- Response On the Road with Panza and Quixano:Ingenious Stories of the Public Humanities
Singular and plural, the public humanities cut a quixotic figure. I like to think of them as a plump, eager-to-please adjective beside the elongated, melancholy noun, protective and deferential by turns, as they make their way through the world, the flickering torch of idealism held aloft. Like their precursor on the plains of La Mancha, the public humanities are at once noble and comic, armored and vulnerable, last-ditch defenders of a disciplined order we can no longer quite believe in. It is their engagement on behalf of credulity that compels admiration, the dogged insistence that the life of the mind still matters, should matter, to a world ever more bent to the burden of its own business.
Don Quixote is an episodic novel. Its varied adventures do not add up to a lesson in self-improvement. Ohio State University’s Institute for Collaborative Research and Public Humanities (ICRPH) was established in 1997, part of an effort to reconnect what was then the separate College of Humanities with the rest of the university and the life of the community at large. Our mission, I used to say (only half-facetiously), was to go boldly where departmental angels feared to tread, to do what most faculty had little interest in doing: working together and talking to others. That extrainstitutional mandate made for a kind of freedom. Without preconceived models of collaborative work or public engagement, ICRPH took on a variety of projects, from producing The American Midwest: An Interpretive Encyclopedia to organizing a speaker series for Ohio’s bicentennial, from conferring with citywide cultural institutions to arranging exhibits and public dialogues. Our programs were perforce opportunistic and experimental, marking occasions and exploring possibilities and, the encyclopedia aside, they left few lasting traces. Or perhaps it would be better to say that they had effects, repercussions, echoes down the line, but little that could persuasively be packaged as a single coherent narrative. Convenient as [End Page 57] it would be to claim that ICRPH helped change the culture at OSU, fostering a collaborative and public-spirited environment, university-wide budget models and departmental requirements continue, for the most part, to define how most faculty approach their jobs.
If Quixote’s story resists the demand for moral lessons and measurable outcomes, however, it may yet provide matter for theoretical reflection. In Humanities at the Crossroads: The Indiana Case Study Survey Report, a study done for Indiana Humanities, a nonprofit organization affiliated with the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), the authors take note of the statutory authority defining approaches to the humanities. “In the academy and federal law,” they write, “the humanities are defined as disciplines, but when tied to civic life—to the needs of citizens rather than scholars or students—they are actively appropriated (and primarily valued) as practices, such as public discussion, that cross disciplinary lines. Given the importance of these activities for public discourse and community engagement, the public humanities can be considered essential conveners of civic life” (Sullivan et al. 2014, 6). The distinction between disciplines and practices helps illuminate some of the tripwires awaiting would-be knights-errant of the public humanities. Disciplinary status is associated with knowledge and authority, a command of subject matter that translates into a claim of expertise; yet it is precisely expertise—that cognitive and social distinction—that engagement in civic life puts into question. The very qualifications that have earned humanities faculty their position must quite often be renegotiated when they enter the public arena, as the practices of engagement call for different modes of convening and deliberating together. The simplest form of public humanities—the public lecture or speaker series—buffers that negotiation by separating professorial monologue from follow-up question-and-answer sessions, reinscribing the very distance it presumes to bridge.
That the humanities are regulated by federal statute—specifically, the 1965 act establishing the twin endowments, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and the NEH—will no doubt surprise faculty members who derive their sense of the field from professional organizations. It is by no means obvious that...