.)

As for digital tools — well, I can imagine the occasional non-academic having some fun playing around with a tool like Voyant, or Orbis, for a short while. But the vast majority of our digital resources, be they research tools, or electronic editions, are produced for a highly specialized use by people who closely resemble us.

Can we imagine what we might build for a different kind of audience? What sorts of tools might engage with those whom we have not already narrowly defined as peers or allies?

Who, exactly, are “we”?

Throughout this post, I have been writing as an academic, with a presumed audience of other academics (which I would take to include graduate students and librarians at least). Perhaps this is telling? Possibly the tendency of academics (including, evidently, myself) to think of ourselves as a very distinct group, rather than as a part of a larger community, is symptomatic of the reasons why all Humanities are not yet Public Humanities?

Definitions of the Humanities abound of course, but I particularly like this one from the 4Humanities project because of its focus upon the notion of community and contribution:

[T]he humanities contribute the needed perspective, training in complex human phenomena, and communication skills needed to spark, understand, and make “human” the new discoveries.  In the process, they themselves discover new, and also very old, ways to be human.  They do so through their unique contribution of the wisdom of the past, awareness of other cultures in the present, and imagination of innovative and fair futures. (“Mission,” 4Humanities)

The Humanities are a very broad and (ideally) inclusive community. We “do” the Humanities in universities and colleges, but surely we should acknowledge that we are not the sole custodians of and advocates for the many and diverse range of intellectual and creative activities that are denoted by that term. Public librarians, K-12 teachers of all sorts, artists, musicians, filmmakers, and writers, community leaders, fundraisers, and members of an enormous variety of creative, artistic, or generally humanistic ventures in the public sphere: these are all more than merely potential allies. They are, in a sense, another important facet of who we are.

And establishing who we are is a vital first step in communicating the values for which we stand. Acknowledging our membership within a much larger community of practitioners of the Humanities is important for that reason if for no other.


* I am aware, of course, of the dangers potentially inherent in conflating “the Humanities” with older and frankly problematic forms of “Humanism,” and I use the term “humanist” somewhat guardedly for that reason. It is possible, however, to envision a newer, more diverse and nuanced form of “Humanism” that takes into account new understanding of globalism, sexuality, identity, and the other issues that now make the older ideology seem so out-of-date and untenable. See for instance Diana Brydon’s call for a more expansive humanism in “Do The Humanities Need a New Humanism?Centre for Globalization and Cultural Studies, Winnipeg: U of Manitoba, 2013.



4Humanities: Advocating for the Humanities. Web. Accessed 5 May, 2013.

Brydon, Diana. “Do The Humanities Need a New Humanism?” Centre for Globalization and Cultural Studies, Winnipeg: U of Manitoba, 2013. Web. Accessed 5 May, 2013.

Draxkler, Bridget, Jentery Sayers, Edmond Y. Chang, Peter Likarish, et al. “Democratizing Knowledge,”HASTAC, Forums, 2009.

Flanders, Julia. “The Literary, the Humanistic, the Digital: Toward a Research Agenda for Digital Literary Studies.Literary Studies in the Digital Age: An Evolving Anthology. Ed. Kenneth M. Price and Ray Siemens. MLA Commons. New York: Modern Language Association, n.d. Web. Accessed 6 May, 2013.

Heti, Sheila, with Misha Glouberman. The Chairs Are Where the People Go: How To Live, Work, and Play in the City. Faber & Faber, 2011.

Liu, Alan. “The State of the Digital Humanities: A Report and a Critique.” Arts and Humanities in Higher Education, 11.1 (2012): 1-34.

Marcotte, Sophie, Ichiro Fujinaga, Susan Brown, John Unsworth, Laura Mandell, Bênoit Habert, and Ray Siemens, “Public Digital Humanities,” Digital Humanities McGill, McGill University. 30 April, 2012. [Podcast]

Pettegree, Andrew. The Book in the Renaissance. New Haven and London: Yale, 2011.

Image Credit: Ambrosius Holbein. Utopiae Insulae Tabula, from Thomas More, Utopia (Basel, 1518). Wikimedia Commons.


3 responses to “What We Have Wrought and Whither We Go: Some Questions about the Public Humanities

  1. Agree completely that we ought to look to historical humanism for both anticipations of what we face today and productive models for facing it, while retaining the critiques of humanism that have helped us historicize it as such. For various reasons, my personal choice might be someone like Lorenzo Valla, rather than Erasmus (I think the Valla of 2013 might well reject the identity of “digital humanist,” as a linguistic as much as an operational infelicity).

    I find Pieter Verburg’s Language and Its Functions: A Historico-Critical Study of Views Concerning the Functions of Language a very useful guide to the conflicts of historical humanism with its various others.

    I do think Alan Liu’s phrasing in the passage you’ve quoted elides the vital rhetoricity of the social criticism to be found in “new media studies,” which are never in fact “indiscriminately critical,” as Liu suggests, but rather are double-voiced, demanding a double reading: of superficial optimism as a form of despair, and of the polemical demand for justice as an affirmative expression of hope for change and belief in an ethical form of freedom.

    Looking forward to reading future installments.

    • Thanks for the excellent and insightful comment!

      As an early modernist by training, I suppose it’s something of an (occasionally embarrassing) tendency of mine to think in terms of older humanist models. What is interestingly suggestive about your allusion to Valla is his almost technical approach to philology and rhetoric — it’s a good fit to DH, and probably a better one than Erasmus.

      I find new media studies enormously slippery (I think Valla would have them scurrying for cover). Sometimes new media studies seems to me almost like the gamification of theory, in fact. But they are, as Liu suggests, “engaged” in a way that DH just isn’t, possibly because they see the stakes as different. New media scholars remain at a sort of ironic distance from their subject; DH is possibly too deeply immersed in its own.

      • My own professional focus has been on postwar (post-1945) literature and culture, but I see nothing embarrassing in turning to the history of humanism for intellectual, practical, and political resources; in fact, I think there’s no sensible way forward, at this particular moment, without some refreshing of our understanding of the past, especially of the formation and development of the university as an institution. (I find myself haunted by much in Harold Innis’s work, but perhaps most of all by the apothegm “The interest in post-war problems is the post-war problem.”) That’s why I’m looking forward to following as you develop your thoughts.

        What I myself see in someone like Valla is the philological acumen, supported by innovation in practical methods and techniques, with which “DH” has identified itself — combined with the polemical ferocity of what we’d today call a “public” intellectual, and her act of speaking truth to power, which I think “DH” has disavowed in its cultivated aversion to conflict with institutional forces outside the university itself.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s