Going Public: A Guide for Slavists

This is part of a SEEB series on the “Public Humanities” organized by Jennifer Wilson, Assistant Professor in the Department of Slavic and East European Languages and Cultures at The Ohio State University.

In 2012, Brown University launched the country’s first dedicated master’s degree in “Public Humanities.” With the goal of making humanities research “meaningful and accessible,” the John Nicholas Brown Center for Public Humanities and Cultural Heritage has offered courses on radio and podcasting (the Center also hosts its own public humanities podcast, “Public Work”), the history of heritage museums and cultural organizations in Rhode Island, prison education, and public memory. The program also offers courses taught by directors of local organizations such as Lorén Spears, the Executive Director of Tomaquag Museum, who co-teaches a course on “indigenous cultural survival” in Rhode Island.

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Since then, “public humanities” programs, often geared towards graduate students, have been springing up across the country. Central to these initiatives is a desire to think about the potential social impact of the humanities. Advocates for public humanities bemoan the current state of academic research, finding it too often cloistered away behind ivy-trimmed gates and prohibitively expensive paywalls, and are proactively thinking about ways to bridge the divide between universities and the public. Case in point: the University of Washington at Seattle’s Simpson Center offers public humanities certificates and short-term fellowships designed to help students “integrate their scholarly and social commitments.” One recent fellow, Julian Barr, revamped a walking tour of Seattle’s LGBTQ neighborhood, combining research in history, geography, and gay and lesbian studies for the final project, titled “The Original Seattle Gayborhood: A Public Historical Walking Tour of Seattle’s Lesbian & Gay Past.” Similarly, the Rackham Program in Public Scholarship at The University of Michigan-Ann Arbor holds an annual summer workshop called the “Institute for Social Change” where students are trained in “publicly engaged scholarship, pedagogy, and practices.” Rackham also offers students paid internships in the southern Michigan area, including at the Arab American National Museum in Dearborn and the Detroit Institute of the Arts.

Indeed, for many public humanities programs and initiatives, critically reflecting on the university’s role in the immediate community is often a way to begin conversations about the ways research can and should serve local populations. In fact, my own journey into public humanities work came after I began a Postdoctoral Fellowship at the University of Pennsylvania in my hometown. As an African-American native of West Philadelphia, it was strange to be on the other side of things so to speak, behind the walls that have historically shut people like me out. It dramatically changed my approach to my research, and I became newly eager to think about how my scholarship could engage and give back to the broader public. I began contributing to media outlets like The New York Times and The New Yorker, hoping to bring the lessons gleaned from years of studying Russian literature to bear on contemporary questions of cultural production and social justice. Recently, I wrote about what today’s true crime writers could learn from Dostoevskii about representations of criminality. As scholars with valuable insights into a part of the world that is increasingly making the news, we are in a unique position to offer culturally specific insights that could better inform public debates about the post-Soviet world, an act that would be a social good for the people who live there and could potentially suffer from a misinformed American mediasphere.

The contributors to this special issue have all likewise been thinking through the ways that their scholarly work can have an afterlife in the public realm. José Vergara and Marijeta Bozovic’s pieces both speak to the role of socially engaged pedagogy within the public humanities, with Vergara reflecting on his time as Project Coordinator for the Oakhill Prison Humanities Project (OPHP) and Bozovic discussing plans to adapt her university course, “Internet Cultures,” for students from the New Haven public school. In her contribution, Susan Smith-Peter writes about her experience creating an exhibit on the Russian Revolution for the New York Public Library; Smith-Peter teaches courses on Public History and her essay provides an important snapshot into what that discipline can offer the still nascent field of Public Humanities. For readers interested in how they can bring their scholarship to a wider audience through online writing, my interview with editors Boris Dralyuk (Los Angeles Review of Books) and Maya Vinokour (All the Russias) can provide some useful insights into the process and possibilities that writing for the public presents. Likewise, Katherine Bowers discusses new trends and opportunities in open-access publishing that can help scholars reach a broader and more diverse public.”

It is important to mention that much of the energy behind public humanities programming and institutionalization stems out of a recognition that the adjunct crisis has hit humanists especially hard. With an increasing dearth of stable employment for humanities PhDs, many public humanities programs have emphasized how their coursework and research fellowships can aid students in finding careers outside of academia. Most notably, the American Council for Learned Societies (ACLS) created a Public Fellows program that places recent humanities PhDs in jobs in government and non-profit jobs. ACLS has successfully secured jobs for fellows at places like the Los Angeles Review of Books, the Smithsonian Museum, and New York’s famed storytelling venue “The Moth.” This special issue hopes that alongside the very important conversation about the role of public humanities in helping graduates find meaningful work outside of higher education, we also consider how vital this new movement around socially engaged, publically accessible scholarship might be for those of us still within the academy as we fight not merely to save the humanities as they have been historically constituted (often in spaces that have excluded minorities and vulnerable members of our society), but to save a new, impactful, public, and truly humanistic version of them.   

Selected Public Humanities Projects by Scholars of Slavic and East European Languages and Literatures:

Enthusiasm (Victoria Donovan, St. Andrews) –  “Enthusiasm’ is an innovative, interdisciplinary one-day arts event brings together musicians, members of the community, archivists and historians to take a radical look at a little-known historical episode that links Merthyr and the South Wales Valleys to the Donbass in Ukraine and asks how the legacy of this past continues to resonate in our social, cultural and political landscape today.”

Immigrant Stories (Co-editors Ani Kokobobo, University of Kansas, and Anne Lounsbery, New York University) – Hosted by All the Russias (the official blog of the Jordan Center for the Advanced Study of Russian at New York University), this initiative compiled first-hand immigration stories from students and scholars in the field of Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies.  

Books Behind Bars: Life, Literature and Leadership (Andrew D. Kaufman, University of Virginia) – A community-based course that brings college students together with residents of a maximum security juvenile correctional center to discuss Russian literature.

Crime and Punishment at 150 (Co-organized by Katherine Bowers, University of British Columbia, and Kate Holland, University of Toronto) – An outreach initiative that commemorated the 150th anniversary of the publication of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s novel Crime and Punishment (1866) through a series of public events and digital projects.

Going Public: A Guide for Slavists

A Series on the “Public Humanities” Organized by Jennifer Wilson

Writing in Public: An Interview with Boris Dralyuk (Executive Editor, Los Angeles Review of Books) and Maya Vinokour (Assistant Professor at NYU and Editor, All the Russias’ Blog)

The Public Humanities, Prison Education, and Our Hidden Interlocutors by José Vergara

The Russian Revolution and Public History: Expanding America’s Story by Susan Smith-Peter

The Ins and Outs of Open Access by Katherine Bowers

Internet Cultures and the Public Humanities: Murmurs from New Haven by Marijeta Bozovic

SEEB is currently accepting blog post ideas and submissions from graduate students and faculty members. Please visit this page to learn more about our submission guidelines. We look forward to working with you!

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