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Blog Post

Scholarly Societies and the Public Humanities

By Humanities for All
April 29, 2022
Scholarly Societies and the Public Humanities

Third grade students from South Loop Elementary School in Chicago visiting the Glessner House Museum, as part of the Society of Architectural Historians American Architecture and Landscape Field Trip Program, 2017. Photo by Michele Rudnick for Glessner House Museum.

Our Humanities for All initiative is dedicated to documenting the landscape of publicly engaged work in higher ed as well as learning about the infrastructure that supports that work—from public humanities training programs, to national grant programs, to campus-based centers. Scholarly societies are key players in the field. They both engage the public directly by drawing on the tools of their disciplines and provide essential support to scholars in carrying out and gaining recognition for their publicly engaged work. Building off a review of scholarly societies’ activities and a set of follow up focus groups, this essay offers a synthetic view of the work scholarly societies carry out in both categories. In offering examples of projects and initiatives that fall under these two types of work, we aim to provide a resource for scholarly societies so they can consider their own work in the context of their peers and for scholars to explore ways in which they can partner with and gain support from their own disciplinary societies.

Engaging Public Audiences

Scholarly societies work to ensure that a wide range of publics, from lawmakers to K-12 students to community organizations, have the opportunity to engage with their discipline. At times, scholarly societies draw on knowledge generated in their academic discipline to weigh in on policy questions, inform public discussion, or enhance K-12 curricula. At others, scholarly societies develop mutually beneficial partnerships with community organizations and other partners beyond academia with the goal of co-creating curricula and research. Here we offer examples that fall into both categories.

With the goal of reaching policy makers, scholarly societies often harness disciplinary knowledge to take public stands on questions of contemporary law and policy. These efforts most commonly take the form of a policy statement or an amicus brief. In 2015, the American Sociological Association (ASA) filed an amicus brief with the Supreme Court in relation to its hearing of Obergefell v. Hodges, the landmark case that led to the national legalization of same-sex marriage. The ASA brief “highlights the social science consensus that children raised by same-sex parents fare just as well as children raised by different-sex parents.” Similarly, in October of 2019, the American Historical Association (AHA) joined Seattle University’s Korematsu Center for Law and Equality, the Organization of American Historians (OAH), and several individual historians on an amicus brief supporting respondents in Department of Homeland Security, et al. Petitioners v. Regents of the University of California, et al. Respondents. The collaborative brief explains “the relationship between the history of anti-Mexican and Latinx racism and the use of related racist code words in the decision to rescind the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.” In September of 2021 AHA and OAH became signatories to an amicus brief in the Supreme Court case Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. This brief worked to provide an historical perspective as the Court considered the state of Mississippi’s challenge to a woman’s right to abortion, as protected by Roe v. Wade.

Scholarly societies also issue policy resolutions and public statements that demonstrate a constituent-wide stance on a particular event or piece of legislation. Many scholarly societies follow board-approved guidelines that target their efforts to areas where disciplinary knowledge can inform a debate or where a policy or situation directly affects the professional lives of its members. In response to the backlash against teaching about racism and related histories in K-12 classrooms, the American Studies Association published a Resolution on Defending Academic Freedom Against Attacks on “Critical Race Theory,” developed in solidarity with the #TruthBeTold campaign of the African American Policy Forum. These resolutions are also occasionally co-authored by a number of organizations, such as the Joint Statement on Efforts to Restrict Education about Racism issued by the American Association of University Professors, PEN America, the American Historical Association, and the Association of American Colleges & Universities. Usually, one organization with particular expertise in an area will take the lead and other organizations will sign onto the statement to show their support.

Scholarly societies also work to reach broad publics with their disciplinary knowledge to enrich public conversation about contemporary issues. The National Communication Association (NCA) produces a “Concepts in Communication” video series, which it circulates to media organizations to support their efforts to explain social phenomena such as microaggressions, digital anxiety, and navigating the proliferation of misleading news sources. The American Musicological Society (AMS) partners with the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on a lecture series for the general public that highlights the work of musicologists that intersects with the collections of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame museum and archives. During the COVID-19 pandemic, societies have also produced virtual webinars and conversation series that have attracted a wide non-member audience, such as the Latin American Studies Association’s (LASA) Dialogues series on topics ranging from the Biden presidency’s effect on Latin America to racism and anti-racism in Brazil.

