Collaboration and Community: Public Humanities at Yale

The logo of the Yale Public Humanities program shows the silhouette of a city skyline with "public humanities" written in script beneath.
December 16, 2020

Public Humanities is art and performance. It is literature and dialogue. It encompasses histories of places, communities, and social movements. At Yale, the Public Humanities initiative is an ever-growing and always-innovating hub that connects scholars, students, educators, artists, writers, and activists with each other and with the broader community. Public Humanities research projects run the gamut from digital image archives to oral history initiatives; museum exhibitions to podcasts. In the era of social distancing, Public Humanities has turned to online forums to continue collaborating across the community.

Led by Co-Directors Matt Jacobson and Laura Wexler and Assistant Director Karin Roffman, Yale’s Public Humanities initiative was born in 2007 out of student demand for opportunities to share and create scholarship with broader audiences.  Today, the Public Humanities at Yale comprises a range of programs, including a Graduate Certificate program and initiatives grouped around seven paths: museums and collections, documentary studies, digital humanities, history and the public, space and place, arts research, and public writing. These paths represent modes of inquiry and engagement driven by collaboration between Yale faculty and students.

Public Humanities’ microcredential program exemplifies how FAS Faculty re-envision research training in response to student needs. It allows graduate students to train in a research method that facilitates public engagement and collaboration. The skills they learn are applicable not only in academic settings, but also in media production, museums, libraries, and other fields, responding to current challenges in the humanities job market. According to Jacobson, the hope is to eventually offer 2-3 microcredentials a year on topics such as grantwriting, curation, and documentary work. The program launched in 2019-2020 with a microcredential in oral history.

“Doing oral history is doing public-facing research,” Karin Roffman. As she explains, the very method of oral history requires public engagement. Oral historians collect life narratives through interviews, which can then inform our understanding of past and present. The lengthy and in-depth nature of an oral history interview means that interviewees are not just research subjects—instead, a thoughtful oral historian approaches an interview as a collaboration.  Moreover, oral histories provide opportunities to preserve the histories of people, places, events, etc. that matter to communities, providing them with a record of their pasts.

In Fall 2020, a new Public Humanities microcredential and colloquium on Public Writing was launched in collaboration with the Program on Ethnicity, Race, and Migration (ER&M). Led by ER&M Lecturer Leah Mirakhor, this microcredential provides students with experience writing for a wide range of print and digital publications. Mirakhor explains that the series is “devoted to bringing together editors, critics, and scholars who are engaged in public facing writing. We discuss various aspects to writing about scholarship, archives, and writing for an expanded audience. In addition to their scholarly training, graduate students from across the humanities are eager to develop their writing and voice for broader audiences, especially in regard to timely and urgent global and local crises.” In addition, Mirakhor teaches an Undergraduate course titled Public Writing: Writing in an Age of Crisis.

The latest microcredential, a workshop series on museums and collections led by Nancy Kuhl, Curator at the Yale Collection of American Literature at the Beinecke Library, will give participants hands-on experience adapting an exhibit within the constraints introduced by the pandemic.

Oral histories, public writing, and public exhibits further a core piece of Public Humanities’ mission: to provide venues at Yale for non-academic expertise, thus creating conversations that otherwise might not occur. The Public Humanities collaborations with the New Haven Free Public Library are case in point. The two organizations co-host events where scholars and community members dialogue. Hosting these venues in public spaces—libraries—makes them more welcoming to people who might hesitate to visit a university campus. According to Roffman, a community has cohered around these events, and they showcase a widespread desire to have high-level conversations. At one such event, author Emily Bernard spoke about her book Black is the Body to what Roffman describes as “a warm, thoughtful, packed room.” Roffman characterizes the kinds of conversations that have grown out of the library collaboration as an instance of communities “holding hands across New Haven.”

Forums at the New Haven Free Public Library (NHFPL) have been a centerpiece of The Democracy in America series, a set of programs and projects that engenders community engagement on issues of urgent importance. While COVID-19 precautions currently prevent in-person gatherings, the series continues online as a series of virtual conversations planned in collaboration with the NHFPL. The online format has allowed more people to participate, and the audience has grown increasingly geographically diverse. As Jacobsen puts it, the project acknowledges “a time when democracy needs our tending and our attention … the Democracy in America series is meant to do some of that tending by bringing people together to think together.” Initiated by Jacobsen, Elihu Rubin, Kathryn Lofton, and Emily Greenwood, the series has been incredibly successful at initiating transformative conversations, drawing participants from across the New Haven region and as far away as Hartford, and becoming an important community-building hub.

Roffman points out that these events push scholars to approach their work in new ways. “The majority our audiences prefer conversation to being read to, which is the conventional format of an academic talk.” Addressing non-academic audiences, Roffman says, “requires thinking on one’s feet and an amazing depth and flexibility in the ways one knows one’s subject. The resulting discussions have been incredibly wide-ranging and moving.”

Creating venues for non-academic expertise also encompasses bridge-building with researchers beyond academia. As Jacobson says, “There is a wide chasm between people who train as academics and those doing similar work in other fields–journalists, filmmakers, etc. They should be in conversation, and Public Humanities creates a two-way street.” Efforts in this vein include hosting film talkbacks with directors and writers like John Sayles; conversations with noted poets and writers, including Bernard, Renee Gladman, and Joshua Beckman; and other events that broaden academic conversations.

In a recent podcast, Laura Wexler explained that the humanities is defined and made through practice: “we make it as we do it,” she says. By doing scholarship through dialogue, connection, teaching, and exploration, Yale’s Public Humanities faculty are creating a humanities that is collaborative, engaged, and community-driven.


To stay up-to-date on news, events, and publications from Yale’s program in Public Humanties, sign up for the Public Humanities newsletter.