Mellonite Synecdoche

Encounters with brilliant minds and generous hearts inspire, baffle, stimulate questions and cultivate answers that yield more questions, a process of spinning reflection. For two weeks in June 2018, Mellonites from all over the world convened at Farkus Hall to hear from successful practitioners of public humanities, people who engage audiences via digital media, trade books, MOOCs, journalism, op-ed pieces, magazine articles, and other tools. These leaders candidly shared personal struggles, setbacks, doubts, and ultimately successes. Mellonites listened to each other as well, as we shared our own public humanities practices in playwriting, performance, videography, reviewing, and community engagement. The aims were the same, to reach audiences beyond the academy. However, two differences arose between the guest lecturers and the Mellonites. One was scope, the other, exchange. Op-eds and magazine articles in international publications, for example, will have the inherent capacity to reach a far greater number of people than a public performance. However, this impacts the nature of an audience’s response. While many of the broad-audience platforms provide a comments section, the authors reported that this sort of response rarely launches a conversation with the author. The opportunity for an exchange of ideas and experiences is limited, as is the likelihood that an author would adjust their position based on the respondent’s comments, even if it were grounded in expertise. In smaller-scale, face-to-face engagements, there are more opportunities for conversation. Reflecting on these differences, the question came up again and again in our Mellon School: are we making space for our audiences to share their knowledge with us? In what ways? And, why is this important?

With regard to the importance of providing an opportunity for exchange, several concerns were raised, including, as Maureen McDonnell noted, the pervasive gaps in the quality of and access to education at all levels of the school system, as well as the anti-intellectualism that promotes mistrust of scientists, scholars and journalists, and the dangerous repercussions of these in all aspects of our society and for our planet. Acknowledging audiences’ lived experiences as valid forms of expertise might help break down some of these barriers to mutual respect. Monica Cortés Viharo pointed to the value of critical pedagogy, and we agreed that when possible, we need to create opportunities to engage in dialogues with the public. This generated more questions. What audiences are we trying to communicate with? What audiences do we need to make more of an effort to reach? Are there audiences with whom we disagree so strongly that we hesitate to enter into conversation with them? Given our positions of privilege, do we need to step forward further than we have in order to meet a reticent audience “halfway”? Is the further step simply the act of inviting response and then listening? And, what are the best, that is, accessible and legible, tools for these diverse tasks? As questions arose around privilege and access to information, we asked "Do public humanities trickle down?" Does the message, as in a long game of telephone, become quite different from what it was when it started out? How does dialogue transform the point? How do we as public scholars gauge these practices, answer these questions in meaningful ways? How do we support the transformation of thought into positive actions?

This was the nature of our time at Mellon Summer School 2018.  Listening, asking questions, listening again. Our conversations were like crystals, refracting ideas, allowing us to reflect upon what we encountered, how we encountered it, and what we might take away from it all. The experience was in essence an act of public humanities mirroring the kinds of conversations we envisioned in the field. Rosa Schneider provided a model for me to describe this through her chapter on historical synecdoche, a term she used to describe the ways in which theatrical elements can insinuate meaning greater than face value to reinforce dramaturgical intentions. (Rosa, please correct me if I’ve misrepresented.) Referring to a recent production of Zoot Suit by Luis Valdez, she discussed how bundles of newspapers, as scenic elements, stood in for courtroom chairs, the judge’s bench, and San Quentin jail cells. This intentional replacement simultaneously illustrated a historical theme of the script, that the press had operated as judge and jury in the case of the Sleepy Lagoon murder, (in)discriminately condemning Mexican American youth even before their trial had begun. On stage, bundles of newspapers, one journalistic tool for public persuasion, became the synecdoche for mediated injustice.

Injustice, inequity, violence, and greed surround us, but there are people in the world who believe in the power of human effort to counter human weakness. I’m thrilled to say I met some of these folks at Farkus Hall this summer. In the same way we have been asked to curb our consumption for the sake of the environment, so are we asked to extend ourselves, our knowledge, and to open space for dialogue, for the sake of humane group efforts. “Mellonites 2018” is now a synecdoche, for me, of a cohort of generous scholars, of pedagogic humanitarians. I am grateful and look forward to hearing more.