Applied? Translational? Open? Digital? Public? New models for the humanities

How do the humanities change when we take engaged public scholarship seriously? Considering five adjectives that are being put in front of the word “humanities”—applied, translational, open, digital, and public humanities—helps us consider the possibilities of humanities beyond the academy. This essay considers the way these adjectives modify the humanities. It considers their history, the different emphases they bring to bear. How much are they about new kinds of outreach for traditional work, how much about changing the nature of humanities work? How much do they focus on the practical, how much on values? Most important: how do they see their relationship with the public? Are academic humanists providers of information, purveyors of values, or partners in discovery and learning?

Applied Humanities

One can imagine a model for the humanities that says: we have knowledge; our problem is in applying that knowledge to the real world. On the model of technology as applied science, why not applied humanities? That’s meant two things: practical skills, on the one hand, and values, on the other.

The earliest users of “applied humanities” had a very practical bent: humanities skills. Vocational colleges defined that in one way: what humanities skills were useful in technical jobs and careers? Programs in applied history defined it in another: what skills were needed for careers in archival management, museum studies, historic preservation, and historical editing? On a higher level, applied humanities focused on politics and policy—the Carnegie Mellon Ph.D. program in Applied History became the program in History and Policy. The practical applied humanities found application at many levels.

But there’s another use of the “applied humanities” phrase that focuses not on applying humanists’ skills, but rather, applying the values we gain from history or literature to the real world. There’s an interesting history and politics to the academic humanist who wants to apply the values of the humanities to the rest of the world. It harks back to the early days of the study of modern languages, in the 1880s, as more useful than the classical curriculum they were trying to replace. And so it can be a conservative plea, for an older, less theoretical kind of literary work. “One studies the humanities to gain useful knowledge about the world in which he lives, spiritual nourishment, and a sense of values,” wrote Erwin Steinberg in College English in 1974, calling for an applied humanities.[1]

Svetlana Nikitina of Worcester Polytechnic also focuses on values, arguing for a liberal education that has an effect on students’ lives in the real world—not just how they think, but how they live. How, she asks, should we judge students’ work in the humanities? Should the student who reads Crime and Punishment be able to discuss metaphor, or plot lines; or should reading great literature make a difference in her life? Should we measure her success by her “refusal to hurt another person regardless of how miserable and despicable that person may be? Or by her decision to volunteer at a homeless shelter because poverty, as Dostoyevsky depicts, corrodes humanity?” “Ultimately,” Nikitina writes, “fostering the ability to own (enact and embody) a literary or philosophical insight should be central to humanities learning in college. Withdrawal into information transfer without a view of tangible action or application is a serious failure of education.” We should be able to apply what we gain from the studies of the humanities to action in the real world.[2]

Translational humanities

Translational humanities also focuses on the output side of the humanities. The term is confusing: it comes from the world of science, especially of biology and the health sciences, where the essential question is how to translate the work done in a research lab to a practical application. The National Institutes of Health has put a great deal of funding into this, supporting Translational Science Institutes at universities across the country.

Why not the humanities, too? Why can’t humanists think about how to make their work more easily useful? What would we have to change to make our humanistic studies do work in the world? What would a multimillion-dollar translational humanities institute look like?

The Center for the Humanities at Eastern Illinois University has focused on communications as the key to the translational humanities. It sees its role as striving “to establish communication between the studies of academia and the everyday lives in our community…. We envision a place where faculty and students can access popular notions of the humanities and make our specialized work speak to the public….”

