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What We Know Now: Humanities for All One Year Later

by Daniel Fisher, Humanities for All Project Director | Oct 07, 2019

Last summer, the National Humanities Alliance launched the Humanities for All website 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 three essays and countless conversations, at conferences and with practitioners across the country, about the impact of their work and the challenges they often face.

In one of these essays, for example, we 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. Ensuring that voices often left out of the historical record are amplified and shared with the academic and broader communities;
  3. Helping individuals and communities navigate difficult experiences, such as veterans returning from war;
  4. Expanding educational access for K-12 students and people of all ages; and
  5. Preserving culture in times of crisis and change, from natural disasters to gentrification.

In the discipline of architectural history 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.

SAH Archipedia, which is featured in Humanities for All, for example, is an open-access publication with more than 20,000 building histories and essays that document and interpret the history of U.S. architecture and landscapes. The dozens of thematic and place-based essays in SAH Archipedia that tell little-known stories of American architecture focus on topics as diverse as Ethnicity and Culture as Influences on Vernacular Architecture, Schools for the Deaf, and Public Housing in California. Other histories are told in individual building entries such as the entries on the Mississippi home of Civil Rights Leader Medgar Evers, the Alaskan whale bone house built for Nanny Ooyahtona, or the First Baptist Church in Providence, Rhode Island, built 1774-75. SAH Archipedia provides access to the best-known and little-known history of the U.S. built environment and, in so doing, enables SAH to reach broad constituencies of students, preservationists, scholars, architects, and others who are curious about the places that shaped U.S. history.

At the same time, 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. Clio—a GPS enabled app and website for sharing local history—is an example of a project that uses digital technologies to incorporate public engagement into undergraduate humanities classrooms. Illinois College’s Jenny Barker-Devine has used Clio in a first-year classroom to create entries for significant locations in Jacksonville, Illinois. “Clio offered an ideal entry-level platform,” Barker-Devine writes in Perspectives on History. “I wanted students to not only learn technical skills, but also to take on a local history project that would develop their research capabilities, promote civic engagement, and foster a connection with Jacksonville, the students’ home for the next four years.”

As we have discussed this work 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: a free-access collection of recent articles featuring publicly engaged humanities work.

This collection, which is freely available online and will continue to grow through the end of 2019, 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, The Public Historian, and the Humanities and Public Life Book Series) and public engagement writ large. 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 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 and our new article collection.

Founded in 1940, the Society of Architectural Historians is an international nonprofit membership organization that promotes the study, interpretation and conservation of architecture, design, landscapes and urbanism worldwide. SAH serves a network of local, national and international institutions and individuals who, by profession or interest, focus on the built environment and its role in shaping contemporary life. SAH promotes meaningful public engagement with the history of the built environment through advocacy efforts, print and online publications, and local, national and international programs.

SAH thanks The Richard H. Driehaus Foundation
for its operating support.
Society of Architectural Historians
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Chicago, Illinois 60610
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