Welcome for new public humanities MA students

The next few days you’ll be meeting lots of people and getting lots of advice. Some of it will be general, like “work hard.” Some of it will be very specific: we’ll talk later about what courses you should take. I’m going to try to give you some in-between advice, mostly focused on helping you think through what you want to get out of grad school.

About the Public Humanities Program

You are the seventh class to enter the program. The program has changed over that time – expanded in some ways, contracted in others, but the fundamentals remain the same. The program is intended to produce thoughtful, skilled public humanities practitioners who will not only be able to get the jobs they want when they graduate, but who will, over the years, have the knowledge and understandings they need to shape the profession in significant ways.

To do that, we try to strike the right balances in all of those categories:

  • Balance of academic and practical knowledge
  • Balance of theory and praxis
  • Balance of the big picture and the details
  • Balance of learning in class and in practice
  • Balance of skills and knowledge
  • Balance of what you need for first job and what you need for a job in 20 years
  • Balance of work and the rest of your life

And now that I’ve set up these oppositions, let me suggest that they might not really be so oppositional – that the challenge is not in balancing two different things, but in synthesizing and synergizing them in ways that are useful to you. The way you do that is by choosing the right balance of courses, projects, and other activities that will give you what you need now, and as you look for jobs, and as you develop your career.

What should you accomplish while you’re here?

Many things!  I want to consider three: acquire new capabilities, expand your communities, and participate in a range of projects.

And there’s one thing to keep in mind as you learn those things: the moral underpinnings of our work. Some thoughts on that at the end.

Acquire new capabilities

You’re here to learn new things – new knowledge, new skills, new abilities – broadly defined. Willingness to learn – willingness to work at learning – is probably the most important attribute that makes for success in graduate school and in life.

What to learn? You want to gain information about a field of knowledge, and the ability to do practical things with it in a public humanities job. Academic knowledge and practical skills is the way it’s usually put, but it’s worth questioning that distinction – there’s academic skills and practical knowledge, too, and we like to mix the two.

On the academic side: what that is and how you define it depends on your interests. We pride ourselves in the broad range of interests of our students, across the humanities, social sciences, and sciences, and Brown (and RISD and Harvard, where you can also take courses) have a vast array of possibilities to choose from. But whatever your area of interest is, a foundation of scholarly knowledge and the skills to understand and do that scholarship are essential. If you’re interested in working in an art museum, art history is important. If it’s historic preservation, architectural history. If it’s science museums, a field of science. If it’s museum curatorship or education, learn something about the history and theory of museums, material culture, exhibits, education… We’ll work with you to figure this out.

Think hard about the kind of knowledge you need. It’s not the same as an undergraduate survey, nor is it the same as a PhD student’s more narrow focus – though it partakes of each of those. It’s not, frankly, what universities are designed to do – you’re going to have to adapt what you find to your needs, and work at getting what you need out of your courses. Think about this as you choose courses, and expect to work with faculty in class and beyond to shape your courses to be useful to you.

Think about this broad definition of knowledge beyond courses, too. There is an amazing array of programs, workshops, and informal learning opportunities in the public humanities program, at Brown, and in the local and professional community. Take advantage of it.

On the practical side: some skills that I think are essential. Some are quite broad:

  • Research skills – including but beyond academic research skills.
  • Communications skills – how to write and how to talk with people. Universities spend a great deal of time teaching how to write, but not enough on how to talk. And you should note: public humanities writing and talking is different from academic writing and talking! Learn to switch styles based on the work you’re doing and who you’re communicating with.
  • Community skills – how to be part of and work with a community (both in person and on line). More than that, how to be part of many communities at the same time – a large part of the job of the public humanist is to understand,  participate in, work with, and assist a range of communities.
  • Organizational skills – in the many meanings of that word. Organization as in community organizing, but also as in business and non-profit organizations, and, perhaps most important, as in being organized.
  • Ability to step back and reflect on what you’re doing. We talk a lot about reflexive practice – how to consider what you’re doing and how it’s working. Think of it as a process of continuous evaluation and learning.