Another key audience that scholarly societies have worked to engage in their disciplines is K-12 students. For disciplines without a presence in K-12 classrooms, scholarly society outreach can be the first introduction to the field for K-12 students. The Society for Ethnomusicology uses its annual meeting as an opportunity for scholars to visit schools in the meeting host cities and to hold a workshop for local K-12 teachers. In addition, it invites students from predominantly minority-serving high schools to the meeting for a “Day of Ethnomusicology,” which enables them to learn about career opportunities in the discipline. At the Society for Architectural Historians (SAH), donor-funded grants support K-12 engagement programs, including the American Architecture and Landscape Field Trip Program. SAH partners with other non-profit organizations that offer design education, architectural history, and historic preservation programs to youth and docent-led tours of architecture, parks, gardens, neighborhoods, and town and city centers. Since receiving funding in 2014, the initiative has supported hundreds of architecture and landscape field trips for underserved students in grades 3 through high school.

In addition to sharing disciplinary knowledge with a range of public audiences, scholarly societies also build collaborative relationships with community organizations and other partners beyond academia where participating organizations and academics exchange resources and ideas. The American Academy of Religion, for example, assembled a taskforce of K-12 teachers through a partnership with the Religious Freedom Center at the Newseum to create a set of literacy guidelines for teaching religion. The fifty-page document, developed by the taskforce over a period of two years, addresses why teaching religion is important, the distinction between a devotional approach to religion and a non-devotional religious studies approach appropriate for public schools, as well as skills- and content-based approaches to teaching about religion.

In addition to enhancing pedagogy, partnerships of this sort have advanced research as well. Working in the conflict zones of Syria, Northern Iraq, and Libya, the American Schools of Overseas Research Cultural Heritage Initiatives (ASOR CHI) documents, protects, and promotes global awareness of at-risk cultural property, including museums, libraries, and archaeological, historic, and religious sites. ASOR CHI issues monthly reports to the U.S. Department of State, which are redacted and posted online. These reports outline the status of damage and threats to cultural heritage in conflict zones and are used by organizations such as UNESCO, Interpol, and Europol. Similarly, members of the American Folklore Society (AFS) have joined the Southwest Folklife Alliance in partnership with the Surdna Foundation, the Highlander Research and Education Center, and the Othering & Belonging Institute to facilitate Participatory Action Research (PAR) training for Black, Indigenous, and people of color researchers nationally and in the U.S./Mexico border corridor. PAR is a methodology that challenges the idea that academics or trained professionals are solely equipped to do research. Rather, PAR “recognizes that people whose lives are most affected by inequities, barriers, and problems already hold deep knowledge through their own lived experience.” By combining folklore and PAR research methods, the initiative celebrates everyday cultural expressions in the Greater Southwest while equipping participants with cultural documentation tools that lead to personal enrichment and social action.

One of the most visible public humanities initiatives carried out by a scholarly society has been the American Anthropological Association’s (AAA) museum exhibition Race: Are We So Different? Created in 2007 as part of AAA’s public education initiative, the traveling exhibition has reached over three million visitors on human biological variation and the history of race as social construction. Over time, it has grown to include an interactive website and K-12 educational materials. After the success of this initiative, AAA has created a second public education initiative on migration and displacement in collaboration with the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Culture Heritage and the American Library Association. Taking a case study approach to present stories of migration throughout human history, World On The Move includes a traveling exhibition, a podcast, and curricular resources.

Supporting Publicly Engaged Scholars and Scholarship

In addition to engaging public audiences directly, scholarly societies have developed a variety of approaches to supporting their members in engaging with public audiences. Taken as a whole, these efforts encourage recognition of publicly engaged work in their field and give their members the tools to more fully engage with public audiences.

