Looking back to our first Public Scholars seminar meeting at the end of March, I am reminded of a key question that remains important to me as I shift my attention toward the summer. When asked to consider who is the “public” of the “Public Humanities” in general and of our public-facing projects in particular, together we raised further questions about the very need to define a special kind of academic work as “public.” Why and how is it that the public university, and the work of academics, is not already (or no longer) connected to or understood to be serving the public? It was our fellow colleague Lily, I believe, who specifically pointed to the historical conditions that have shaped this apparent rift: the privatization of the public university has helped to separate the academy from the publics it imagines itself to be serving.
Keeping in mind these initial and persistent questions, I move from the (virtual) seminar room and “into the field” considering the possibilities for—and limitations of—re-imagining the structures of our academic institutions through our public humanities projects. I remain invigorated by Steven Lubar’s provocative question in his third of seven Rules for Public Humanists: “What if a humanities department was a hub of a community of artists, educators, scholars and the public?” This question points to the possibilities for reshaping the very boundaries of an academic department to include many more perspectives, knowledges, and interests. It also points to the possibility for public humanities projects to effect structural change—change that addresses more than the much-needed diversification of professional training for humanities graduate students. For me, Lubar’s question remains provocative because it points to a need to rethink who actively participates in knowledge production within the academy—but here, a “humanities department” cannot be contained within the academy’s walls, for in this vision the department already includes the public “outside” of it.
At the same time that I am enthusiastic about this vision, I am also grounded by the limitations and contradictions of such efforts to re-imagine our humanities departments. Keeping in mind Roderick Ferguson’s discussion of the academy’s absorption of social movements and of diversity, I am sensitive to the ways that such visions for change can be absorbed into the university without altering its power structures. I remain humbled by the small, practical effects that my summer project might have, such as clearing a path for a future graduate student(s) at my institution to gain experience with community-engaged work next summer, that is, during the months that are especially difficult for underfunded humanities students.
Finally, I move “into the field” while reflecting on the fascinating paradox of what constitutes a community or a public. On the one hand, I hold close Lubar’s first rule for public humanists, which admonishes that we must first listen to the needs and expertise of the communities that already exist outside of the university. The needs of an already-existing community must, ultimately, shape any project that seeks to be of use to that community. On the other hand, I also hold close Zizi Papacharissi’s arguments, which imply that publics are never precisely stable, pre-existing entities; communities are actively created in relation to a given event, and so are much more dynamic than the university-public divide might suggest. It is with excitement and humility that I anticipate the creation of a new community during the course of my summer project.