Over at Inside Higher Ed, Scott McLemee reports on a recent gathering in Iowa City called “Platforms for Public Scholars.” The event brought over 100 academics together to discuss how to bring the humanities to a public audience. (The article also called my attention to a group called “Imagining America” which is trying to do the same thing). I wish I knew about this gathering. I would have tried to attend.
Many academics are very suspect about working with public audiences. It seems that one of the major issues prohibiting this type of public scholarship is the refusal of many (most?) colleges and universities to count this kind of work towards promotion and tenure. Should historians who speak to retirement homes or work with local history projects receive professional credit for their work? Does conducting seminars for school teachers, writing op-eds, or teaching literature to inner-city kids merit a line on the c.v.?
This is a tough call. It would seem that “public scholars,” like any scholars, should do work that proves their credentials as scholars. This means that public scholars of the humanities should be experts in a field or discipline. They should have earned a terminal degree (usually the Ph.D) in that particular discipline. They should also have demonstrated an ability to do first rate scholarship by speaking to the members of their discipline through academic journal articles and/or monographs.
Of course “public scholars” are distinguished from non-public scholars for the work they do in the community and in the way they bring their disciplines to bear on people who are not scholars. While this kind of public scholarship should not be the ONLY thing considered by tenure and promotion committees, it should certainly count.
One of the things I have always appreciated about Messiah College is the administration’s respect for public scholarship. This is what the late Ernie Boyer–the head of the education commission under Jimmy Carter, first executive dean of the SUNY system, president of the Carnegie Foundation, and Messiah alumnus–has called the “scholarship of engagement.” (I should add that my office is located in Boyer Hall).
Many humanities scholars at Messiah do their “scholarship of engagement” through the college’s Center for Public Humanities, a center which was recently funded by a large grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Through the Center for Public Humanities, Messiah professors lead college level courses for inner-city and rural adults in Harrisburg and nearby Perry County. They also conduct content-based workshops for secondary school educators. The Center sponsors a host of public lectures throughout the year and hosts Messiah’s annual “Humanities Symposium” each February.
It seems to me that all colleges and universities need centers like this to pull their scholars out of the ivory tower and connect them with ordinary people, many of who are eager to learn from their expertise. I am glad to see that there are folks in Iowa (and elsewhere) who are thinking deeply about these issues.