University of Virginia, College and Graduate School of Arts and Sciences

Public Humanities Lab

The Graduate Student Public Humanities Lab is ​an interdisciplinary, graduate student-led initiative within the IHGC, which aims to develop collaboration among departments, to address specific issues in working groups dedicated to these topics, and to provide a common space for scholars and the wider community to generate lively discussion, research, and advocacy initiatives over the course of the coming year. Eight core members from across the University of Virginia compose the Public Humanities Lab, and lead the lab’s four working groups as principal investigators.

The following working groups are currently established for the 2017-2018 academic year: Art in Public, Writing Public Humanities, Circulating Spaces: Literary and Language Worlds in a Global Age, and Climate and Environment.

Left to right: DeVan Ard, Kelli Shermeyer, Lara Musser, Christian Howard, Samantha Wallace, James Ascher, Ali Glassie. Not pictured: Kirk Gordon.

Working Group Charges, 2017-2018

Art in Public

The Art in Public working group looks at artworks designed specifically for public spaces. We are interested in investigating the ways in which artwork can perform history, politics, knowledge, and identity, and the complex intersections of these categories. Our exploration will be driven by a short series of public events which may include: a panel on public monuments and historical reenactment, a staged reading of a contemporary political play, and an exhibition by local artists of exploring various identity categories. We hope that each event will occasion questions about how artistic performances both attempt to momentarily crystallize moral or theoretical abstractions and intervene in sociopolitical debates. For example, how are monuments active agents in our personal and cultural narratives about history? How can dramatic performance challenge the depersonalization and mechanization of war? In asking such questions, we hope that these events will also provoke further conversation about nostalgia and authenticity in the aesthetic experience of public art.


Writing Public Humanities

We propose to write in and for the public humanities in a way that returns to the historical roots of humanism.  These days, writing that fits under the rubric of public humanities often draws on the practices and traditions of journalism and foregrounds the interests of the present. When we write about the past under this rubric, it is often to illustrate some present-day concern or to prove that something apparently new actually isn’t. Yet, by its roots, this kind of writing should inherit its charge from earlier humanistic efforts to recover a classical past: For example, the early humanist Poggio Bracciolini (1380-1459) aimed broadly to understand the human condition and the nature of the physical universe, and he did so by turning to texts such as the first-century-BCE writer Lucretius’s De Rerum Natura, which Bracciolini copied in a monastic library and shared with a wider public. The original source is now lost, so Bracciolini’s efforts preserved the text for future generations, including our own. He did not write a think piece on medieval politics through the lens of the past, but recovered the past. The operative principle or contention of this working group is that writing in the public humanities inherits the charge to engage with the past, not merely to spectate.

One way to imagine potential directions for this kind of writing is through Mikhail Bakhtin’s three types of interpretation: “enclosure within the epoch,” “modernization and distortion” and “creative understanding.” Under the first, we attempt to interpret literary texts as though we lived in the time period in which they were written. This sort of interpretation can be difficult to do for texts drawn from a culture whose ethics we no longer share--even when we are so lucky as to be able to find sufficient evidence as to recover anything in the first place. Under “modernization and distortion,” we see events, people and ideas from the past as essentially happening in the present in order to serve presentist ends--the journalistic move for public humanities writing and one of the dangers of overly-presentist theory--which are often induced from current evidence and then applied to the past. For example, current concepts of the global can be misleading when used to describe the discursive affiliations and networks of premodern and Enlightenment writers. Under “creative understanding,” we recognize the otherness of the past without giving up our own status as modern, entering into a dialog that enriches our understanding of both the past and the present. As understanding often does, it sounds good in theory, but we have no idea how to put it into practice.

So, to write public humanities in a way that returns to its humanistic roots, we must write with new questions in mind: How can the past, known incompletely (“through a glass darkly”), enter into dialog with the present, also known incompletely? And how can this kind of thought be made into a writing practice that produces this dialogue for a wider public as envisioned by the public humanities?


  • Meet every thirty days to workshop writing with all working group members.  Encourage members to bring their colleagues, if they think they’d want to come, to the next meeting.
  • Maintain a roster of all “working group members”--anyone who shows up and wants to add their name.  Include email, Department and area of inquiry.
  • Three or four times, invite an accomplished host to run the workshop.  Allow the host to select a cap on the number of attendees if desired, but otherwise it’s open to everyone.  Pay the host an honorarium, around $500.  Themes for the hosted workshop can include: writing popular bibliography  (James really wants to do this one and has ideas), journalism, small magazines (invite an editor? Use Chad Wellmon to make contact), popular press and creative non-fiction, more?
  • Techniques for blogging, posting, tweeting, developing social-media brands, and other ways of contributing unpaid writing to entities that “monetize” public humanities writing on the Internet by including algorithmically-targeted advertisements, are already so well covered by those entities, that we deliberately leave them out of our discussion.  (Not because they couldn’t host good humanities writing, but because normally they don’t.  This is a problem that needs fixing, but this is an industry that has plenty of money and incentive to fix their own problems, so doesn’t need our help.)  If you want to “generate content” for a blog, ask them; they’ll make money on the ads that people see while they look at your post, so the least they can do is teach you how to generate said content.


Circulating Spaces: Literary and Language Worlds in a Global Age

Project Aim: To produce and circulate a podcast series on/about/for the complex network of people working in literature, broadly defined, and the status, form, and value of world literature in a global age.

Mission Statement: Throughout the 2017-2018 academic year, we aim to produce a podcast series on the topic “Circulating Spaces: Literary and Language Worlds in a Global Age.” While Christian and I will act as hosts for each of the podcasts, we interview one to two guest speakers per episode, each of which will focus upon a specific issue or challenge related to world literature. To address the complex network of fields related to the global literary ecosystem, guest speakers will come from a variety of positions – both public and academic – within this network. As such, guest speakers will include such diverse figure as translators, academics, writers of poetry and prose, and elementary school teachers. Even as each guest will be asked to engage with the fundamental question of how they conceptualize their own position and work within these complex literary and language worlds, so too will guests discuss the changing face of literature. As a whole, therefore, the podcast series will explore how our collective of diverse perspectives might address the value of literature and advocate for the humanities in a period of budget cuts, growing economic inequalities, and continued pressure to consider the humanities as a hobby and not as a career or a means of serious political intervention.

Research questions:

·      How can we conceptualize the wider ecosystem of literature and how it circulates through various channels (universities, publishing houses, artists, translators, teachers, etc.)?

·      What is the contemporary social significance of literary forms - oral, written, and hybrid - and how do literary and linguistic communities stay connected across diasporas?

·      How might we – as a greater, or more diverse, collective (or assemblage) – connect our work more directly to or through public humanities?

·      With significant budget cuts made to the humanities in the US, what is the place/where is the space of literature in the next ten years? Is there room for a more global collective in support of the arts?

Climate and Environment

The Climate and Environment working group seeks to examine and expand the role of the humanities and the arts in addressing environmental crises and challenges on a variety of scales, not simply representing them. How and what can we contribute to discussions so often dominated by science and policy? How might the public humanities help us explore and understand the everyday individual and community experience of climate change? And how might the public humanities be useful in orienting discussions toward solutions? What do practices of public environmental humanities look like in contrast to the ecotheory and ecocriticism found in academic settings?

We will explore these and other questions through curriculum development for a Spring 2017 ENLT entitled Beach Reads: Littorally. We plan to incorporate visualization and public facing writing around sea level rise as important components of an undergraduate course on Literature of the Americas and the seashore. In addition, we hope to invite a speaker from the Yale Center for Climate Communication to Grounds for a panel discussion or practicum.