American Sociological Association

ASA Footnotes

A publication of the American Sociological AssociationASA News & Events
November/December 2019
Volume 
47
Issue 
5

What We Know Now: Humanities for All One Year Later

Daniel Fisher, National Humanities Alliance

Last summer, the National Humanities Alliance (NHA) launched the Humanities for All website (humanitiesforall.org) to help foster publicly engaged humanities scholarship in U.S. higher education. Showcasing the contribution that this work makes to both academic and public life, the website brings together over 1,500 examples of publicly engaged research, teaching, preservation, and programming. These examples offer models for beginning and deepening publicly engaged scholarship across disciplines, as well as a unique view of a growing field within the humanities.

Over the last year, we have had the opportunity to further analyze this robust dataset. This work has led to countless conversations, at conferences and with practitioners across the country, about the impact of their work and the challenges they often face. 

NHA drew on the projects we profiled to synthesize five overarching goals toward which many of the initiatives work:

  1. Informing contemporary discussions on subjects such as the environment, race, and local history and culture; 
  2. Amplifying community voices and histories;
  3. Helping individuals and communities navigate difficult experiences;
  4. Expanding educational access; and
  5. Preserving culture in times of crisis and change, from natural disasters to gentrification.

In the discipline of sociology and across the humanities, publicly engaged projects are working to accomplish one—and often more—of these goals. Humanities for All brings together a diverse cross section of projects that work to achieve these objectives. Our analysis of this dataset has also shown that these initiatives have had a strong impact on academic life—creating opportunities for innovative teaching, research, and publication. 

The profiles in Humanities for All showcase the many ways that publicly engaged work can create innovative teaching and learning experiences, empowering project-based learning that benefits both the higher education institution and the community partners. At Massachusetts’ Salem State University, for example, Sara Moore’s sociology courses work towards the dual goals of student learning and social change (bit.ly/2qoBgIW). In the spring 2019, Moore’s public sociology students explored issues relating to food justice in Salem through photovoice, a methodology using photography to explore a communal challenge, in partnership with third-graders at the Horace Mann Laboratory School (humanitiesforall.org?thumbnail=photovoice-to-promote-food-justice). Led collaboratively by Moore and the school’s literacy coach and third-grade teachers over the course of one semester, participating students created an exhibit of images from local supermarkets that showcased issues relating to food justice. The exhibition opening was attended by a range of university and community leaders, inspiring city council to take up the issue of food insecurity through legislation currently in development.

Other examples in sociology include the Eviction Lab (humanitiesforall.org/?thumbnail=the-evicted-lab#projects) at Princeton University. This digital project, which grew out of Matthew Desmond’s research on housing, poverty, and eviction, collects and presents eviction data from across the United States. for use in advocacy, policymaking, and research. The project is not only public facing. Its dataset was built with and continues to solicit eviction data from citizen researchers. Its objective is deeply connected with the five overarching objectives listed above, informing, for example, contemporary discussions and policies concerning the difficult experiences of eviction, housing insecurity, and homelessness.

As we have discussed these and other projects in a variety of contexts at conferences and in conversations with individual scholars, we've found again and again that scholars remain concerned about how it is credited in the context of traditional expectations for faculty promotion and tenure in the humanities: research, teaching, and service. With this in mind, we have been working to showcase how publicly engaged work and scholarship can go hand in hand. To that end, we are delighted to partner with Routledge, Taylor & Francis to release Publishing and the Publicly Engaged Humanities (http://bit.ly/Humanities_Engaged), an open-access collection of recent articles featuring publicly engaged humanities work.

This collection, which is freely available online and will continue to grow, shows some of the range of journals and edited volumes that publish articles on publicly engaged humanities work. These publications complement outlets dedicated specifically to publicly engaged humanities work (e.g., Public and the Humanities and Public Life Book Series). The breadth in format and venue available is encouraging, suggesting that scholars consider different approaches to publishing both in their disciplines and in connection with their work’s areas of impact. 

In the year ahead, we will continue to build Humanities for All by adding new content and creating new opportunities for connecting with practitioners of publicly engaged humanities. In addition to representing a wider and ever more diverse collection of sociology and other projects on the site, we will be opening a blog featuring posts by outside writers and publishing a series of long-form transcribed interviews with publicly engaged scholars and their partners. At the same time, we are beginning qualitative and quantitative research into the impact of select publicly engaged humanities initiatives on faculty, students, and their community partners and participants. 

To learn more about publicly engaged humanities work in U.S. higher education, we encourage you to explore and share the Humanities for All website (humanitiesforall.org) and our new article collection.