Public Humanities

Image from The Future of the Humanities Can Be Found in its Public Forms, by Judith Butler

Questioning Ideas

What role(s) do you think that humanities studies play in both academia and in society? Do you think their contribution is on par with that of other fields like the sciences, engineering or technology?

Informal poll: how many of you believe that studies on language and literature are indispensable to academia?

Informal poll 2: Would you consider a career in the humanities. Why or why not? If not, what are the reasons why?

Reading Like A Reader

Columns By Judith Butler

Need to demonstrate that STEM, social sciences, public law, etc. require the humanities; they are not just supplemented by it. 

  1. “No public defense of the humanities can proceed on the basis of the assumption that the humanities only gain their value by serving more highly funded disciplines and fields.” (column 1, paragraph 1)

The humanities functions on its own separate from other fields due to its role in bringing people closer to their histories, ethnicities and highlighting their day-to-day struggles and desires in society.

  1. “If the task ahead is to translate the general appreciation for literature and the arts into an appreciation for what colleges and universities have to offer, we should perhaps take as our point of departure those public poetry and literature readings that compel people, especially young people from communities of color, to show up or tune in with the hope of making sense of their world, reckoning with their histories and their desires.” (column 1, paragraph 3)
  2. “The literatures and art forms included in ethnic studies teaching, for example, are generally related both to a history of exclusion, effacement, extractivism, and empire and to a way of imagining a better world.” (column 1, paragraph 3)

It’s important that we argue for the importance of the humanities so that we can convince universities to continue providing adequate funding for humanities programs. It is also imperative that such programs assist students with finding employment and securing a livable wage.

  1. “If we train in the fields of public humanities as well as in established fields,  structure internships into the program, and pursue the kinds of interdisciplinary and public connections that show the value of the humanities for the world, we make the public case for the humanities and take better care of our PhD students (Cassuto).” (column 2, paragraph 4)

I Love the Public Humanities, but…” by Feisal Mohamed

-A critique of the Columns by Judith Butler

Making the humanities public will create a “star system” that reinforces inequality, bringing a fame and fortune aspect to writing.

  1. “Unfortunately, the public turn does resemble its digital predecessor in one way: It promotes the evaluation of scholars and programs based on their ability to secure grants, gifts, and corporate partnerships.”
  2. “Rather than being valued for exemplary scholarship and teaching, scholars will be rewarded for their “public profile.” This will encourage a star system and hasten the transformation of the tenure stream into the bastion of a small, privileged elite, while the vast majority of work sustaining humanities departments is performed by underpaid and unvalued adjuncts.”

Many faculty may lose some of their freedom of speech if their public profile is part of their career.

  1. “When “public profile” becomes part of a professional portfolio, faculty members who speak at a demonstration, or write an opinion piece, a letter to an editor, or even a tweet, might find themselves newly vulnerable.”
  2. “If all activity on matters of public import is now evaluated and rewarded, or even potentially evaluated and rewarded, as “part of the job,” then faculty speech in public forums will lose First Amendment protections. An institution might now claim that the expressive activities of faculty members, regardless of forum, must coincide with its mission.”

There is a lot of potential for a public turn, but caution should be exercised.

  1. “There are many excellent initiatives included under the broad umbrella of the new public turn: prison education, K through 12 outreach, engagement with galleries, libraries, and museums.
  2. “But I am concerned that universities, as currently instituted, will find a way to cock it up. Getting it right will require structural change on the American campus — and some institutional investment in humanities departments.”

Reading Like A Writer


  1. What does the author’s liberal use of the word “we” throughout her columns suggest about her relationship with the audience? 
  2. In the column “What Kind of Future?,” Butler advances her points using questions. In what ways is this strategy effective?
    1. “We all surely wish to keep the university alive, but is this not a moment to think creatively and critically about which form of the university should come into being?” (column 3, paragraph 3)
    2. “To those in a rush to reopen the university to save its future, we must ask, What kind of future do you have in mind?”
  3. In the column “The Future Of The Humanities Can Be Found In Its Public Forms,” Butler raises questions about the methods employed by the AAAS-Mellon report, though she still makes use of its results to advance her points. What is her reason for mentioning this?
    1. “Surveys are a strange form of knowledge gathering, and I have my questions about some of the categories and methods deployed in the AAAS-Mellon report. And yet the report offers some insights that illuminate a path forward.” (column 1, paragraph 2)


  1. This review seems to be divided into two sections. The first (A new orthodoxy…) introduces the argument and talks about the “star system,” and the second (Furthermore, considering public…) talks about the freedom of speech before wrapping up. Why might the author have chosen to divide his work in this way?
  2. Towards the beginning of the article, the author brings up the AAAS survey mentioned in Butler’s work that found that Black and Latinx Americans are more likely to be consumers of poetry. Why do you think he chose this as a way to introduce Butler’s piece?
  3. Throughout her work, Butler talks several times about the impact of COVID-19 on academia. In his review, Mohamed does not mention it. Do you think that there is a reason for this?
  4. As mentioned before hand, the first section of this paper introduces the idea of a “star system.” We’ve seen many of the likes in different forms of unequal opportunities (sports, entertainment, etc.). What would the “star system” look like to you in the form of academic writing? Is there any benefit, or is it all unequal opportunities?

Connecting Ideas

Joshua Rothman’s “Why is academic writing so academic?”

“Increasingly, to build a successful academic career you must serially impress very small groups of people (departmental colleagues, journal and book editors, tenure committees). Often, an academic writer is trying to fill a niche. Now, the niches are getting smaller. Academics may write for large audiences on their blogs or as journalists. But when it comes to their academic writing, and to the research that underpins it—to the main activities, in other words, of academic life—they have no choice but to aim for very small targets.”

  1. How does this contrast with Judith Butler’s call for the humanities to go public by getting more in touch with the cultural, ethnic and social aspects of regular people’s lives? 
  2. Think: why would humanities have to expand and become more public, whereas other areas like STEM can get away with publishing works that appeal to very small audiences?

Getting Beyond The Text

Work in the humanities intersects with a lot of important cultural/societal issues in today’s world, such as COVID-19, the vaccine, healthcare, injustices within our police system, etc. These are topics that, obviously, garner a lot of public attention. Think about, and perhaps write an argument, for whether or not these topics deserve the highest priority in humanities fields? In other words, do you think that research in the humanities should be more strongly influenced by contemporary societal issues?

Next, think about the idea of a star system in the public face of academia. Academic writing takes twist and turns, support and breakdowns, and many different avenues to prove, review, express, or highlight a certain topic. This has been seen, however, to appeal mainly to a certain audience. Consider your topic for your literature review. How would you feel if this topic had a more public face outside of its intended group in academia? Discuss and share in a small group around you.

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