Questioning the "Public" in Public Humanities

The second week of the Mellon School has, so far, seen us explore in greater detail some of the assumptions underpinning this year's theme of public humanities. Tuesday found us returning, in particular, to the question of who exactly constitutes the 'public' we keep referring to?

During the morning seminar this question emerged in a discussion about trade books. Martin shared his original proposal and experience writing his recent book, Written World: The Power of Stories to Shape People, History, Civilization. Trade books, he told us, necessitate a form of writing which forces us to confront agency in our accounts, and avoid many of the shorthands that we rely upon in our academic work. In discussion, the group agreed that writing for a general public forces us to be clearer and surer about our claims – after all, this is work which was going out into the 'real' world. Somehow, in our minds, the public that we envisioned for our trade books demanded something more from us than our academic readership, an interesting reversal of the way in which public humanities has sometimes been framed.

So who is this public and why are we speaking to them? If, as Martin reminded us, our work in public humanities is not concerned with positioning itself in regards to ongoing scholarly debates, then what are the other conversations it should or could be engaging with? What use does the broad term 'public' even have for us when identifying our audience? Might it be better to focus our discussions around smaller audiences (or micropublics) where our work can have impact? In response to these questions a number of participants brought up scholars whose work has successfully reached its intended audience, and which continues to influence and inspire them. In particular this applies to those whose work speaks to or engages with those from oppressed and minority communities. Examples that were cited by the group included queer scholars, whose work continues to act as a vital intervention into contemporary struggles, or the work of African American intellectuals such as  W. E. B. Du Bois and James Baldwin, whose ideas still hold great resonance and influence far beyond academic circles. Their writing, whatever its form, has purpose and intent: it knows exactly who it is aims to reach and crucially, why. Later in the evening Luke Menand, during his lecture on 'Writers and their Publics,' cited his recent New Yorker article on Karl Marx, another intellectual whose ideas have been transmitted and taken up well beyond the confines of the academy. Perhaps such thinkers, whose words are driven by explicit political conviction and commitment, can teach us about our own approach to public humanities.

In the lunchtime seminar, a continuation of Alexis Soloski's engaging Monday lecture, we continued to reckon with these questions. Discussing a recent New York Times article, “25 Greatest American plays since Angels in America, we thought about both about what constitutes an 'American' play, and the relationship of institutions like the New York Times to the broader American public. What does the New York centricity of such a list say about the regard for regional theatre and the vast majority of American theatre that takes place outside the city? What does the compilation of this list say about how the American public who live in the rarely covered fly-over states are regarded by those working in the coastal media centers? How does such a list of  'American' plays ensure it is in fact representative of the the nation to which its title explicitly refers, and does it even have to be?

At the end of the day, I got the sense that we were left not with the question of how our scholarship might be valuable for a wider audience, but the opposite. In Martin's morning seminar we thought about how the process of putting together a trade book need not be a form of 'watering down' our ideas for a broader public, but can instead drive us to think about how we improve our scholarship and make it more accessible, even to the already informed reader. Both Alexis Soloski and Luke Menand are writers for popular audiences who also hold doctorates, but their academic resumes have been relegated to their 'back pockets' in service of their audiences. Their advice for how to write for a newspaper or magazine might also be beneficial for those us currently confined to academic writing. Luke Menand urged us to think about how we make the topic of our writing sound interesting to others and how we must convey the excitement we ourselves have for our subject to our reader. The difference between academic writing and that for a magazine, he tells us, is that magazine writing has to be interesting - academic writing does not. But does it have to be this way? Can the examples of those working in public humanities, who know exactly how to speak to their audience and grab their excitement, teach us something about our own field and how to write with purpose and clarity? In the end perhaps the question is not what the academy can do for the public humanities, but what the public humanities can do for us.

Post by Jaswinder Blackwell-Pal