Are “once robust” humanities fields being “broken up and stripped for parts?

Why Study HistoryCarnegie Mellon literary critic Jeffrey J. Williams writes about hybrid fields such as digital humanities, environmental humanities, food humanities, medical humanities, legal humanities, business humanities, and public humanities.  He calls these fields “The New Humanities.”

Here is a taste of his piece at The Chronicle of Higher Education:

From the outside, the rise of these various new fields might seem like a sign of evolutionary progress for traditional disciplines. Still, in many cases, the humanities don’t have equal standing with the applied disciplines; they’re more like a garnish, an add-on, valued only insofar as they link with and augment those other disciplines. Thus, these yokings tend to quell the independent, critical role of the humanities as an interrogative force for human values, principles, and history. A coal-company-funded engineering project, for instance, might be glad to hear about the heroic image of the miner in art and literature, but it is unlikely to welcome questions about labor and capitalism. In their effort to accommodate other disciplines, the humanities themselves may be co-opted and lose the very critical independence that defines them. 

Read the entire piece here.

The digital humanities and the public humanities are useful fields, but they are not disciplines in and of themselves.  As I have said before, interdisciplinarity starts with a grounding in the disciplines and their specific and unique ways of thinking about the world.  It will be a tragedy for liberal education if the disciplines are replaced by these hybrid fields and majors.  Some might say that the “New Humanities” is the wave of the future and we all need to get on board.  If this is so, I will probably go down with the ship.

From a Ph.D in Medieval Literature to a Public Critic

JosephineLivingstoneI really enjoyed this interview with Josephine Livingstone, a culture staff writer at The New Republic.  She describes the difference between academic writing and public writing.  Here is a taste of her interview with Rachel Scarborough King at Public Books:

RK: How do you compare the kind of writing you do now to your academic writing? What do you like and dislike most about the public-facing writing that you do?

JL: Being productive is a big hallmark of my attitude toward this work, which is a little different from how I saw the academic work that I did before. The difference between that and my academic writing is kind of temporal. When I wrote my dissertation, I felt like I was speaking to myself and to the past. I was trying to make diagnoses implicitly about the modern world, but mostly my materials were medieval, and what I was doing was trying to push back certain arenas of postcolonial theory to apply to culture before the era of mass colonialism. For me it was kind of about trying to define my existence as not being part of the contemporary world. And I liked living elsewhere, which is a form of fantasy, but I really enjoyed it, and it felt productive and like I was doing something that had an ethical drive behind it.

But the work I do now I think of as service to the community of people who make art; I feel that reviews are a very important part of the economy—okay, maybe they’re not very important, but they are in some way a part of cultural production in 2019. And so I feel this ethical duty now to take every work of art seriously even if it’s a minor novel that’s coming out and I just want to boost that person’s name. You have to take every work of art equally seriously and ignore how famous or prominent the person who made it is. And that is an ethical drive, but it’s really different from the ethical drive that I felt in the academy.

RK: So do you see yourself as taking skills you learned in grad school and translating them, or are they different skill sets?

JL: A lot of my writing is about gender and race, and I definitely draw every day on the critical theory and some of the primary texts that I read in grad school—there’s no line there, it’s like a fuzzy overlapping boundary. The thing that Jill Lepore calls academic jargon is much maligned in the media. The first editor I ever had would give me so much shit about it, but I think that when you’re in an academic community you devise certain kinds of shorthand for much bigger ideas that help you to imply much more than it looks like you’re saying. A good example is that I used to use the word “horizons” a lot, and my editor would always be like, “Stop using this word,” but to me the word “horizons” implied this critically aware way of describing social historical context and how that limits or inflects an individual’s thinking. That makes perfect sense, but it doesn’t make sense to most people, so it took a lot of unlearning.

I also like Livingstone’s thought about being a “public intellectual”:

I think it would be very grandiose for me to think of myself that way, so no. I also don’t think that public intellectual is something that—like, no one ever introduces themselves at a dinner party and someone asks them what they do and they say, “Oh, I’m a public intellectual.” It’s more of an idea and a way for people to group and better understand a sector of professionals at work now who don’t quite fit into old typologies of who does what, because the public intellectual is something that has always been around. Today I think it incorporates things like editors, people who founded publications, columnists but not op-ed writers; it includes some podcasters and some radio people. Yeah, I think it includes so many types of people that the term “public intellectual” has to somehow describe a sensibility more than a workday.

Read the entire piece here.

Scholars Respond to Trump’s Border Policy


The Chronicle of Higher Education is running a piece on the way scholars stepped-up to the plate during the “Trump border crackdown.”  I am glad that The Chronicle is noticing our work.  Here is a taste of Mark Parry’s article:

…In recent weeks, seemingly every Trump immigration move has prompted a real-time counter-mobilization of academic research, either by scholars themselves or by journalists calling on their expertise.

You see that in John Fea and Yoni Appelbaum’s breakdowns of how a biblical passage cited by the attorney general was used by defenders of slavery. You see it in Aliza Luft and Daniel Solomon’s analysis of Trump’s animalizing rhetoric. You see it in the debate over whether it’s fair to call America’s migrant detention centers concentration camps. (The answer, say two experts, is a qualified yes.)

