The English Department joined the Center for the Humanities in its annual festival, held at URI on April 6th, which was dedicated to the topic of Public Humanities. The Festival was opened by Annu Palakunathu Matthew, director of the Center for the Humanities, who awarded the Student Excellence Award Winners 2017: undergraduate students Kristina Canton (History Department), Charles Santos (Philosophy Department), graduate student Michelle M. Drummey (History Department), and PhD student Beth Leonardo Silvia, from the English Department, who not only has two articles accepted for publication but also serves as Administrative Assistant to the Center for the Humanities.
Kathleen Davis, Professor of English at URI and director of the NEH Planning Grant “Humanities at Large,” introduced the topic of Public Humanities and the “culture of yes!”, and highlighted the importance of a productive dialogue between academia and the Public.
The panel discussion was moderated by Christina Bevilacqua, a cultural curator who currently serves as Conversationalist-in residence at Trinity Repertory Company. The three main panelists—who come from different experiences, background, and education—confronted and debated the idea of Public Humanities. Each panelist defined their own approach.
What is Humanities? That question opened the discussion, as Christina Bevilacqua highlighted the way practitioners go into the world of humanities. Interdisciplinarity seemed to be the thread that bound the intervention of the panelists Shereen Marisol Meraji, co-host of NPR’s Code Switch podcast focused on race and culture in America, Ry, Cordell–Assistant Professor of English and core founding faculty member in the NULab for Texts, Maps, and Network at Northeastern University, and Loren M. Spears, Tomaquag Museum Executive Director and URI alumni.
Cordell pointed out the importance of interdisciplinarity, and gave as an example the way computational and humanist method are combined in his work. Technology is present, Cordell stated, we use it. History and literature, or the history of literature may become a history of technology. In labs, students learn about codes. Technology has become a part of the history of humanities, as digital archive is replicating a traditional archive. Technology should be interrogated, and used to perpetuate culture. Social media put people in conversation and used to spread and reinforce messages of diversity and humanity.
Shereen Marisol Meraji, with her NPR podcast that discusses the idea of race in America, proves that humanists can become activists, and that technology can have a positive impact on society. Her podcast, in her own definition, “is an archive about race and identity in America.” It is a radio archive that collects and retells oral stories, providing a virtual but important space to raise questions about memories, stories, race, and background. These are “humanities” questions. How to give the invisible a voice? That is what the Humanities do. They make those stories public. That is one of the values of the Humanities.
Christina Bevilacqua moved the discussion to Digital Humanities and the relationship between history and technology. How to combine, then, archival work in 19th, 18th century history and literature, with technology?
Loren M. Spears jumped in the conversation. She illustrated how her work in Tomaquag Museum is using different types of media such as videos and podcast to enlarge the interested audience and involve more young people in the museum’s life, which is based on connections. Connections between communities and families. Between past and present. Archival research and digital archive. The humanists’ job, after all, is to tell stories. And the question is, how do we tell stories? How do we recollect them? How do we make them available for future generations? How to involve the community members, students, and the public, in the life of a museum?
Loren Spears shares her cultural knowledge and traditional arts with the Public through museum programs. A museum brings new knowledge and awareness about history and the history of the community.
English majors are in demand, but there is an existing stereotype about the uselessness of humanities. In her speech, Spears sounded encouraging and supportive towards the students and the humanists who are now going into the job market. Spears reported about one of her internships, a young student who was trained during her experience in the Tomaquag Museum to write grant proposals, share her knowledge with the public, and to make her skills crucial and necessary to the success of the museum’s projects.
The Public seems to ask the university system to engage in a conversation about the practical society’s needs. The Humanities are becoming the ideal bridge that makes the encounter between the academia and the outside world finally possible.
Photos of the event can be found here: http://web.uri.edu/humanities/