February Events Explore the Public Humanities

The role of humanities in our broader culture is ever evolving. In February, the Department of English hosted Dr. Teresa Mangum—director of the University of Iowa’s Obermann Center for Advanced Studies—for a series of events exploring the growing area of public humanities. The events—open to faculty and graduate students—focused on ways to encourage collaboration between UH departments, as well as between the university and Houston cultural institutions. 

FORWARD sat down with Dr. Lynn Voskuil, who organized Dr. Mangum’s visit, to learn more about the burgeoning role of the public humanities at UH. 

Could you tell me about the events with Dr. Mangum and how they came to be? 

There were three events over two days: an informal conversation and Q&A with Dr. Mangum, an address in the afternoon, and then a workshop that was just for faculty. That speaks to the reason this came about: we have rebooted our MA program in the last few years, and we're thinking about ways of enhancing the possibilities for career options for MA students once they finish their degree. As I think everyone knows, there is a market beyond teaching for people with humanities degrees, which is fortunate for us because especially at the college and university level, the jobs are getting scarcer and scarcer. So the public humanities is a concept that's been growing and developing, especially in the last decade, in the larger realm of the humanities. It's an approach that thinks about the humanities as important in our entire culture and not just limited to academic humanities. We hope to think more creatively about options that may be available for our graduates to work in an area that we would think of as the public humanities. We're looking to maybe build it into the MA program in a more systematic and constructive way. So that's what propelled our invitation to Dr. Mangum; we invited her in particular because she has been at the forefront of the development of this area in the humanities, and she has developed courses on the graduate level that really take advantage of the new thinking in this area and create more practical strategies for graduate students to think about careers beyond just college or university teaching. 

What is the role of the public humanities at UH, and what kinds of initiatives might faculty and students involve themselves with in the future? 

It doesn't have a huge role yet in our department in any sort of systematic way except that individual professors have work that lends itself to presentations for a broader public: so they don't just go to academic conferences, they might do talks in other arenas. To give a few examples: Roberto Tejada is very involved in public venues. My own work lends itself to this: I tend to work on gardens, so I get invited sometimes to garden clubs. We do have at UH, not in our department but in our college, the Center for Public History, and they have some similar goals and programs. Within our department, we're thinking about the potential to connect our graduate students with other cultural institutions in the city of Houston—to reach out to some of these institutions and see, for example, if we could create internships for our students to be involved in for some course credit. Maybe this would give students experience in fields that they had not imagined when they started their MA, giving them practical hands-on experience in cultural institutions in the city that would supplement and augment the academic training.