What Public Humanities Means to Me

Last spring, I graduated from Brown University’s MA in Public Humanities program, and I often get asked what exactly I studied. My cohort of “Public Humans,” as we call ourselves, realized people’s perplexity early on, and spent plenty of time over the course of our two years perfecting our elevator pitches. For instance, if I’m feeling lazy in my explanation, I might just point to a library or museum and simply say, “It’s anything that makes the humanities open to the public.” Funders like the NEH often use the term in this liberal sense.

However, in our program, the term “public humanities” has a more useful definition than that. Otherwise, how could a single program successfully equip students to become curators, educators, storytellers, arts administrators, cultural policymakers, archivists, science visualizers, community artists, and even oyster farmers?

I think it can do so because public humanities at Brown isn’t a field or a discipline in its own right. It’s a kind of meta-discipline—a set of skills and beliefs that find application in many disciplines and fields. Below, I have tried to describe some of the core values that I think define the public humanities.

Reflective Practice

Learning in the program is structured around “reflective practice,” which asks us to engage in practice and scholarship simultaneously, and let them inform one another. When we undertake a project, we document our process, analyze it, and reintegrate our findings into the process. Throughout our time at Brown, Public Humans each have their own practicums, jobs in the Providence community, and student-driven projects, which we dissect in seminars, online forums, and sometimes, nights at the bar.

On one hand, this reflective practice provides grounding for sometimes lofty scholarship. As many students of the humanities know, it’s easy in the confines of the university to use theory to justify an absolute moral standard, or equally to hide behind postmodern ambiguity. Bringing practice to theory forces us theorists to make difficult, real-life choices and grapple with the imperfect consequences.

On the other hand, reflective practice provides a sanctuary from the apathy that sometimes comes with everyday practice. As many practitioners in museums, libraries, nonprofits, and government know, it’s easy to get discouraged by bureaucracy, to lose sight of your organization’s greater purpose, to stop challenging yourself. Bringing theory to practice forces us practitioners to remember our own ideals and continue striving to do better.

Reflective practice extends to the communities we serve as well. When our projects attempt to educate, they often do so by interpreting firsthand experiences, through media like exhibitions, tours, workshops, dialogues, or collaborative projects. As a Public Human, I believe that seeing an object or a place firsthand, or trying something yourself can make learning more nuanced, more memorable, and more meaningful. Since graduating, I have tried to continue to make room for reflective practice every day.

Enthusiastic Generalists

As Steven Lubar, the founding director of our program, said in a recent talk at Mt. Holyoke College, “Public history is to history as public humanities is to American studies.” That is, while public history tends to focus on interpreting the fruits of historical scholarship, public humanities tends to roam around more eclectic, interdisciplinary territory.

Accordingly, people in our program often call themselves “enthusiastic generalists.” This means that many of us bring a broad and varied set of knowledge and skills to the table. For that reason, we also have to develop a high tolerance for disagreement and ambiguity as we sift through many opinions in team projects and class discussion.

However, one cannot discount the word “enthusiastic” in our self-description. I always interpret this as a reference to the omnivorous curiosity of Public Humans. When it comes to work, we enjoy broadening our horizons, learning from others, and trying new things—even (or especially) if it means getting messy.

For me, the spirit of the “enthusiastic generalist” has led me on a zigzagging career path, from multimedia artist, to contemporary art curator, to public urbanist. And this path isn’t just linear; each new layer has built upon the last. For instance, recently I have been thinking about what role museums could play in planning and designing the city. What can an urban designer learn from Nina Simon? What can a museum director learn from Jane Jacobs? Plenty.


One of the most important values of Public Humanities—and one of the hardest to live up to—is reciprocity. We strive to produce projects that benefit and share power between ourselves and the communities we serve. To do this successfully, we draw on a collection of useful concepts.

In traditional museums and cultural organizations, this often requires a shift of perspective from the museum-as-authority to a model of shared authority with the community. This means valuing the viewpoint of non-expert communities equally to that of professional curators or educators (though not necessarily in the same way). Organizations can pursue this by hosting community projects, collaboratively producing projects, or integrating community voices into more traditional projects. The implications of this shared authority for the notions of expertise and objective truth continue to be debated in the field, but most Public Humans I know think it’s worth fighting for, even if it is difficult to achieve.

Engaged scholarship brings a similar approach to the production of knowledge, especially in an academic setting. At its core, engaged scholarship produces research that offers equal value to the research organization and the community being researched. In its purest form, scholars begin their work by addressing needs or questions that already exist in the community. Other times, scholars propose their own questions to a community, but in either case, the final result must be useful to both parties.

The good news is that all this community engagement is not just right; it’s smart. As James Surowiecki argues in The Wisdom of Crowds, diverse, well-structured groups can produce superior solutions to those of individual experts or groups of experts. In other words, non-experts, hobbyists, and experts of other fields have much to teach humanities scholars and practitioners.

A Public Human & A Public Urbanist

As my fellow Public Humans can attest, for me these ideas resonate strongly with the work of urbanist Jane Jacobs. Jacobs’ work, and the work of her colleagues who keep her spirit alive, have played a formative role in my life as a Public Human. Part activist and part scholar, Jacobs believed deeply in the value of reciprocity. As Michael Sorkin writes in Twenty Minutes in Manhattan, “She believed in what she called her Golden Rule—that the city works by intensifying reciprocity—and her theories grew from this identification of the health of the metropolis with commerce, in every sense of that word.” 1

While many in the humanities may consider “commerce” a dirty word, I think it captures the heart of Public Humanities for me. Public Humanities is all about exchange—social exchanges, cultural exchanges, exchanges of power, and exchanges of value. It’s about creating interdisciplinary, inclusive, win-win solutions in the cultural realm, and transgressing the zero-sum mentality we have inherited from traditional humanities work.

Additional Reading

  1. Michael Sorkin, Twenty Minutes in Manhattan, 24. Jacobs also expressed her Golden Rule in reverse as the “Sparrow Principle,” a commitment to resolve challenges only with a solution that will not harm, displace, or impair any party involved.

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