jetinonga

This has been a week of reflecting on definitions and their larger implications: “Scholarship”? “Public”? “Community”? “Humanities”? “Engagement”? Our discussions, writings and reading have all pondered over the problem and opportunity of words and their meanings. More gradually than I would care to admit, it dawned on me that definitions make boundaries, they define the limits of meaning for the words we use to describe and build our world. But when something is more clearly defined that also means that we can see it more lucidly, more intimately and, hopefully, with greater understanding. Surely this is the power of definitions: they delineate distinct ideas and they can accommodate expansive possible meanings. These concerns caught my attention because that are central not only to work as a public scholar generally but also to my specific project with California Humanities, which will grapple with crafting definitions of the humanities that are meant to be inclusive and to create limits.

This focus on definitions and terminology drew my attention to two terms that recur as a pair in our readings: “art” and “scholarship.” A couple of our articles make a distinction between the arts and humanities (scholarship) that suggests that the arts are much more comfortable in public, in collaboration and in the community. Steven Lubar’s blog post argues that calling something “art” rather than “scholarship” is “freeing,” but I wonder if we also need to work on expanding the definition of “scholarship” rather than having to replace it with “art” (5). As someone who researches handicraft, I think it’s important to remember the “art” is a term carrying its own controversies and connotations. Gregory Jay’s article also takes up the position that art is already associated with community engagement, adding that digital media may make it more possible to share typical humanities materials, which are often composed of writing rather than more outward-facing performances and visually-arresting images, with the new “public” of the internet (54). Since language is elastic, malleable and shapes the way we think, maybe we need redevelop our definition of “scholarship” to reflect this changing field. Or maybe, as Giles’s article suggests, we are still in the process of trying on new terms to encompass all these issues?

The idea of boundaries recurred in another way in my thinking and reading this week through considering the “end” of our Public Scholar projects. The NEH’s Criteria for Public Humanities Projects require digital or curricular materials that will expand the range of public scholarship and, ideally, help it survive even after the project or its funding has ended. In “The Engaged Humanities: Principles and Practices for Public Scholarship and Teaching,” Gregory Jay also suggests that successful projects should evolve into partnerships that are mutually sustaining rather than “drive by” engagement (59). These ideas make a lot of sense and I would like to hear more about how these extended partnerships develop. As the NEH’s requirements suggest, it seems important to begin projects with a sense of what they are building towards—an ending, a continuation, a beginning. It would be great to have further guidelines or suggestions for planning and moving beyond the limits of a completed project to a longer collaboration, if it is beneficial for our community partners.