And some are fairly specific:

  • Digital skills are more and more important. Learn how to build websites, figure out Zotero and Omeka and whatever other programs might be useful in your work. More important, feel comfortable with the digital world; know how to use the tools you need, how to learn new ones. There are many places at Brown to learn these skills – seek them out.
  • Production skills, whether in graphic design and construction, or audio and video – learn how to do some basic design and recording and producing – or learn enough to be able to talk knowledgeably to the people who you’re working with who do this.
  • Business skills. For better or worse, cultural organizations are businesses, and are enmeshed in the business world. Learn how to read balance sheets, how to do budgets for grants, how to talk money and management talk. It’s the area of expertise students are least interested in – and the one alumnae wish they knew more about!
  • Project management. This is the practical skill of being organized, and in organizing others.
  • Marketing, fundraising, pitching: learn how to sell your projects!

There are other capabilities that you’ll need to develop, both general and specific. And that will always be the case: learn how to learn new things.

Expand your communities

One of the key challenges, and most interesting problems, in public humanities work is the relationship of the expert, the professional – that’s you – to the communities you work with. You’ll learn a lot about communities, and about that relationship, in your courses. It’s one of the key concepts in the public humanities.

But don’t just learn about communities – be part of them, or connected to them.

At the beginning, you’re part of an academic community. Two academic communities, in fact. One is the group of people that you’re studying and learning with. But there’s another that’s just as important – the generations of academics whose works you will read, and respond to. One of the things that makes scholarly work scholarly is the way in which it is part of a tradition, an ongoing conversation. The public humanities partakes of that academic conversation.

Much of the work of public humanities is as mediators and translators between communities – whether between academic communities and larger audiences, or between other kinds of communities. As my colleague Annie Valk points out: it’s not about you; it’s about them, about the collaboration. Your success is not measured by what you do, or what you get out of it; it’s measured by the success of the project, what the community, the audience, gets out of.

You will join, or work with, a variety of communities in your work. Be thoughtful about those relationships. Look at them from ground level, and from an aerial view, at the same time. Think about the various ways that you belong, that you advise, that your participate, that you observe. There’s a lot of literature on this, it’s something the public humanities both studies and does. Do it, and think about it.

There’s another kind of community that you are in the process of becoming part of: the community of public humanists. It’s a complicated and diverse group, self-identified in all sorts of ways: public artists, oral historians, museum people, and many others. It’s a welcoming community. Got out of your way to join them. In part, this is about contacts: you need to meet new people, and keep in touch with them, because they can be useful to you. But it’s much more than that, too: talking to professions in the field is an essential part of your education. It’s also essential in another way: it’s the community you’ll be working in, and the more people you know, the better your connections for finding jobs.

How best to do this will depend on your interests; it’s my impression that the students in the pubic humanities program are very good at forming community, very good at working with communities – but sometimes not so good at the practical side of using community in their careers and work. But part of building community means going out of your way to make useful connections. Take advantage of the connections the public humanities staff can help you with, and the connections you form in community jobs and practicums and projects.

Undertake projects

Much of the work that public humanists do are projects done by small groups of people. That’s why you’ll find, in the public humanities program, a significant emphasis on group projects.  There are projects as part of classes, student projects, projects you’ll do as part of your practicums.

These projects are important, and I urge you to commit a good part of your time to them. Two reasons: it’s hands-on work that lets you learn by doing. And, to put it crassly: you want to be able to put these on your résumé. Seek out a range of projects, and a range of roles in those projects. They’re as important as class work, and sometimes more immediately useful.

In conclusion: Moral compass

Finally, one area of expertise that underlies so much of what we do but which we never talk about. That’s what I’ll call “moral compass.” I sincerely believe that the public humanities requires certain skills and abilities, and that they can be learned, and that we have made a good start in figuring out how teach them. But great public humanists have something more, a moral underpinning: we do this work in part because we like it, because it’s fun, but also because it is important; it makes the world a better place. It makes the world a better place not by feeding the hungry or healing the sick, but by making us all, somehow, better people. Whether you use the words “civic engagement” or “social justice,” there’s a moral motive to public humanities.

In your work, keep this in mind. There are times when what we do is about teaching, other times about running things efficiently . But there are times when it’s about much more than that. And while you need to consider the biggest picture of what makes our work important, it  not what we do every day, or day to day; it’s what we do over a lifetime. And it’s what makes the work not only important to us, but essential to everyone.

Have a good year!

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