For some scholars, research that had percolated for years suddenly carries an immediate resonance. On Monday, for example, the political scientists Emily M. Farris and Heather Silber Mohamed published a journal article documenting how news outlets stoke fear of Latino immigrants through imagery depicting them as criminals. Farris drew on her research in a Twitter thread contrasting two images that have shaped the family-separation narrative: the photo of a little girl crying as a border agent frisks her mother, and a picture released by the Trump administration of faceless boys in detention.

“We should think about how those images play a role in who we think is deserving of our concern,” Farris, an assistant professor at Texas Christian University, said in an interview. She added, “Images are powerful, and we don’t necessarily think about them as mediums for the ways we can interpret different policies.”

In interviews with The Chronicle, other historians and political scientists emphasized a dilemma of engaging this debate: how to raise alarms about the potential for human-rights abuses while conveying a nuanced understanding of a fast-changing situation. (Trump signed an executive order on Wednesday intended to stop family separations. It remained unclear on Friday how relatives would be reunited.)

The academics’ challenge is complicated by a paradox of scholarly communication right now. Thanks to social media and the proliferation of outlets like Vox and Monkey Cage, scholars are mixing it up in public like never before. But some scholars are frustrated that academe’s fact-backed warnings don’t penetrate to policy makers or large swaths of the public. Their struggle: getting readers to consider their evidence without dismissing them as Ivory Tower elites yet again denouncing Trump.

Read the entire piece here.

A Day with the History Department at Kean University

Liberty Hall Kean

Liberty Hall at Kean University.  Liberty Hall was the home of William Livingston, the first governor of the state of New Jersey. 

As I posted earlier this week, I spent the day on Tuesday with the History Department at Kean University in Union, New Jersey.  I am working with Kean as a “public humanities consultant” for their National Endowment for the Humanities program “William Livingston’s World.

First, was very impressed with the Kean History Department and the hospitality I received during my visit.  Special thanks to Jonathan Mercantini (Acting Dean of the College of Liberty Arts) and Elizabeth Hyde (Department Chair).

In the morning, I talked about public engagement with the faculty and campus archives staff.  We had a spirited discussion about whether or not our public engagement as historians should be more political and activist-oriented than our classroom teaching.  I think it is fair to say that we were divided on this question.

In the afternoon, I met with four honors students who wrote papers and created websites on William Livingston.  During this session we watched the “director’s cut” of the Liberty Hall 360 re-enactment of the Susannah Livingston-John Jay wedding.  Several of the students worked on the script.  It was fun chatting with undergraduates who have traveled to archives with Livingston collections, read Livingston’s letters, and tried to make sense of the political, intellectual, and religious life of this New Jersey founding father.

One of these students approached me after the session with a signed copy of Why Study History?  My inscription read: “Caleb, keep studying history and I hope you do so at Messiah College.”  It was dated 2014.  Needless to say, we did not land Caleb at Messiah, but he certainly had a wonderful undergraduate career at Kean.  Caleb asked me to sign the book again with an inscription that began “four years later….”  It was a great encounter with a big undergraduate fish I was unable to land!  🙂

Finally, I met with five adjunct faculty members who teach the department’s general education course: “HIST 1062: Modern World Civilizations: Crises of the Contemporary World.”  We had a great discussion about how to teach historical thinking skills to non-history majors.

Needless to say, I thoroughly enjoyed my visit and hope to return soon to continue consulting on the William Livingston project.  As I noted in my previous post, I think this is a model grant for any history department interested in merging public history, public humanities, career preparation, and the undergraduate history curriculum.

William Livingston’s World

Liberty Hall

Liberty Hall Museum, the home of William Livingston

Today I am in Union, New Jersey working with the History Department at Kean University.  The department just received a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to fund MakeHISTORY@Kean: William Livingston’s World.  It is a three-year project intended to develop  the Kean history curriculum around the concept of a History Lab.  The project incorporates the unique and untapped archival and historical resources of Kean University, Liberty Hall Museum, and the Liberty Hall Academic Center.  Undergraduates will generate a portfolio of original historical research to be shared with a broad public through talks, exhibits, websites, lesson plans, and other genres.

Initially, students will focus their work on the world of William Livingston, a brigadier general during the Revolutionary War, New Jersey’s first popularly elected governor (1776-1790), and signer of the U.S. Constitution.

The project also teaches history majors to think about how their work in the field of history intersects with a variety of career options in business, digital, and STEM to produce graduates who possess the communications and critical thinking skills employers need.

The “William Livingston World” program is already underway.  Students are working on a recreation of the 1772 marriage of Sarah Livingston and John Jay, which occurred in the Great Hall at Liberty Hall (on Kean’s campus).  Check out this video:

I will be talking with faculty and students today as the project’s “Public Humanities Consultant.”  It should be a great day and I am excited to learn more about this project.

Author’s Corner with Steven Lubar

lubarSteven Lubar is Professor of American Studies at Brown University. This interview is based on his new book, Inside the Lost Museum (Harvard University Press, 2017).