Several scholarly societies have leveraged their authority to promote recognition for publicly engaged work in the tenure and promotion process—thereby aligning professional incentives with their interest in pursuing publicly engaged projects. Through a collaboration, the AHA, the National Council on Public History (NCPH), and the OAH produced tenure and review guidelines for the evaluation of history professors. The ASA and the Modern Language Association (MLA) have also produced guidelines, with the MLA’s resource placing emphasis on digital humanities scholarship. In a similar vein, the American Philosophical Association (APA) offers a statement on valuing public philosophy. The APA’s statement was developed by two APA committees working on public philosophy and issues in the profession, and is offered as a subject-specific resource for faculty to use to advocate within their departments and institutions for the support of public humanities scholarship. Across these guidelines, societies urge universities and academic departments to create tenure and review guidelines that evaluate scholarship as a process rather than as a product. With an eye towards process, scholarship that engages in community partnered work can be evaluated for its mutually beneficial impacts, with departments celebrating practitioners for their ability to address the evolving needs of local communities, or the strength of their applied pedagogy. Not only does this shift help make visible the value added to scholarship from community partnered research and teaching methods, but it also acknowledges the extra labor of service and administration that public humanities work requires.

Scholarly societies have also used prizes to foster recognition of publicly engaged work. Prizes offer individual scholars external validation (that can be added to a CV) while also raising the visibility of publicly engaged work in academia more generally. These awards include AHA’s Herbert Feis Award, which recognizes distinguished contributions to public history, and its John Lewis Award for History and Social Justice, which recognizes leadership and sustained engagement at the intersection of historical work and social justice. In collaboration with Places Journal, in 2022 SAH will award its inaugural SAH | Places Prize on Race and the Built Environment, which honors public scholarship that reconsiders race and the history of the built environment through a contemporary lens.

In an effort to provide scholars with the tools that they need to engage broader audiences, meanwhile, several scholarly societies have trained scholars in translating their research into writing for public audiences and connected them with public writing opportunities. The AAA funds a cohort of members each year to participate in a day-long op-ed writing workshop organized by the OpEd Project, that connects participants with media mentors and teaches them how to pitch and write pieces for the media. With funding from the Mellon Foundation, the OAH similarly collaborates with the Washington Post’s “Made By History” blog to host webinars and in person workshops to help historians produce public works. Topics range from how to write for public audiences to how to grow a social media base. As these gatherings are relatively inexpensive to produce and draw high interest from members, with modest investment OAH has been able to support the desire within their scholarly community to respond to current events and participate in public debates.

Other scholarly societies have engaged their memberships working beyond academia to support them in fostering rich engagements with public audiences. At the AFS, leadership noted that almost half of U.S. folklorists, including an increasing number of those based at universities, work in the public sector and engage with audiences through public programs. As a result, the Public Programs section of AFS provides a network for individuals and organizations working in public folklore. Section members gather around a shared interest of supporting traditional artists and creating education materials and opportunities for the public about folk culture. Section activities include hosting awards for public folklore, annual publications, fundraisers for student and public grant support, and the maintenance of a directory of state and local public folklore organizations. The Renaissance Society of America, meanwhile, offers a grant program for high school teachers, museum docents, library curators, and directors of education at theater companies that awards $1,000 for an exemplary online project related to renaissance studies involving primary source materials.


Scholarly societies have created an essential infrastructure that provides support for their members to grapple with how their discipline can engage broader publics and to carry out publicly engaged projects. Scholarly societies are also themselves practitioners of the public humanities, engaging partner organizations and communities in collaborative research and programming through their disciplines. While these categories don't encompass everything scholarly societies do to support engagement with the public, we hope that these categories provide a useful structure within which scholarly societies can conceptualize their own work. Finally, by highlighting examples of what scholarly societies themselves aim to accomplish and linking their work to these broader categories, we hope to demonstrate the invaluable role that scholarly societies play in nurturing, legitimizing, and proliferating publicly engaged humanities scholarship.

To learn more about the projects discussed in this essay and the over 2,000 other projects in Humanities for All, explore the database below.

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