Join Us On May 9th for the Day of Public Humanities: the #DayofPH
“Public humanities? But what do you do, exactly?” The question sometimes seems to have as many answers as the field has practitioners, scholars, and students--among which categories real tensions continually emerge. In general, public humanists work with or for the public, but many elements of our varied jobs take place far away from the public eye. On the #DayofPH we ask you--you, the curator, the security guard, the registrar, the scholar-researcher, the artist, the facilitator, the teacher, the preservationist, the student, the program officer, the organizer, the board member, the advocate for the humanities--to declare that your work is not only a passion, but is also work. That is, we invite you to share what doing public humanities looks like in your day-to-day, and thereby both illuminate and concretize the activities, relationships, and knowledge resources which constitute your work, by giving us a glimpse into a day in your life a public humanist. Together, we'll use the day to build shared understandings of each other, and invite practitioners to consider understanding themselves as "public humanists" along with us.
Cultural work of all kinds can seem borderless and vague, particularly to a casual observer who typically experiences only the finished project and not the wide variety of work that precedes it. We share some of the blame; buzzwords like “collaborate” and “engage” seldom find their way onto actual task lists, and tend to express our values better than they describe concrete behaviors. Still, in calling for the #DayofPH, we are motivated by the intuition that the incomprehension behind those dreaded words--“but what do you do?”--serves the forces casualizing and precaritizing labor across the whole cultural sector. This project seeks to show our work as concrete, human, important, often difficult, occasionally strange and above all real. Doing so, we emphasize the value of our labor both in and of itself, and of course in its impact on others, as constitutive elements of the value of the humanities in public life.
Buoyed up by the rising tide of labor research and advocacy in the professionalized cultural sector, we want to work together to understand in concrete terms what it is that public humanists do today, and how we get it done. In this motivation, we have been inspired by too many projects to name them all, but here are a few: in the museum and public history fields, we have followed the conversations hosted by @MuseumWorkers on the #MuseumWorkersSpeak channel, and have participated remotely or in person in labor-oriented events at the National Council for Public History and at the Alliance of American Museums.
Within the academic sector, we have eagerly followed, with varying degrees of contact, the new NEH-Mellon initiatives on the “next generation” of humanities Ph.Ds, the Futures Initiative at CUNY, and the work of the Humanists@Work program of the University of California’s Humanities Research Institute, which is collecting stories and data around hybrid and alternative career paths for academic humanists.
And we have clearly been influenced by the “Day of Digital Humanities”, aka “Day of DH” initiative, who called for their day to network and to plumb the shape and state of the field. We share with the digital humanists tensions inside the field, and a general confusion by outsiders as to what exactly the category connotes. (We hope our public-oriented digital humanist colleagues will join us for the public humanities' "day", as well!)
Because we work through an M.A. program that requires its graduate students to undertake internship-style practicums as part of their course of study, we have been particularly heartened by the media traction enjoyed by the Pay Your Interns movement(s)--even as we recognize the financial pressures and the ideological orientations that shape the internship-as-labor debate.
And finally, because we are a coalition of post-doctoral and graduate researchers, the data on the economic and social impact of the cultural sector (and qualitative and thematized assessments of its problems) has been a guiding force. From this literature, we take critical concepts like “free labor syndrome” and “the creative precariat” as helpful frameworks for signalling the structural and cultural dimensions of the major labor problems in the field.
We mark the timing for the #DayofPH, a week after International Labor Day, first, in response not only to the short-term funding an institutional crises in the arts and humanities conditioned by the Trump administration priorities here in the U.S. and by rippling precarities elsewhere around the world. But inasmuch as we want to build public humanists' interrelationships over the long haul, we see this as a “slow” way of growing our collective capacity to respond to longer-term conditions confronting the cultural sector, including mounting incidences of violent white supremacism around the Western world, rising income inequality, diminished trust in public institutions, and diminishing use of public spaces. Through our own public humanistic labor and various sorts of academic and professional training, we know no other way to respond to these intersecting problems but to reach out to others, build relationships, and produce frameworks through which others may hopefully do the same. And we do this believing that "the public humanities" ought to become a bigger framework through which to do it.
To start the project in good faith, we – Robyn Schroeder, Inge Zwart, and Jim McGrath, the three Public Humans behind #DayofPH – have shared our to-do lists from an average day at our respective “offices,” introducing ourselves to you through our work and illustrating the variety of public humanities labor, even within the same institution! In doing so, we also reflect on how we keep track of and reflect on that labor in our own personal records. Check our reflections on how we work over at the #DayofPH website!
Interested in sharing your own work? We’d love to have your reflections represented on the site! JNBC students, staff, and faculty can track one of us down IRL: Public Humans and friends of the JNBC presently residing elsewhere can be in touch via DayofPH@gmail.com or @DayOfPH on Twitter.
Jim McGrath is a postdoctoral fellow in Digital Public Humanities at the John Nicholas Brown Center. He teaches courses in Digital Storytelling and Digital Public Humanities here at Brown, and he’s also an in-house consultant for student, faculty, and community digital projects and initiatives. Current research projects include developing a digital house tour for the Nightingale-Brown House, writing for various scholarly publications about digital archives, digital interfaces, and internet memes (among other topics), and chairing the Society for Misunderstood Hashtags (SMH). @JimMc_Grath
Robyn Schroeder is the Director of Graduate Studies for the M.A. program in the Public Humanities, and teaches, researches, advises, and generally troubleshoots under the auspices of a post-doctoral fellowship at the John Nicholas Brown Center. Her research interests range from the cultural contours of American political history, to access and student success in higher education administration. Robyn’s professional background in museum education includes work with the National Park Service, the Glessner House Museum, the Hull-House Museum, and Chicago’s Museum of Science & Industry. Just lately, she is thinking about the history and futures of “the public humanities” as a scholarly field. @reconstitut
Inge Zwart is a second year in the Public Humanities M.A. program at Brown University. She thinks and writes about public memories of Dutch slavery and colonialism, is in search for the best role for public humanities in social justice activism, and is producing an evaluation toolkit for the Rhode Island Council for the Humanities. Before moving to the United States, Inge worked as a museum educator, city tour guide and research assistant in the Netherlands. In her spare time she advocates for international students at Brown and looks for a job. @zwart_i