JF: What led you to write Inside the Lost Museum

SL: It’s a book that I wish I had when I first started work as a curator – I wanted to know more about both the how and the why of the work. More immediately, the book was inspired by the “Lost Museum” installation, a student project with artist Mark Dion that explored Brown University’s Jenks Museum. Mark’s aesthetic-historical approach to understanding collections and exhibitions allowed me the intellectual distance to ask some big questions about the why? and how? of museums.  

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Inside the Lost Museum

SL: I argue museums are unique because of their collections – art, artifacts, and specimens – and that those collections are complex, not simple. To understand how and why museums collect, care for, display, and use things, we need to understand the ways in which history shapes museums’ connections with their communities, both source communities and audiences.

JF: Why do we need to read Inside the Lost Museum

SL: Understanding museum history is the best way to understand how museums can build on their strengths and overcome their disadvantages – to be useful. Museum curators and museum studies students will read Inside the Lost Museum to understand museum work and how museum history provides a foundation to build a new future. A general audience will read it to understand not only what goes on behind the scenes of museums, but also to understand their continuing importance. And I hope all readers will be fascinated by the thread that holds the book together: the curious story of John Whipple Potter Jenks, donor, director, and curator of the Jenks Museum.  

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian? 

SL: As an undergraduate at MIT I became fascinated by the history and culture of science and technology, and went to graduate school to study alchemy and astrology. But I soon realized that reading Latin would never be my forte, and discovered more useful and interesting roots of modern science and technology in the business and political revolutions of the nineteenth century. That encouraged me to shift to American history, which led to a career in museums, which led to an interest in public humanities and museum history.  

JF: What is your next project? 

SL: For the next year, I’ll be a Mellon fellow at the Rhode Island School of Design Museum of Art, contributing to an exhibition project on “repair.” It’s a fascinating topic, encompassing both the material and the metaphorical, and I’m looking forward to exploring the museum’s collections and considering the meaning of mends, patches, and fixes in ways physical, moral, and political. 

JF: Thanks, Steven!

“Powerlessness and the Politics of Blame”


A couple of weeks ago I posted my tweets from Martha Nussbaum‘s Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities.  I am happy to report that the transcript of the lecture is now available on the website of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Here is a taste of “Powerlessness and the Politics of Blame:”

It might seem strange to compare King to Aeschylus, though it’s really not strange at all, given King’s vast learning in literature and philosophy. He’s basically saying the same thing: democracy must give up the empty and destructive thought of payback and move toward a future of legal justice and human well-being. King’s opponents portrayed his stance as weak. Malcolm X said sardonically that it was like coffee that has had so much milk poured into it that it has turned white and cold, and doesn’t even taste like coffee. But that was wrong. King’s stance is strong, not weak. He resists one of the most powerful of human impulses, the retributive impulse, for the sake of the future. One of the trickiest problems in politics is to persist in a determined search for solutions, without letting fear deflect us onto the track of anger’s errors. The idea that Aeschylus and King share is that democratic citizens should face with courage the problems and, yes, the outrageous injustices that we encounter in political and social life. Lashing out in anger and fear does not solve the problem; instead, it leads, as it did in both Athens and Rome, to a spiral of retributive violence.

Read the entire speech here.


Teaching History Within the Carceral State


Prion to Pipeline

Patrick Alexander (far left) and Otis Pickett (far right) with the 2015 graduation class of the Prison-to-College Pipeline program at Parchman Prison in Mississippi. (Photo courtesy of the Mississippi Dept. of Corrections

The reports from the 2017 Annual Meeting of the Organization of American Historians continue to roll into The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  In this installment Otis W. Pickett of Mississippi College writes about a session on Mississippi’s Prison-to-College Pipeline Program.  –JF

On Saturday, April 8, 2017, members of the Prison-to College-Pipeline Program (PTCPP) teaching team gathered in New Orleans, Louisiana, for a panel at the Organization of American Historians’ annual meeting entitled “Teaching History within the Carceral State: A Panel Discussion on Mississippi’s Prison-to-College Pipeline Program.”

The panel featured the founder of the PTCPP (Patrick Alexander, Assistant Professor of English and African American Studies at The University of Mississippi) and its co-founder (Otis W. Pickett, Assistant Professor of History at Mississippi College), as well as two history faculty who have been course instructors in the program since its creation (Stephanie Rolph, Assistant Professor of History at Millsaps and Robby Luckett, Associate Professor of History and Director of the Margaret Walker Center at Jackson State University). The panel “moved beyond the call for new scholarship” and examined “the role of historians who teach in and about the prison [industrial] complex in Mississippi – a state that numbers among the top in imprisonment.”[1]

Patrick Alexander, serving both as panelist and chairman, began the discussion by taking the audience back to the roots of the Prison-to-College Pipeline Program, which involved his prison education work in Durham, North Carolina. As a graduate student at Duke University, Alexander established an academic enrichment program called Stepping Stones for incarcerated students at Orange Correctional Center (OCC). These students, many of whom were working on degrees at neighboring University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, lacked the opportunities for office hours, a writing center, email correspondence with professors, and tutoring opportunities that UNC students in free society could easily access in order to ensure academic success. Alexander created Stepping Stones to fill in these gaps, better prepare OCC students for college-level coursework, and also sharpen their skills in critical thinking, academic writing, creative writing, and public speaking. Alexander knew he would want to continue this work wherever he received a teaching appointment after graduation. He stated, “I knew from research and life experience that higher education programs in prison drastically reduce recidivism and radically affirm the humanity of imprisoned people, so I felt compelled to persist in establishing prison education opportunities in any community in which I lived and worked.”

