The camp is about twenty minutes outside of Larissa village, in the midst of dried and irrigated fields, beyond a four-lane road that is silent but for the occasional car speeding past. Large yield sprinklers spraying water over the fields can easily be seen from upon a rise within the camp. But inside the camp it is dusty and rocky and hot, and always there is the sun glaring down on the sand. In the few small spots of shade, men and children squat, mostly grouped around a small bank of electrical outlets, charging their phones, trying to get a signal.

While we are standing next to the empty food tent, a man approaches holding a clear plastic grocery bag that contains a spider the size of a tarantula. He caught it in his tent. The revelation of this creature draws to us a small knot of people, including an elderly-looking man with a full white beard, a shock of white hair, a lined face, and a healthy way of walking. He takes us to the outside of his tent and shows us the body of a snake he captured there (he took it to the mayor of Larissa as evidence of living conditions in the camp) and a coffee can full of dead scorpions. He and his wife invite us inside. We take off our shoes, bend our heads under the canvas flap, pause as our eyes adjust to the shade, and sit cross-legged on the dusty ground as he speaks to us through a translator about being a healer, and other aspects of his life in Afghanistan.

There is a homemade swing in the tent, in the tent next to it, and in many of the tents we pass as we walk around the camp: determined constructions of spare rope, duct tape, and old rags wrapped around sticks, hanging from the tent rafters. We see several small children swinging idly back and forth in the shade of the tents as we move through the camp: a few smile and wave, but most stare boldly at us, as children do, and we shift our gazes away. Our looking feels like a violation.

We follow a gravel path up a hill to the schoolhouse: two large tents joined together, one with a covered porch where children are gathered in front of a woman named Fotima, who is leading them in their studies. We stand listening as our translator tells us about the school. She stops to hail a stylish Afghani man coming up the hill toward us: the children's German teacher, Guilan. He talks to us about his journey. Guilan fled with his family from Afghanistan to Larissa, carrying with him four heavy German textbooks, a large German dictionary, and a satchel with his work papers, documents meant to help him get a job once he arrived in Germany. His wife has hypothyroid problems that worsened as they walked over the mountains toward Europe. At one moment, he says, he was sure she would die. At another point, as they were moving through the desert, he felt certain that his children were going to perish from thirst. Then, when they crossed the sea from Turkey to Greece, the crowded boat seemed like it might capsize and he had the terrible thought that he would be responsible for the deaths of all his family. He left Afghanistan, he says, due to insecurity about his own safety and that of his wife; he'd been working for ten years for an NGO called World Vision and such work is dangerous there. A colleague of his had been beheaded on his way home from work one day, he tells us, and he was afraid he would be the next to be killed. He adds that, despite the scorpions and snakes and mosquitos and the awfulness of the place, he feels that he and his family are lucky, because they are at least safe from the Taliban. He says he misses his books at home, particularly philosophy Will Durant's Story of Civilization was a favorite. He arrived in Greece on March 12, after a month and a half of travelling; he has been in the camp since March 19; it is now June 14, and he has yet to be registered or entered into the pre-registration process for asylum. He says he wishes he had brought more books with him, so that he could at least be reading while stranded here in the camp, waiting.

Despite the crowding, the camp feels lonely and abandoned. One father worries aloud that his daughter, a friendly little girl who looks to be about two or three, is late in speaking. She doesn't have enough interaction with others, he worries. Other than us and the doctors and a couple of other journalists, he adds, no outside people have interacted with them for the eighty days they have been there. The UNHCR people drive into the camp, drop off food and supplies, and leave, not really talking to them at all.


There are currently more than 70 million forcibly displaced people in the world the highest number on record. More than 25 million of these people are recognized by the United Nations as refugees of war.1 When Europe closed its borders in the agreement with Turkey that went into effect on March 20, 2016, over 57,000 refugees were stranded in Greece. Three years later, refugees continue to arrive despite the closed borders in Greece and around the northern Mediterranean and southern Europe. There are around 76,000 refugees trapped in Greece today, living in squalid and crowded conditions in official detention camps, in makeshift roadside encampments, or in crowded city squats in abandoned hotels and schoolhouses. Many others have been reduced to an itinerant existence, wandering by day and sleeping under the trees at night, stranded by law on the islands where they first landed or folded into urban homeless populations on the mainland. And that's only Greece. Other countries are hosting even more refugees per capita: Turkey, Pakistan, Uganda, Lebanon, Turkey, and Iran, to name a few.2 These are the living. According to the International Organization for Migration, more than nine thousand men, women, and children fleeing war or inhumane conditions have died in the attempt to cross the Mediterranean in the past three years.3 Most of these people are refugees from war. Yet many in the Western world, particularly those in the US, have remained unaware of these numbers.

