Making Sense of the Digital Public Humanities (Crisis?)

I have to be honest- I don’t know much about the digital public humanities. In fact, my lack of knowledge and desire to learn about making my work accessible in non-academic spaces led me to my graduate seminar: “Intro to the Digital Public Humanities.” I read a few blog posts made available through The National Council of Public History that informed me on the current debates and worries.

As a doctoral student, I have been reminded many times that research has shifted and I am a part of a digital era where sources are heavily digitized, so archiving and research has changed a bit. Here, the new school and old school sort of clash. It hasn’t escaped me that publications are more accessible in the 21st century, but I also question what does this accessibility actually look like. How are we, as scholars and academics, catering to the populations we strive to include in our discourses? Are we actually including them and how? In her blog post, Mary Rizzo required us to think about our roles: “as public historians, we should ask ourselves not just where civic engagement came from but what it displaced.” Frankly, I couldn’t agree more. How does our research and theory become practice?

Briann Greenfield argues that the humanities is undergoing a cultural war where “What is most at stake is access and diversity of participation” where the humanities could become a luxury. Again, civic engagement and accessibility seem to be the only solutions I can think of. In order to get people more excited and involved, we have to actually include them and show them why it is important to do work in the humanities. In fact, Jamil Zainaldin states,

“People seek content that will captivate them. They are eager for urgent, entertaining, even mind-bending stories about our lives together on this planet. There is something profoundly human in our never-ending quests. Many, many people are engaged, listening, learning, hungry for information that is captivating, vital, and entertaining. These are “public humanities moments,” and they surround us 24/7.”

The question remains, how do we captivate our communities and people beyond academia? We must escape tradition and bring our discourses outside of our institutions. I think the public humanities, specifically the digital public humanities has committed to answering this problem. Think about it- we have blogs that have more readability and accessibility than academic journals. For example, renowned scholar Britney Cooper who teaches at Rutgers University-New Brunswick frequently writes for The Crunk Feminist Collective and Cosmopolitan Magazine. She brings women’s and gender studies along with racial, social, and political issues affecting American society to anyone on the internet. More importantly, she doesn’t rely on jargon and simplifies complex theory so that young readers and people without higher education can find ways to be involved and included in important conversations. In addition, she has a social media presence that makes her more accessible.

Of course, this is one example and I’m not vouching for every academic to create or contribute to a blog. But I am arguing for inclusion and diversity. I’ve worked with my peers and we’ve talked about hosting public events for the communities we want to represent so their voices are heard, as well. Ralph Lewin voices this shift as the humanities being in crisis. He voices his concern for the rare support students get beyond the wall of academic tradition and claims, “ It [is] an awkward thing to say, but there really is a gulf between the fate of the humanities inside and outside academia. We in the humanities cannot afford to dismiss efforts to bridge the gap between the life of the humanities in academia and beyond its walls.” In fact, students who attain their PhD’s aren’t even guaranteed tenure-track positions, so what is to be done with the students who are deemed “overqualified, or out of touch” due to their time spent earning their degree? He stresses we need to prepare students for careers outside of academia. But, do they have to be outside of academia because they can’t attain a job at an academic institution? The middle ground here is the public humanities. Both the humanities and the ‘unemployment’ can be mitigated a bit. Personally, I am very open to the idea of doing public humanities work regardless of the confines of an academic institution.

Works Cited:



About ohh_kei

I'm a New Jerseyan who loves to read, write, dance, hike, and learn. As the daughter of Puerto Rican migrants, I enjoy learning about different peoples and cultures. I look for narratives of migrants/immigrants that discuss struggles within immigration, identity formation, assimilation and being bi-cultural in the United States. I currently am pursuing my PhD in American Studies at Rutgers University.
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1 Response to Making Sense of the Digital Public Humanities (Crisis?)

  1. lornaebner says:

    What a wonderful interpretation and analysis of the humanities crisis. A lot can be said about digital public humanities, and it will be great to hear your thoughts about how that can be incorporated like the example you used of the Rutgers professor. In all honesty, I’m very conflicted on academic versus more accessible writing. In some cases, I believe that if you truly know the material then you should be able to translate it to simple terms; however, scholars spend years researching and constructing material to truly understand their subject and many feel that it would be doing the subject an injustice to simplify their research. What are your thoughts? Would it be beneficial to say, have two versions of that research?


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