Abby Smith Rumsey, director of UVA’s Scholarly Communication Institute, looks to skills as the key to translation. She defines the translational humanities as “the application of humanities expertise in domains beyond higher education and cultural heritage institutions.” She sees this, at least at first, as mostly a digital project. She wants us to use the Web to allow “a large cadre of expertly trained humanists to apply their skills in media literacies, interpretation, research, and teaching in venues beyond the classroom and in careers beyond the professoriate.” But she goes further, and this is the key to translational work: two way connections. “Because the general public can now join in the creation and curation of humanities content,” she writes, “something altogether new has emerged.” The responsibility of humanities scholars are “to make cultural content available to find, use, and interact with—with as few barriers as possible—so that people can “do humanities.” And so she urges the increased teaching if digital literacies in primary and secondary education, calling it “among the best investments we can make to increase the demand for engagement with and critical reflection on the human condition.” In Rumsey’s view, humanities scholars should provide the tools and the materials to allow for the spread of humanistic thinking.[3]

Open humanities

Translational humanities turns to the internet; so too does the open humanities. “Open” is a key buzzword in the era of the Internet, with open source software and the like, and so it’s no surprise that there should be an “open humanities” movement, too. The term is used in at least three different ways.

To some, it’s about publication, bringing notions of open access ideas now common in the sciences to the humanities.The Open Humanities Press uses this meaning: it publishes and supports open access journals and books, in rather traditional fields—they see their work as a way of responding to the crisis in scholarly publishing. The Open Humanities Alliance likewise focuses on open access publishing and more open scholarly communications. The Open Knowledge Foundation goes a bit further: it gives the Open Humanities Awards to “support innovative projects that use open data, open content, and open source to further teaching or research in the humanities.”[4]

For others, it’s about open data. Scientists are increasingly expected to make not only their results, but also their data, available for review. This has taken hold in the digital humanities as well, with digital repositories a part of many NEH digital grants. Open humanities data presents interesting challenges to our work: how do we share our sources and mark the paths to our conclusions?

Going further, some, especially in the digital humanities, see openness—sharing—as a new ethic in the humanities, as well as a key to making the humanities useful. Eric Johnson at the University of Virginia’s Scholar’s Lab takes openness in this direction in his manifesto for the open humanities. He sees “open” as not simply exposing the products of humanities, making it available, but also as changing the ways those products are created. He draws on the “open source” world of programming to define the open humanities as “those aspects of the humanities aimed at democratizing production and consumption of humanities research.” The values of Johnson’s open humanities are:

  • Collaboration
  • Inclusivity
  • Interdisciplinarity
  • Open Access
  • Open Process
  • Open Source
  • Involvement of the public, especially “communities of passion.”

He writes: “It’s a broad term that encompasses those values outlined above, values shared by many libraries, museums, public humanities projects and practitioners of all kinds and standing, in opposition to much of the traditional approach of “solo scholar” research and closed publication.” Johnson’s interested in bringing open to bear not just on consumption of the humanities, but also on production. [5]

The Center for History and New Media at George Mason University serves as a model for an open humanities that shares historical collections to a broad audience. “These projects,” they claim, “allow for the free sharing of historical information which, in turn, helps solve social problems relating to collective memory and public history.”[6]

Digital Humanities

You’ll notice that so many of these new approaches to the humanities make reference to the digital, and so it seems right to bring the digital humanities into this list. Defining the digital humanities is something of a sport in the field—see the few hundred definitions at the annual “Day of digital humanities “How do you define DH?” fest”[7]—but so many of them include openness that it’s worth exploring the relationship of the digital and the public. I don’t want to buy into the utopian vision that comes along with this new technology—but I do believe that a thoughtful alignment between the public humanities and the digital humanities can benefit both.

The digital offers some appealing features for those interested in finding new linkages between the academic humanists and the public. It is open, both public and academic at the same time, and so it makes it makes it easy to expose academic work to the public. It can also serve a conduit between the public and the academy, opening up two-way communication.

And perhaps most important, it is easily made multivocal. Anne Burdick and her co-authors in the new book Digital_Humanities capture this: “Digital, polyvocal expression can support a genuine multiverse in which no single point of view can claim the center. The principles of relativist approaches to knowledge, rooted in historically situated understanding, remain fundamental to (digital) humanism.”