The individual fates of refugees are often overlooked, subsumed within the notion of a "refugee crisis" (which is itself figured by "image events" such as that of the photo of Aylan Kurdish, the drowned Syrian child that appeared in the news in the fall of 2016). The media stages the crisis as a "tragedy," enabling the tragic figure to substitute for the massive unrepresented event, an event that is maybe too overwhelming to consider a traumatic event. As such, the ever-shifting focus of these "tragic crises" reflects the structure of trauma, in their (to use the words of Cathy Caruth) "oscillation between a crisis of death and the correlative crisis of life: between the story of the unbearable nature of an event and the story of the unbearable nature of its survival."4 The symptoms of trauma are revealed not only in the media-led response to multiple and successive global crises, but in the individual experience of millions of refugees who undertake traumatic journeys in order to flee traumatic encounters at home, but then remain suspended in a "temporary" state of exception, hidden from view in a tent in a camp.


What is "public humanities"? In the seminar where this cluster began, we saw a range of interpretations. The seminar was driven in part by the new MLA initiative, "Humanities Commons," an attempt to "reach a wider community" with regard to humanities education, outreach, and advocacy. One assumes the initiative is prompted by the continuing devaluation of humanities-based knowledge and learning in both education and our nation, in general a trend that has intensified since the 2016 presidential election.

In their interpretation of the "public" in public humanities, many in the seminar responded to the recent trend of academics writing for broader audiences. Such a public humanities, aimed at disseminating what is sometimes called "crossover" writing, has gained a stronger foothold recently, thanks to popular, visually appealing publications in series such as Oxford's Very Short Introductions and Bloomsbury's Object Lessons series, which spawned a series of NEH Workshops for helping academics to develop crossover writing, led by series editors Ian Bogost and Christopher Schaberg. The appeal of crossover writing, as Jared Stark has pointed out, is that it opens the potential opportunity for academics to address two audiencesthe typical academic audience and also, via crossover publications, a more "common" audience.5 In this regard, a "public humanities" offers some authors the promise of a greater or at least broader audience.

Situated as I am at a comprehensive university that balances equally teaching and research, I find possibilities for public humanities that extend well beyond crossover writing. Those of us working at such universities, particularly those that are part of a state system, reach more students than those at research institutions that have lower teaching loads and smaller classes (and greater support for research and time for writing). And classes at comprehensives tend to be populated by students who come from less privileged backgrounds than those at elite institutions; in other words, we are reaching a broader, more general audience nearly every day. These students are generally less likely than their peers at elite universities to have had many opportunities for encountering the humanities and the arts in their (primarily public) secondary school experiences, in contrast to those students whose private school educations likely offered them a wider range of electives, after school activities, clubs, and resources that allowed for the acquisition of more and better materials. For these reasons, students at comprehensive universities might prompt their professors as they have me to feel compelled to advocate for the humanities in every class that they teach, not only conveying knowledge about the humanities, but their value as well. This is a mode of public humanities that feels ever more necessary today, as our nation and the globalized neoliberal economy increasingly favors quantifiable knowledge that can easily be translated into product and profit.

Though comprehensive universities often lack PhD programs, they tend to offer a range of graduate MA and MS programs that offer a flexibility of humanities curricula difficult to achieve when training PhD students for professorial positions. Taking advantage of the curricular flexibility offered by my institution, I led an interdisciplinary team of faculty to redesign an outdated "Humanities in the Western World" MA program. Working collaboratively, we created a new Global Humanities MA, which offers interdisciplinary seminars with a global breadth of texts and an internship option that connects students with non-profit organizations, preparing them for humanities work "in the field" in nonprofits, NGOs, and education after they earn the degree. It has been exciting to see the number of (increasingly diverse) people with humanities backgrounds who are applying to this program, interested in using humanities-based skills and knowledge to make a difference in the world. And, of course, the hope is that those students who gain an awareness and knowledge of humanities disciplines and their value at the undergraduate or graduate level will communicate those ideas to others, through their own teaching and work in the community.