Otis W. Pickett then shared about his journey in prison education. Pickett’s expedition also began in Durham. At the time, he was finishing a Ph.D. in history at The University of Mississippi and was asked by the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation to attend the Reconciliation Summer Institute at Duke Divinity School in the summer of 2012. One of the panels at the conference proposed “what are Christians doing to serve incarcerated Christians and others in incarcerated spaces?” When scholars mentioned that Mississippi had the second highest incarceration rate in the country, many of the eyes in the room shifted to Pickett. Pickett noted, “I was clueless. I had no idea what was happening within the carceral state in Mississippi. However, I knew when I got home that I had to do something.”

Little did they know what was in store for them, but both Alexander and Pickett accepted assistant professorships at the University of Mississippi and met during faculty orientation. Glenn Hopkins, then Dean of the College of Liberal Arts, mentioned on three occasions at that meeting “if you want to teach in prison, like Patrick, let me know because we have funding in the College to support you.” Pickett recalled, “I made a beeline for Patrick. I told him I wanted to meet with him and talk about what we could do to address mass incarceration and especially teaching incarcerated students.” Hopkins became a tremendous supporter of Alexander and Pickett. The College of Liberal Arts funded Pickett and Alexander’s pilot course for a prison education program at Parchman/Mississippi State Penitentiary in the summer of 2014.  It was then that they taught their first interdisciplinary course on African American literature and Civil Rights history at Parchman entitled “Justice Everywhere: The Civil Rights Stories of Martin Luther King, Fannie Lou Hamer, and Barack Obama.”

Pickett and Alexander had also launched the course and the PTCPP as the chief initiative of the University of Mississippi’s very first “Rethinking Mass Incarceration in the South” conference, which was held in April 2014.  This is a biannual interdisciplinary conference that focuses on mass incarceration and is hosted at the University of Mississippi Law School. After a long summer of teaching and learning, Pickett and Alexander’s first seventeen students at Parchman successfully finished their course, earned certificates of completion, and received a sentence reduction of one month. One student, because of his outstanding work in the course, earned three hours of M.A. History credit at Mississippi College.  Pickett and Alexander redeveloped their “Justice Everywhere” course at Parchman in summers 2015 and 2016, which resulted in many more students earning college credit in History from Mississippi College and in English from the University of Mississippi (UM).  Alexander also taught a course on African American literature creative writing with fellow UM professor Ann Fisher-Wirth in fall 2016 that yielded 10 more students from Parchman earning credit from UM.

In Spring 2015, just prior to Pickett and Alexander offering their second course at Parchman, Pickett met Stephanie Rolph at the OAH annual meeting in St. Louis, MO, as Pickett recalled during the panel discussion:  “It is appropriate that we are having this conversation at the OAH. The idea for teaching incarcerated students in central Mississippi was born in conversations I had with Stephanie at the OAH in St. Louis.”  Pickett later joked, “Stephanie and I teach about 10 minutes from each other, but we had to go to St. Louis to meet.” Rolph was preparing to teach a course with a colleague at the Federal Prison in Yazoo City, MS. At the Spring 2015 meeting of the OAH, she and Pickett began to talk about education needs for imprisoned communities in central Mississippi. “I was incredibly passionate about creating higher education opportunities for incarcerated women in Mississippi,” said Rolph. Pickett and Rolph reached out to the Mississippi Department of Corrections and found that many women at Central Mississippi Correctional Facility (CMCF) were very interested in taking courses for college credit. “We wanted to teach them, but we needed funding,” Pickett remembered. Stuart Rockoff, executive director of the Mississippi Humanities Council (MHC) offered to partner with the Prison-to College Pipeline Program.

The MHC funded Picket and Rolph’s summer 2016 course at CMCF entitled “‘Turning Oppression into Opportunity’: Understanding Justice, Human Rights, and Gender through the Lens of Southern Women’s Experiences from the Indigenous Era to the Modern Civil Rights Era.” Rolph noted that the women loved the class and “really connected with the material especially on issues related to maternity, labor and family. They all had children and family members with whom they wanted to share what they were reading and writing.” Each student finished the course, and many earned college credit through Mississippi College.  This was the first time in the history of the state of Mississippi that incarcerated women had earned college credit from a Mississippi institution of higher learning.[2]

