Adventures in the New Humanities: On Public Humanists
This post is part of a blog series, ‘Adventures in the New Humanities,’ by Judy Kutulas, the Boldt Family Distinguished Teaching Chair in the Humanities.
One of our St. Olaf College history majors, Nick Gonnerman ’19, recently got paid for his work in the field. His name even appeared in the closing credits of The Learning Channel’s Who Do You Think You Are? program.
The episode recounted actress Regina King’s family history, including an ancestor threatened by the Ku Klux Klan in post-Civil War Alabama. Nick was a research assistant for the episode while studying off campus at the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa last spring. My husband, St. Olaf Professor of History Michael Fitzgerald, who seems to be the go-to person when finding-your-roots programs have questions about Alabama history, linked Nick up with the producers, gave some advice, and is also credited at the episode’s end. Both are part of a growing trend of humanists serving as experts for a media increasingly interested in public humanities.
I don’t think I’m the only humanist who craves her 15 minutes of fame, even if I don’t get paid and even if my name rolls by on closing credits so fast that if you blink, you miss it. Academics can find fame in their own fields, but only rarely do we go public and popular. Graduate school fantasies any of us once had of bestselling books and chatting with late-night talk-show hosts have been replaced today by the more accurate recognition that we have very limited value in the “real” world.
We know a lot, but tend to be pedantic about it — and some of us get snooty about the “popular” part of popular culture. So when non-specialists engage us, it’s usually to use our credentialed names on their National Endowment for the Humanities grants or in the hopes of finding the sexier angle of our scholarship if they listen to us drone on about our research long enough. Still, as public interest in our culture, our past, the cultures and pasts of other people, and, apparently, the genealogy of famous people rises, so too do opportunities for humanists to strut their stuff, even for a nanosecond of almost-fame.
As public interest in our culture, our past, the cultures and pasts of other people, and, apparently, the genealogy of famous people rises, so too do opportunities for humanists to strut their stuff, even for a nanosecond of almost-fame.
I can tell you from experience that the edges of public discourses aren’t glamorous. A couple of years ago, I promoted my book, After Aquarius Dawned, on Sirius radio. You didn’t hear me, though, because you were out watching a solar eclipse occurring at exactly the same time that I was being interviewed. Additional plans to promote that book went awry once white supremacists marched on Charlottesville, as I had previously written on the American Civil Liberties Union and, suddenly, the ACLU was a hot topic. I got one quotation in The Wall Street Journal and made a few points on the Bloomberg News radio network when the attorney I was paired with paused for breath. I have yet to see my appearance on a BBC-4 documentary on Carly Simon’s album No Secrets because I don’t believe it ever aired in the USA — although a couple of people have told me they saw it without crossing the pond, so who knows? This semester I’ve answered the questions of two documentarians and ABC News without, so far, a single follow-up. I remain hopeful, but however ready I might be for my close-up, I think I know the score.
That I’ve been tapped at all suggests that the public finds the humanities relevant and interesting. Consider all the recent historical films, everything from BlacKkKlansman to Mary, Queen of Scots, the success of biographic documentaries of Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Mr. Rogers, the PBS public’s obsession with British mystery stories, and let’s not forget about Hamilton. One popular gift the last couple of years has been DNA tests; that’s how devoted we are to knowing about our backstories. Debating, retelling, and dramatizing disasters like the sinking of the Titanic? It’s a cottage industry. Graphic novels and books retell history and literary classics, with pictures. Game of Thrones and all those games filled with dragons and chain mail, not to mention Renaissance festivals, draw on Medieval European culture.
I’m pretty sure academics are never going to get rich and famous from the humanities’ entertainment boom, yet some of our students might. That’s because balancing their love of the humanities with their need to eat, many, like Nick Gonnerman, will get paid for contributing to the public dissemination of the humanities by becoming professionals.
I’m pretty sure academics are never going to get rich and famous from the humanities’ entertainment boom, yet some of our students might. That’s because balancing their love of the humanities with their need to eat, many will get paid for contributing to the public dissemination of the humanities by becoming professionals.
The number of people pursuing humanities PhDs has significantly declined. The number of people applying to graduate programs in digital humanities, archival studies, museum studies, material cultural studies, and library schools continues to grow. There are always new museums needing staff — and archives not only get new material every day, but somebody has to organize, digitize, and make available to the public what they already have. Documentaries employ research assistants who not only master narratives, but locate the visual and aural sources to illustrate those stories. Trained experts set tables and dressed footmen for Downton Abbey and consultants made sure scripts were historically accurate. I know because I saw it all in a documentary about the making of Downton Abbey. These are growth fields.
Since not everybody we teach plans to go into STEM fields, it behooves us to expose our students to public humanities and give them a leg up on any future work they might undertake. Internships and off-campus opportunities can help them sample possibilities, but why let others have all the fun? We can get them thinking about the ethical issues involved, including plagiarism, cultural appropriation, cultural sensitivity, and misuse of evidence.
Since not everybody we teach plans to go into STEM fields, it behooves us to expose our students to public humanities and give them a leg up on any future work they might undertake.
We can — and often are already — tilting our classes toward public presentations via posters, short documentary films, podcasts, websites, and curatorial activities. My home department, History, is rethinking our major to make room for public history. I’m confident other departments are exploring ways to expand beyond the inevitable equation of a humanities discipline with teaching at some level via public humanities. The Digital Scholarship Center at St. Olaf (DiSCO) was made for public humanities, but don’t underestimate the value of the more old-fashioned oral classroom presentation or PowerPoint, good practice for just about any career these days. Al Gore, after all, won an Oscar with a PowerPoint.
Asking students to showcase what they’ve learned by packaging it for public consumption often opens up the classroom, encouraging collaboration and innovative ways of looking at old subjects. Public humanities brings technology into the mix, reversing the teaching dynamic as our students show us how to build websites or edit digital footage. In the modern world, everybody needs to be able to package and promote, so humanities classes that end with public forums or poster sessions give students real-world experiences. If we are feeling marginalized on campus, moreover, forums, poster sessions, or student-made documentary film festivals raise our public profile and give our classes positive buzz. We can change those stereotypes about how old-fashioned and old-school the humanities are.
I know we’re all tired and feeling particularly depleted as the semester ends, but as we respond to cuts and the new general education curriculum we are planning, I hope we find more and more ways to incorporate public humanities into our classes and our programs. I’ve stopped checking the New York Times bestsellers’ list for my book; now my public humanities fantasy is a former student in an evening gown or sitting opposite Jimmy Kimmel or Trevor Noah thanking me for helping to launch their career. It could happen.
Interested in learning more about the practice of public humanities? I’m starting an occasional series featuring academics and their ventures into the public sphere. The first of these, co-sponsored with DiSCO, features our own Stephanie Montgomery (History and Asian Studies) and her podcasting partner, Melissa Brzycki, talking about their podcast and website, East Asia for All, on Wednesday, February 13, from 3:30 to 5 p.m. in Viking Theater. Stay tuned for more details.
Judy Kutulas is a professor of history at St. Olaf College, where she teaches in the History Department and the American Studies program, along with American Conversations. She is the Boldt Family Distinguished Teaching Chair in the Humanities, charged with helping to revitalize humanities teaching and learning at the college. Read her inaugural ‘Adventures in the New Humanities’ blog post here.