Stepping outside the Circle

September 4, 2013

A depiction of the public humanities imagined by students in AMST 2650, Introduction to Public Humanities

“Draw a circle around yourself.  Don’t step out and don’t let anyone or anything in.”  This advice greeted me when I arrived for orientation to my PhD program in history.   Offered by one of the most senior professors in the department, these words were intended to help the arriving cohort successfully navigate the demands of graduate study.  Our priority for the next several years, we quickly learned, must be our individual mastery of scholarship in our fields; if we prevailed and became faculty members, as intended, this separation from the cares of the world should continue. 

Despite the passage of nearly 25 years, I vividly remember my graduate school orientation and the confusion and doubt that advice stirred.  Like many of my classmates, I was drawn to graduate school because I cared about the larger world and I believed that American history offered a means to better understand and confront social inequalities. Inspired by the workers’ education camps run by labor unions and the Freedom Schools of the civil rights movement, as well as our own forays into community organizing, we were eager to recreate these democratic models and to use stories about the past to transform public life. But orientation provided a harsh rejoinder to our idealism.  Graduate school seemingly offered little hope of fulfilling our expectations that as students -- and later as faculty and researchers – we could apply our knowledge to contemporary concerns or imagine new relationships between institutions of higher learning and the communities beyond the campus walls.

As we begin a new school year and welcome a new class of students to the public humanities program, I reflect happily on the vast contrast between my own graduate school experience and that offered by the public humanities program.  Although the ideal of the solitary scholar hunched over books in the library or toiling in the laboratory remains, American higher education has changed enormously over the past decades, with an explosion of interdisciplinary studies, investment in M.A. programs, and new visions of the relationship between universities and local communities.  As an economic recession and politically-motivated attacks on the validity of research in some fields weakened public investment in universities, higher education institutions have responded by developing new sources of income as well as making a stronger commitment to contribute to the public good.  A so-called ‘crisis in the humanities’ has propelled many specialists in the arts, history, and cultural studies to find new ways to advocate for the value of those fields.

What do these changes mean for students of public humanities?   

The graduate program in public humanities reflects these trends.  It conceives different ways of educating students for a 21st century economy that demands flexible generalists who can apply knowledge and communicate effectively across cultures and media.  Furthermore, it aims to be a vehicle for transfiguring the relationship between the university, cultural organizations, and a broader public.  Rather than a promoting the isolation of knowledge from contemporary concerns or imagining a one-way exchange of information from the university to the community, the public humanities program encourages collaborations between students and local organizations.  These connections provide students with the chance to apply classroom-based knowledge to initiatives that collect, preserve, and interpret culture.   Beyond giving students opportunities to transmit academic-based learning in public settings, these collaborations up-end traditional models of education by recognizing the expertise acquired by professionals in the field and valuing the knowledge of cultural practices and history possessed by community members.

student, Abby Ettelman, and East Providence resident, Ralph Simmons, confer at the opening of the Mashapaug Neighbor’s audio tour.  Ettelman interviewed Simmons, who lived near Mashapaug, as part of the class project that resulted in the walking tour.student, Abby Ettelman, and East Providence resident, Ralph Simmons, confer at the opening of the Mashapaug Neighbor’s audio tour. Ettelman interviewed Simmons, who lived near Mashapaug, as part of the class project that resulted in the walking tour.










These approaches are exemplified in public humanities courses and extracurricular offerings.  Our classes this fall include several that ask students to learn through doing, to immerse themselves in academic study and apply that learning through a project.  Students in Craig Dreeszen’s Cultural Policy Planning seminar can contribute to a citywide plan to mobilize cultural resources along five major transportation corridors in Providence.  Those who enroll in Ron Potvin’s course, Shrine, House or Home: Rethinking the House Museum Paradigm can help a historic site in Westport, Massachusetts develop a plan for interpretation and new use.

Outside of courses, students can sample from practicums, projects, and positions working in, with, and on behalf of organizations in the local community and other units on campus.  In a sign of the robust partnerships that Center for Public Humanities has built, an impressive inventory of opportunities is available, ranging from positions at the RISD Museum and Rhode Island Historical Society to perhaps more surprising opportunities to work with the state’s public transportation agency to develop cultural content for new kiosks marking bus stops in Providence.

Public humanities students face very different opportunities and challenges compared to those confronted by graduate students in my cohort.  Instead of narrowing their sights and constricting their interests, public humanities students should take advantage of the plethora of opportunities provided via courses, practicums, and community jobs, and should develop a plan of study that integrates academic and experiential learning.   Explore innovative practices and share what you learn.  View the community as a teacher and venture off campus frequently.   Step beyond the circle.

Blogger Anne Valk is Deputy Director of the Center for Public Humanities and advisor for the MA program in Public Humanities.  For more than 20 years, Valk has taught oral history in a variety of settings. She has worked with students at all levels and helped teachers, museums and historic sites, and community groups start their own oral history projects. 

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