Robby Luckett closed out the panel discussion by sharing about his experiences working as a guest lecturer for the Prison-to-College Pipeline Program ever since its inaugural class in 2014. Luckett is excited that he will be serving as a full-time instructor for a PTCPP course this summer at CMCF. “The guest teaching day at Parchman or CMCF is always my favorite day of the year,” he said, adding that, “when I get to go into the prison space and interact with students there, it always reminds me of what teaching is really about.” Luckett then described how the history of social control in Mississippi from the convict lease system, to the constitution of 1890, to the state’s continued underfunding of education today contributes to the contemporary system of mass incarceration in Mississippi. In Luckett’s words, the Prison-to-College Pipeline Program is “dealing with the consequences of over one hundred years of failed state policy toward the poor and disfranchised, which, in Mississippi, usually means African Americans.” Luckett also noted the racial and gender diversity of panelists, and the wide variety of institutions that they represent. “Today, the PTCPP has a black guy who teaches at Ole Miss, a white guy who teaches at an HBCU, a faculty member from a private Christian university, and another from a traditional liberal arts college. This is an amazingly diverse group of professors going into prison spaces across the state and doing social justice work.”

The panel closed with questions from the audience ranging from the future of the program to nuts and bolts questions about how the program got off of its feet.

For more on the Prison-to-College Pipeline check out the following pieces:

“Teaching Behind Bars”

“Prison-to-College Pipeline Program Takes Humanities Behind Bars”

“Professors Make Investments in the Future”


[1] Organization of American Historians Annual Meeting 2017 Conference Program, page 73.

[2] The work at CMCF has since expanded and will offer three new core curriculum classes in the Spring and Summer of 2017: American Literature, Interpersonal Communications and First Half U.S. History.

The National Endowment for the Humanities Funded the Messiah College Center for Public Humanities


Donald Trump’s current budget proposal will eliminate government funding for the humanities.  This means that local communities and American citizens will need to come up with other ways to fund important programs.

Yesterday I used this blog and my twitter feed to highlight a few programs that the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) has funded in the last year or two. During the course of the day I had several people ask me if I have ever received funding from the NEH.  No, I have not.  Believe me, I have tried many times to secure funding for my work from the NEH, but, for whatever reason, I have not been successful.

Having said that, I have been indirectly involved with an NEH-funded project at Messiah College.  About ten years ago, Messiah College received an NEH “We the People” grant to fund the Center for Public of Humanities.

The Center operates with the following vision:

The humanities by nature engage fundamental questions of human life and explore the cultural expressions humans have produced in response to their reflections. Whether the concern is the individual search for meaning or the nurturing of civic awareness in service to society as a whole, the humanities provide a rich venue for shared inquiry into the pressing human dimensions of the challenges we all face in living. But such engaging humanities explorations should not only be the private preserve of the undergraduate classroom, since the diverse communities of our society are in serious need of the opportunity to join carefully considered conversations on issues of contemporary significance through respectful discussion and debate in order to learn from one another.

The humanities have the capacity to transform individual lives through the discovery of meaning, and to transform society through the discovery of shared civic ideals. The Center for Public Humanities’ role, therefore, is to kindle the conversation and invite more people to it. In this spirit the Center seeks to bring together collegiate faculty and students together with secondary school teachers, cultural and civic leaders, and potential learners whose resources and life situation have discouraged them from considering a college education. Such a public humanities outreach program has the power to transform individual lives and communities, and is very much in keeping with the College’s mission of preparing all for lives of service, leadership, and reconciliation.

To realize its goals, the Center sponsors innovative forms of public humanities outreach through a variety of collaborative programs. Working groups of faculty and student fellows, as well as individual faculty members and students, have opportunities to offer their expertise to the wider community through service, teaching, and public speaking. In addition to off-campus outreach and collaboration with other humanities-based organizations (schools, libraries, museums, regional societies, state councils, colleges and universities), the Center sponsors a variety of public events on campus as a service to the wider community. In fact, the  Center for Public Humanities is an enabling agent to bring together various groups interested in humanities-based education, cultural events, and civic issues of contemporary significance.

Learn more about the Center and its programs here.

For other posts in this series click here.

The National Endowment for the Humanities Does Not Just Promote Obscure Scholarship

George 1

LaSalle U historian George Boudreau runs a NEH-funded summer seminar for teachers on Ben Franklin.  Here’s George with teachers in the Powel House in Philadelphia 

Critics of government funding for the humanities like to point to the specialized scholarly research funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH).  The argument goes something like this: “We don’t want our tax dollars going to fund a study of the Oxford comma in late 19th-century Victorian literature.”

I am sure that a scholar working on the Oxford comma could convince other scholars (who sit on the NEH funding committees) that his or her research is very important to society. But such a project will be a hard sell for ordinary Americans concerned about how their tax money is being spent.  (Please don’t misunderstand me here.  I am not arguing that this kind of scholarship is not valuable.  I am just trying to understand how this project might look to someone like my high-school educated father).

But criticizing the public funding of the humanities and the mission of the NEH based on its work with academic scholars fails to acknowledge the fact that most NEH money goes to programs that, whether we realize it or not, often have a direct or indirect influence on our lives.

I tweeted (@johnfea1) about some of this tonight in the wake of the news that President Donald Trump wants to eliminate the NEH.  Here are some of those tweets:

It’s time to call your representative in Congress.