It’s not simply many voices, but many hands. Because of “its emphasis on making, connecting, interpreting, and collaborating [and] concentration on process and method,” Burdick and her co-authors write:

digital humanities scholarship promises to expand the constituency of serious scholarship and engage in a dialogue with the world at large… It promotes platforms for informed amateur scholarship, and it serves to make humanities research into something of a new multi-player online game with global reach and relevance.”[8]

It’s worth noting, though, that there are challenges in making the digital humanities fully public. It can have very high barrier to entry, both on the academic and on the public side; you don’t need to know how to code to be a digital humanist, but it certainly helps. Not everyone wants to trade the humanities, either traditional or engaged, for a new multi-player game. Still, the digital revolution is happening, and it’s essential for any engaged, open, public humanities to take advantage of it.

And indeed, the combination of digital and public is finding significant traction. The University of Iowa has established the Studio for Public Digital Arts and Humanities with a focus on

the impact of academic work on civic life and society, using the opportunities provided by digital technologies to amplify and distribute broadly what we do as teachers and scholars, collaborating with communities on projects that have social and artistic impact, and envisioning new ways of interacting with our many publics.

And that brings me to the public humanities, the last in my list of new formulations for the humanities.

Public humanities

The Brown University program I run is called public humanities. I wish I could say that I thought through the various possibilities for how we might title our program and fixed on the one that suggested moving beyond translation and application, transcending simple openness, and including the digital. But in fact it is based on the field I came out of, public history, opening it up to more types of humanistic work.

And just as the field of public history has wrestled with the question of the relationship of experts, communities, and audience, and how shared authority works, so have we in the public humanities program. We’ve also changed as the field has changed. We started off with very much an impact or translation, model: a place where Brown faculty connect the community to humanities: “we’re experts, and we’re here to help.” Then we opened up to two-way connection, and gained a more sophisticated sense of the existing community organizations, and a realization that our work was not about us, or for us.

So we’ve moved from academics connecting the public to the humanities; to helping people and organizations explore heritage; to working with communities that are already making art, history, and culture meaningful, useful and accessible. We decentered the academic in the humanities, and put the public first.

This is a change that other public humanities programs are making as well.

The Public Humanities program at Yale, for example, seeks to expand “academic discourse beyond the confines of the classroom, academic publishing, and the academic conference circuit,” and to “build bridges to wide range of local and regional institutions and their respective publics”– but note, it’s still academic discourse.

Michigan State University’s Public Humanities Collaborative ties the public humanities to the work of democracy. “Public humanities,” they write, “means cultural work in the public interest and liberal arts education for democracy.  The public humanities movement seeks the same goal—to make colleges and universities “agents and architects of a flourishing democracy.”

[1] Erwin R. Steinberg, “Applied Humanities?,” College English, Vol. 35, No. 4 (Jan., 1974), pp. 440-450.

[2] Svetlina Nikitina, “Applied Humanities: Bridging the Gap between Building Theory & Fostering Citizenship,” Liberal Education. Winter 2009, Vol. 95 Issue 1, pp. 36-43.

[3] Abby Smith Rumsey, “Creating Value and Impact in the Digital Age Through Translational Humanities,” April 2013, http://www.clir.org/pubs/ruminations/03smithrumsey.

[4] “Open Humanities Awards,” http://openhumanitiesawards.org/.

[5] Eric Johnson, “On a Definition of Open Humanities,” http://www.scholarslab.org/digital-humanities/cross-posted-on-a-definition-of-open-humanities/.

[6]“College of Humanities and Social Sciences News: Translational Research in the College of Humanities and Social Sciences.” http://chss.gmu.edu/articles/5173.

[7] “How do you define DH?,” http://dayofdh2014.matrix.msu.edu/members/.

[8] Anne Burdick, Johanna Drucker, Peter Lunenfield, Tod Presner, and Jeffrey Schnapp, Digital_Humanities, (MIT Press, 2012), p. 24-26.

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