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Blog Post

Public Scholarship in Literary Studies

By Rosemary Erickson Johnsen
May 4, 2021
*Public Scholarship in Literary Studies*

Image courtesy of Rosemary Johnsen.

On March 22, 2021, Governors State University (GSU) hosted a virtual event, "Public Scholarship in the Humanities: Book Panel and Discussion." Although not a book launch as such, the webinar featured presentations by four contributors to a forthcoming (now published) Amherst College Press collection of essays entitled Public Scholarship in Literary Studies, co-edited by Rachel Arteaga of the University of Washington's Simpson Center for the Humanities and me. The volume is comprised of what Rachel in her introduction calls "six exemplary works ... from the field," bookended by her introduction to the history and current scholarship of public humanities and my concluding essay that draws together the volume's narratives to invite humanities scholars to be adventurous in considering public forms for their teaching and research practice.

The event had multiple campus sponsors, including the dean of Graduate Studies and the University Library. Its goal was to provide campus leadership, faculty, and graduate students the opportunity to learn more about public humanities and ask questions of successful public scholars. Thanks to the pandemic-necessitated virtual environment, the audience also included scholars, students, and humanities professionals from across the country. GSU is a regional comprehensive university with a role as an "intellectual public square" in the Chicago Southland, and the contributions of public humanities to that mission are recognized by our university president, Dr. Cheryl Green, who joined the panelists to provide a welcome. Recognizing the potential of the humanities to forge campus-community connections underscores the accessible value of public humanities engagement.

"Literary criticism has the potential not only to explain, but to actively change our terms of engagement with current realities."

My webinar presentation set forth the precepts that undergird Public Scholarship in Literary Studies, beginning with the power of literature to enrich and inform understanding, well known to scholars and students of literature but less visible to others. As the book makes clear, however, literary studies scholars have both a data set and a skill set that position them to make valuable contributions to public life. Literary criticism has the potential not only to explain, but to actively change our terms of engagement with current realities.

These claims were demonstrated by Christopher Douglas, professor of English at the University of Victoria, who drew on his chapter about writing for public audiences, sharing examples and strategies for engagement and promotion. His research on the intersections of literature, religion, and U.S. politics has found many readers through pieces such as his essay on the religious origins of "fake news." His chapter is followed in the book by 2018 NEH Public Scholar Cynthia Haven's essay about launching The Book Haven in the early days of blogging, and showing the international impact of her work in a variety of solo and collaborative ventures from her base in Palo Alto.

Two chapters in Public Scholarship in Literary Studies describe programs that were built in collaboration with community partners, offering readers both guiding principles and lessons learned through experience. Gary Handwerk, Anu Taranath, and Christine Chaney's chapter describes the Texts and Teachers program at the University of Washington, a long-standing partnership with regional high schools to offer dual-credit high-school literature courses linked to college courses. Daniel Coleman and Lorraine York's chapter is a history of the development of the Center for Community Engaged Narrative Arts (CCENA) at McMaster University, from an exploratory seed grant to a thriving center that seeks to support multiple communities in the Hamilton, Ontario area. It is an exemplar of putting public humanities in the service of local communities rather than foisting academic research priorities on them. The chapter's illustrated description of four sample CCENA projects combines inspiration and practical advice in equal measure.

Jim Cocola, a faculty member at Worcester Polytechnic Institute and academic director of the Worcester Clemente Course in the Humanities, spoke from his chapter in Public Scholarship in Literary Studies to describe a rigorous program of study that, in his words, is "built around the public consequences of humanistic inquiry." His own enriched understanding of Richard Wright's late turn to the Haiku form provides a case study of the learning that happens for both scholar and community-based learners. Our final speaker at the webinar was Carmaletta Williams, who shared stories of "Takin' It to the Streets: Public Scholarship in the Heartland." The arc of Dr. Williams' career, brought to life in her chapter and in her talk, reveals how her academic research, professional career, and public engagement are inextricably linked. Currently the executive director of the Black Archives of Mid-America in Kansas City, Missouri, she is an Emmy Award winner for her portrayal of Zora Neale Hurston on Kansas City Public Television.

Public Scholarship in Literary Studies is more than the sum of its parts—and its parts are individually powerful. Rachel and I are particularly pleased that it is being published by Amherst College Press, which offers rigorous peer review, a focus on disciplinary innovation, and simultaneous publication in both free digital and modest-cost print formats. In the Q&A at the end of "Public Scholarship in the Humanities," the panelists discussed questions of what public scholarship might look like now, with so many venues moving online. While there are no easy answers to that question, we see Public Scholarship in Literary Studies as a sharing of experience and insight that, as I write in my concluding essay, is offered in hope that readers will be "inspired to embrace a forward-looking, active vision of engagement for public scholarship [so] we can change the world."

Rosemary Erickson Johnsen is Professor of English, Associate Provost, and Associate VP of Academic Affairs at Governors State University in University Park, Illinois. She maintains a website at rosemaryj.com, where information is available about the two NEH Dialogues on the Experience of War projects she co-directed and her other public humanities engagement.

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