February is a Big Month for the Messiah College History Department


As many of you know, I serve as the chair of the History Department at Messiah College in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania.  In that role, I am happy to announce that we have a lot going on in the department this month (and into the first week of March).

The History Department is playing a major role in the 2017 Messiah College Humanities Symposium.  (All of the sessions of the Symposium are open to the public).  The theme of this year’s Symposium is “Slavery and Justice from Antiquity to the Present.”

On February 21st at 7:00pm in Boyer Hall 131 the entire History Department will sit on a panel titled “Of Human Bondage: Forms of Enslavement in Global History.”  Each member of the department will take five minutes to talk about how the subject of slavery is treated in their specific sub-field of history and there will be plenty of time for audience discussion.

On February 23 at 3:45pm in Boyer Hall 131 two of our History Department graduates who are now in graduate school will present some of their research.  Christina Thomas (’14) will give a talk titled “What Shall I Teach My Children Who Are Black?: The Biography of Geraldine Louise Wilson, 1931-1988.”  Hierald Osorto (’06) will present a talk titled “Recovering Memory: The Archive as a Site of Resistance.”

On February 24th at 12:30-1:40 one of our current history majors, Kaitlin Coleman, will be participating in a discussion of an exhibit “Stories of Resistance from Central Pennsylvania.”  The exhibit will be on display all week in Boyer Hall’s Howe Atrium.

I also hope to attend other historically-related sessions featuring scholars and students who are not connected to the History Department.  Here are a few:

Feb. 20: Dr. David Smith, Calvin College: “Charity, Humility, Justice: Learning to Read and Inviting Virtue.” (Boyer Hall 131, 4:45)

Feb. 20: Dr. Emerson Powery, Messiah College: “The Bible and the ‘Slave Narrative’.” (Hostetter Chapel, 7:00pm)

Feb. 21: Dr. Peter Powers, Messiah College: “Whose freedom? Whose Humanity?: Slavery, the Humanities, and the Liberating Arts.” (Boyer Hall 131, 3:45)

Feb. 23: Maria Thiaw, Central Penn College and Messiah College and Central Penn College Students: “Piecing Our History: A Quilted and Poetic History of African Americans in Dauphin Country.”

The Humanities Symposium ends on Friday, February 24, but the History Department-sponsored events keep rolling on!

On Monday, February 27 C-SPAN will be on campus to film a lecture in my Pennsylvania History course for its American History TV program “Lectures in History.”  (Sorry, this one is not open to the public)

Later in the day on the 27th the History Department will host Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Edward Larson of Pepperdine University for a lecture titled “The Election of 1800 & the Birth of Partisan Presidential Politics.”  Admission is free and open to the public.  It will take place in Boyer Hall 336 at 4:00pm

Finally, on Saturday, March 4th, Messiah College will host the annual South-Central Pennsylvania regional National History Day competition.  Over 600 middle-school and high-school students will compete for spots in the Pennsylvania state National History Day competition with the hopes of making it all the way to the national finals.  We are still looking for judges for the event.  If you are interested in serving this way please shoot me an e-mail at jfea[at]messiah[dot]eduAn

And did I mention that on Monday, February 20 we are hosting a History Department Open House session for prospective students and their family?  I hope to see some of you in Frey Hall 156 from 11:30-12:20.

We are looking forward to a busy few weeks!  I hope to see many of you along the way!

Seth Bruggeman on the Humanities


If you are part of a college or university thinking about how to “do”public humanities you should look no further than what Aaron Cowan and Lia Paradis have put together at Slippery Rock University in Slippery Rock, Pennsylvania.  Cowan and Paradis run the Stone House Center for Public Humanities.  There are a lot of humanities centers and programs out there, but it is very cool that the folks at Slippery Rock have their own building. Needless to say,  I am jealous!  Learn more about the work of the Stone House Center here.

Over at the Stone House Center blog the staff has initiated a “Coffee & Questions” series. In the most recent post they interview Temple University public historian Seth Bruggeman.  Here is a taste of that interview:

What inspires you in your current position/role?

Extreme though it may sound, I consider myself to be in the business of training culture warriors.  It’s a notion that, for me, dates back to the summer of 1995 when I interned at the Library of Congress’s Archive of Folk Culture where, in many ways, my identify as a historian began to form.  It was there, for instance, that I learned to do oral history, in part by listening to and processing recordings made by some of the nation’s most renowned folklorists.  But at the same time that I was getting excited about oral history and the progressive commitments of the Archive and its staff, I was also strolling past the Smithsonian’s Air and Space museum each day, where protestors flocked that summer around the new Enola Gay exhibit.  And sometimes the other interns and I would spend lunch breaks watching congressional debate, which had become fevered amid the partisan rancor that would shut down the government just months later.  I began to realize then that what I valued most about the Archive and, really, about history and the humanities, was far more vulnerable to the whims of politicians and private interests than I had ever imagined.

Now, amid ongoing assaults against public and higher education, and with the collapse of public funding for cultural nonprofits and even for the National Park Service, I’ve made it a goal toprepare students to be advocates, not just for their own work, but for the ideas and institutions that give that work meaning…

Why do you believe that the humanities are important to everyone, and not just people in academia?