An increasing emphasis on civic engagement and service learning at comprehensive public universities presents further applied possibilities for public humanities. My university offers a three-year endowed chair program to which faculty apply by proposing a project that will connect students with the larger community. My successful application for the position proposed developing an undergraduate service-learning curriculum combined with an ongoing program of public speakers, film and literary reading series, and related events that address the humanitarian refugee crisis. Students engage literary and other texts that address the refugee crisis while performing fieldwork and service at the Immigration Outreach Service Center of Baltimore and related nonprofits. They tutor children at the center and will gather testimony from adults that use the center's services. Some of the narratives that students collect in interviews might be used in asylum applications. In every case these interviews will give the refugees served by the center an opportunity to tell their stories, to testify to their experiences to another human being, and in this way to build community. The three-year program culminates with a study abroad experience for undergraduate and graduate students that involves volunteer work supporting refugee communities in Greece, such as the one described at the beginning of this essay. The students will document in words and film the stories of those they meet there.

Gathering and documenting stories builds community, integrating those without a home into a social network through the sharing of experiences. Disseminating the stories (with permission) on a website dedicated to the program and via documentary film, students create a record that testifies to the individual experiences of refugees. Students learn from the people they encounter, at the same time that they help refugees bear witness to the crisis.

What is a "public humanities"? Perhaps public humanities might be seen as bearing witness through a range of modes: exchanging stories and ideas, from human to human. Yet in order for public humanities to function effectively and responsibly, the idea of exchange is key: disrupting hierarchies, recognizing difference, and responding to the address of another. This is a public humanities that troubles borders, aiming toward the productive dissonance that unlikely or unexpected encounters can produce: a public humanities that is intellectual and active, narrative and empathetic. In Death of a Discipline, Gayatri Spivak asks, "How is it possible to reconcile what I touch in the field other people with what I teach for a living literary criticism?"6 Doing fieldwork reaching out to communities requires a delicate balance.7 It is not an easy position to occupy ethically, but I am interested in continuing to explore a public humanities that encourages community building, for students and faculty who occupy a wide range of privilege, and most of all for those in need of being folded back into our societies. Such a public humanities fosters the literary or linguistic encounters that cultivate and disrupt recognition, an encounter that seeks communication even as it admits its own inevitable deferral: a story that leaves room for what perhaps cannot be told, the remembering that includes within it what remains impossible to translate, or perhaps even to understand.

Jennifer Ballengee is Martha A. Mitten Professor of Liberal Arts and Director of the Graduate Program in Global Humanities at Towson University.  Her publications, including The Wound and the Witness:  the Rhetoric of Torture (SUNY 2009) and numerous essays in a variety of journals, address the conjunction of politics and human life.


  1. "Figures at a Glance," UNHCR: the UN Refugee Agency, April 29, 2019[]
  2. These are simply the six countries hosting the largest numbers of refugees. Ibid.[]
  3. "Missing Migrants: Tracking Deaths Along Migratory Routes," International Organization for Migration, accessed May 9, 2019.[]
  4. Cathy Caruth, Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative, and History (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2016): 7.[]
  5. Jared Stark, "Crossover Writing (after Mythologies)," forthcoming in the Yearbook of Comparative Literature (2019).[]
  6. Gayatri Spivak, Death of a Discipline (Columbia University Press, 2005): 36.[]
  7. In her afterword to the new edition of Unclaimed Experience, Caruth points toward such resistant ambiguity in what she calls the "literary dimension" of the discourse of trauma the language of trauma which refuses conceptual translation, yet continues to resonate. As she suggests, "The deferral at the heart of the temporality of trauma the not knowing that links past and future refers to the intersection . . . between individual modes of non-assimilation and the social and political dimensions of collective denial that are aimed at erasing the uniqueness or truth of events" (122). The traumatic "event," "in its delay" can be understood as "a dispossession of experience that binds the psyche and the political and social realms to each other" (123). Thus, the voice of trauma becomes "the force of an imperative": "Repetition is never simply a representation nor its absence but rather the reenactment and potential erasure of a history that refuses recognition. Trauma is not a question of whether there is or is not representation but rather the question of whether there will, or will not be (the possibility of) history. What emerges from the site of this potential erasure of history at the heart of trauma is likewise not a form of representation but rather a command to respond that intervenes historically in the oscillation between death and survival" (132). []