Advocating 4humanities @Union College, Schenectady, NY, February 10, 2014

What can we humanists do to be our discipline’s best advocates? How can we break down the intellectual and class walls that we in the academy have built around ourselves in a time of public critical discourse on the relevance, use, and even worth of our discipline? And how can we employ the tools and community of DH to help us in that outreach and argument? A group of us from Bucknell drove up through the snow and mountains, along interstates all in the 80s, to Union College to attend a fascinating, thoughtful and thought provoking workshop led by Alan Liu, Chair of English at UCSB on the recently released congressional report “The Heart of the Matter.”

Liu had provided us with the text of the report prior to our meeting, complete with his annotations and analyses. Part of our homework was not only to read and analyze the report, but also to see how Liu had employed the tools of “distant reading” or digital discourse analysis to reveal its topics, assumptions and argument clusters. Plugging the text into Voyant, using Taporware to remove the stop words (the, an, that etc) it is possible to quickly construct multiple visualizations of word and concept frequency, word and concept linkage and proximity, and also rhetorical framing.  Mobilizing vocabularies of nation and security, public funding and social relevance, civic consciousness and individual enrichment, personal and public memory, the report strikes an odd balance between support for the project of the discipline, and an argument for its deployment in a discourse of national security.

We walked into the gorgeous Nott Memorial building armed with what we thought was a pretty thorough understanding of how this “blue ribbon” group had formulated their approach to getting to the Heart of the Matter.  But a few minutes in the presence of the careful, intelligent, and suggestive Liu brought to the fore the way in which he, when faced with the realities of cuts in the UC system, responded to the challenges facing the humanities worldwide. Mobilizing the forces of advocacy, DH, and public humanities, Liu started the website 4humanities and publicized its mission of advocacy in the digital age. Along with the organizer of today’s conference, Professor Christine Henseler, Chair of Foreign Languages at Union, and her page Humanities Plain and Simple, Liu outlined the many and varied forms in which we can all push the humanities to the forefront of the public’s eye.

So, how do the rest of us  in the discipline do this? Liu showed us a variety of ways in which we can show off how the humanities makes things. Humanities Infographics to print out and display: create a Humanities Backpack with short videos about the humanities; drive the Humanities bus around the country–yes, a road trip to make videos of why the humanities matter. All these ideas are supported through this network of global and local chapters of 4humanities, stretching from UCSB to UCL which help to develop strategic principles for humanities advocacy.

A central part of the 4humanities project is public outreach. Much in the same way as we in the Stories of the Susquehanna have always made public outreach and public involvement part of our project, so Liu argued for the need to make the connections between what we do in our classrooms and disseminating our work, even through the means of machine readers, through social networks to the public. The authors of the Heart of the Matter had certainly recognized the importance of such public outreach with the suggestion, for example, of the creation of a Culture Corps consisting of volunteers from the community who could bring their expertise on local issues to the classroom. Given the way in which we now have a very different notion of expertise, where the purveyors of knowledge not only reside in the universities or print media, but rather in sites such as Wikipedia where knowledge is crowdsourced, this changing vision of the concept of expertise needs to be recognized and incorporated into the humanities. Moments of discovery, whether a child finding a grandmother’s camisole in an attic trunk, or a Vietnam vet’s recovery of a long hidden memory unearthed while rereading letters home, these are part of the human experience that need to be shared. And, as Liu pointed out, many times the public is surprised to learn that this constitutes the humanities.

Today was a call to action and a gentle reminder that most of us in the discipline are not trained in the fine art of public outreach.  To us, working in the Stories of the Susquehanna, it was an affirmation of an integral part of our work in making the humanities the heart of the matter along the banks of the river.


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