This question always makes me think of Mihaly Csikszenthmihalyi’s wonderful essay, “Why We Need Things,” which posits that humans constantly gather stuff so as to create order within our otherwise disorganized and drifting minds.  We need things, because without some kind of external order, we lose ourselves.  I think that’s true, but I’d also suggest that the humanities strengthen our ability to organize our own minds apart from the constant noise Csikszenthmihalyi equates with consumer culture. 

Delving into the humanities shows us how to find beauty in surprising places, to see patterns across place and time, to be calm amid confusion.  The humanities make us self-reliant, but also help us learn to share ourselves with others.  They give us the confidence to confront a world wherein order of any kind is fleeting.

Read the entire interview here.

What Can Low-Income, Minority, Urban 16-Year-Olds Learn From the Great Books?

Tamara Mann teaches in the “Freedom and Citizenship Program” at Columbia University. The program is directed by American Studies scholar Casey Blake and brings low-income high school students to the Columbia campus during the summer to read Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Hobbes, Locke, Jefferson, Lincoln, DuBois, Dewey, King, and other authors.  In a piece at Inside Higher Ed, Mann discusses how this program has transformed her and her students. Here is a taste:

As the distance closed between 4th-century Athens and 21st-century New York City, between ideas and our actual lives, and between my students and myself, our collective education took on its full purpose-driven force. My students came to this course because it was a means to an end – college. They left the seminar almost embarrassed by the shortsightedness of that goal. As one student put it, “Now I want to go to college not just to get there but to really learn something, so that I can give back; it’s not just about me and my success but about what I can do with it.”
We are in a period of exceptional innovation in the way education takes place. We must test and develop ever-new forms of virtual courses to convey skills while containing costs. But while doing so, we cannot forget the value of an education that is personal and beholden. This July, over 40 individuals, both teachers and students, learned about freedom, citizenship, and the purpose of knowledge by reading significant books and talking to one another around a battered old wooden table. The results were wondrous.

Steven Lubar’s Seven Rules for Public Humanists

Steve Lubar

I have been reading Steven Lubar’s blog for a couple of years now. I recommend it to historians interested in engaging the public. Lubar’s posts on the public humanities are always innovative and informative.  They make me wish that I could go back and get a graduate degree in public humanities at Brown University.

Lubar recently posted his “Seven Rules for Public Humanists.”  I will list them below, but you will need to head over to the blog in order to see how Lubar develops each point.

1.  It’s not about you
2.  Be a facilitator and translator as well as an expert
3.  Scholarship starts with public engagement
4.  Communities define community
5.  Collaborate with artists
6.  Think Digital
7.  Humanists need practical skills

Teaching Plato to Plumbers

My brother is a plumber.  I don’t think he has ever read Plato but I think he might find Plato’s ideas interesting if they were translated into twenty-first century vernacular.  
I thought of Chris as I read Scott Samuelson‘s piece at The Atlantic: “Why I Teach Plato to Plumbers.”  Part of my interest in public history and public scholarship comes from my upbringing in a working class family.  I have two brothers.  Chris is a plumber who works for  Mike is a general contractor.  My father is a retired general contractor.  My mother is a retired housewife who just went back to work with a telemarketing firm at the age of 70.  (She loves it!).  My sister (the only other college graduate in the family) is a former social-worker who is currently at home raising three kids.  
My parents loved The Way of Improvement Leads Home, but they thought the first couple of chapters were a bit dry and they wished I would have just stuck with a narrative of Philip Vickers Fithian’s life rather than taking so many detours into foreign concepts like moral philosophy and the “rural Enlightenment.”  They started reading Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? because they were interested in the topic and found my approach accessible, but I think the book proved to be too didactic for them.  They wanted a good story.
I doubt anyone in my family has ever uttered the word “humanities.”  But they do enjoy history and politics, they read newspapers and news magazines (Time and Newsweek), they read this blog, they study and teach the Bible, and they listen to talk radio, the watch shows like American Pickers.  They are regularly engaged with humanities-related topics but probably would have little patience for the kind of language that characterizes humanities-based discourse in the academy today.
Yet, as I have argued several times at this blog, most of what the academy describes as the work of a “public intellectual” or a “public scholar” is tied to publishing essays in The New Yorker or reviewing a book in the New York Review of Books.  I don’t think anyone in my family has ever read these periodicals.  What else can the academy do to reach thoughtful working class people?
I am glad that Samuelson, a community college professor, is in the trenches trying to make the humanities relevant to the kinds of working people who show up in his classes.  This, in many ways, is the cutting edge of public humanities.
Here is a taste of Samuelson’s piece:
Once, when I told a guy on a plane that I taught philosophy at a community college, he responded, “So you teach Plato to plumbers?” Yes, indeed. But I also teach Plato to nurses’ aides, soldiers, ex-cons, preschool music teachers, janitors, Sudanese refugees, prospective wind-turbine technicians, and any number of other students who feel like they need a diploma as an entry ticket to our economic carnival. As a result of my work, I’m in a unique position to reflect on the current discussion about the value of the humanities, one that seems to me to have lost its way.
As usual, there’s plenty to be worried about: the steady evaporation of full-time teaching positions, the overuse and abuse of adjunct professors, the slashing of public funding, the shrinkage of course offerings and majors in humanities disciplines, the increase of student debt, the peddling of technologies as magic bullets, the ubiquitous description of students as consumers. Moreover, I fear in my bones that the supremacy of a certain kind of economic-bureaucratic logic—one of “outcomes,” “assessment,” and “the bottom-line”—is eroding the values that undergird not just our society’s commitment to the humanities, but to democracy itself.

Public Historians Discuss the "Crisis" in the Humanities

Check out Mary Rizzo‘s “storified” tweets from a recent roundtable on the state of humanities held at the annual meeting of the National Council for Public History.

Here is Mary’s intro:

Are the humanities in crisis? This #NCPH2014 roundtable featuring Briann Greenfield, Ben Schmidt, Nancy Conner, Ralph Lewin and Mary Rizzo used the AAAS report “The Heart of the Matter” to spur a conversation about the status of the humanities and how to determine whether they are in “crisis.”

I also recommend Mary’s website/blog

ACLS Public Fellows Competition

This looks like a great program:

The American Council of Learned Societies is pleased to open the fourth competition of the Public Fellows program. In 2014, the program will place 20 recent humanities Ph.D.s in two-year staff positions at partnering organizations in government and the nonprofit sector. This career-building initiative aims to demonstrate that the capacities developed in the advanced study of the humanities have wide application, both within and beyond the academy.

This year, Public Fellows have the opportunity to join one of the following organizations:
  1. American Refugee Committee – Program Manager, Social Enterprise Projects
  2. Association of Research Libraries – Program Officer for Scholarly Publishing
  3. Center for Public Integrity – Engagement Analyst
  4. Council of Independent Colleges – Communications Officer
  5. Human Rights Campaign – Senior Content Manager
  6. Kiva – Partnerships Evaluation Manager
  7. Lenox Hill Neighborhood House – Research and Partnerships Manager
  8. Museum of Jewish Heritage – Manager of Strategic Initiatives
  9. National Constitution Center – Program Developer
  10. New America Foundation – Contributing Editor
  11. New Orleans Museum of Art (NOMA) – Public Policy Officer
  12. The Public Theater – Strategy and Planning Manager
  13. San Francisco Arts Commission – Program Manager, Policy and Evaluation
  14. Smithsonian Institution, Grand Challenges Consortia – Public Outreach Manager
  15. Smithsonian Institution, Office of International Relations – Program Officer
  16. Trust for Public Land – Program Analyst, Conservation Research
  17. United Negro College Fund – Policy Analyst
  18. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services – Policy Analyst
  19. Wisconsin Public Radio – Digital Producer, To the Best of Our Knowledge
  20. Zócalo Public Square – Program Manager
Competitive applicants will have been successful in both academic and extra-academic experiences, and will aspire to careers in administration, management, and public service by choice rather than circumstance. Applicants must possess U.S. citizenship or permanent resident status and have a Ph.D. in the humanities or humanistic social sciences conferred between June 2011 and May 31, 2014.
Applications are accepted only through the ACLS Online Fellowship Application system by March 19, 2014. for complete position descriptions, eligibility, and application information.
This program is supported by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

Public Humanities Begins in the Classroom

Over at The Chronicle Review, Kristen Case reminds us that public humanities happens every day in our public classrooms.  (I would extend her metaphor from the college humanities classroom to high school humanities classrooms).  Here is a taste of her piece:

I want to make a plea for a very unsexy kind of public humanities: the kind that involves a classroom, and desks in a circle, and books. And I want to insist that it be a real classroom: the kind you physically walk into, where people complain about the weather and their finals and their lousy jobs before class starts, and to which, at our little campus in western Maine, people trudge from across town or drive for an hour in the snow to be together for a while and talk.
The kind of thinking that asks why we have debt and what things are is risky, so we need real places, real walls, inside of which relationships and trust can be built. If you want to ask a young person to really think, to allow some of what she thinks she knows to be shattered, you have to make sure the classroom will hold her up. She has to know that her fumbling for words will not be laughed at, that her new idea will be listened to. Providing that kind of public humanities doesn’t require a foundation or a multimillion-dollar endowment, but it does require both space and time: real rooms and real hours.
In describing the difference between mere comprehension of scripture and what he calls “the sense of the heart” that is animated by God’s grace, the 18th-century Calvinist theologian Jonathan Edwards wrote, “There is a Difference between having a rational Judgment that Honey is sweet, and having a sense of its sweetness.” The grace that he believed was necessary for salvation was like the sweetness of honey: It could be given only directly, never secondhand. Edwards believed that he could help his congregants prepare for such moments but that he couldn’t himself make them happen.
I don’t believe in Edwards’s God, but I do believe in something like grace, in something that teaching can prepare the way for but cannot itself effect—instants of apprehension in which old worlds collapse and new possibilities are articulated. The underfunded and undervalued humanities classrooms of the public university are places where that kind of grace can happen and does. They are places that keep other chances alive for all of us.