Public Humanities as/and Comparatist Practice

Edited by Ricardo L. Ortiz

Introduction: Public Humanities as/and Comparatist Practice

Ricardo L. Ortiz

Public Humanities and Crossing Borders

Jennifer R. Ballengee

What Academic Humanists Can Learn from Nonprofits

Gerard Holmes

Why Write for the Public

Bécquer Seguín

The Public and Possible Institutions of Practice

Sushil Sivaram

Afterword: Tight Spots and Privileged Spaces

Alyssa Erspamer and Doris Sommer


Is public humanities a discipline, an intellectual movement, a social justice movement, or a professional and institutional corrective to an unsustainable economic model in higher education? Can it be more than one or even all of these things at the same time? How do existing public humanities programs interact with programs in traditional humanities disciplines, including literary studies, as well as with interdisciplinary programs in race, ethnic, gender, sexuality, disability, and class studies? How might they work beyond North America and Europe? How and why do existing programs train, mentor, and place graduate students to work and teach as public humanists? What resources within and beyond higher education support the growth of public humanities in the world? What obstacles challenge that growth? How might public humanities training prepare students for careers in the public and private spheres, careers that then might critically transform those spheres?

Part 1. Public Humanities at Georgetown University: A Narrative Case Study

The paragraph above served as the call for a seminar I organized for the 2019 Annual Meeting of the American Comparative Literature Association, which took place at Georgetown University. The decision to make the call came as the culmination of about five years of work on and beyond the Georgetown campus that started with a debate in our Department of English over the possibility of establishing a doctoral program in English; that debate led to the development of a proposal for such a program, a proposal that, while approved by a narrow department vote in favor, was tabled indefinitely in the spring of 2014.

That same spring the Modern Language Association released its Report on Doctoral Study in Modern Language and Literature, which featured a design for a forward-looking humanities doctoral program that was similar to our Georgetown proposal.1 Both imagined a smaller cohort of students, a shorter time to degree, and different desired professional outcomes, leading to further structural modifications: an alternative mentoring model, including professional mentors from outside the academy; an internship, fieldwork, or residency component in a non-academic professional space; and multiple alternative designs for the doctoral research project to better align with students' professional aspirations. The happy coincidence motivated the Georgetown English Department to reach out to the MLA, leading to the university's partnership with the MLA on a multi-million dollar grant proposal to the Mellon Foundation for what became, once funded, the Connected Academics project, an endeavor with a national scope, headquartered at MLA but including Georgetown, Arizona State University, and the Humanities Research Institute of the University of California.

Georgetown's part in the project eventually focused on the design and implementation of a graduate program in Public Humanities.2 The English department's discussions from 2014 about a new PhD Program had grown out of the university's unique position in US higher education: Georgetown had for many years been the only top-25 ranked institution that called itself a "university" (not a Dartmouth College, or a Cal Tech or MIT) that had never had a PhD program in English. Meanwhile, Georgetown's English department had developed a doctoral-quality faculty, which supported a stand-alone English MA program and a popular undergraduate major. By the university's intra-institutional logic, this situation compelled exploration of the creation of a PhD program. But by 2014 it was impossible to raise the prospect of creating one without considering the ethics of such a move. The humanities professoriate in the US had suffered several decades of pain and futility as it perpetuated and endured the extreme misalignment between levels of supply and demand for doctoral faculty across humanities fields.3 This misalignment produced not only the increasing failure of placement into college-level teaching appointments for an increasing proportion of people with completed PhDs, but also the increasing proportion of college-level faculty relegated to precarious ranks of contingent, adjunct, and provisional employment. These proportional dynamics led to the shrinking of the ranks of tenure-line faculty nationally as well, leading in turn, many now fear, to the erosion in the kind of research that the tenure system was created to protect and propel.

These conditions fueled the debates that roiled the Georgetown English department in the middle of the twenty-teens. How could any department, regardless of the quality of its faculty and its success in every other sphere of practice, dare to exacerbate such an intractable and unconscionable structural problem by announcing its intention to add to the numbers of English PhDs in the world? Under what conditions, if any, could such a department make such a move without causing damaging outcomes to the very people it hoped to serve? And if there were no conditions imaginable, then what? Have we crossed over the horizon past which such an event becomes impossible, because the risks of attempting it have become too severe? If so, what does that say for existing humanities PhD programs, as they assess their relationship to the ongoing crisis? Is there any will among existing programs to reform or even retire themselves if they cease to be able to justify their operations on practical or ethical grounds? These questions are exacerbated by the ongoing migration of undergraduates in the United States away from humanities majors. As these trends continue, the humanities PhD will feel pressure from both ends: there will be fewer humanities majors to teach, and also fewer from whom to glean the next generation of humanities PhDs to do that teaching.

Forging ahead in 2013-14 with the design and proposal of a new PhD program, the Georgetown English department kept this bleak picture in mind. We knew from the beginning that the hallmark of any new program would have to be a commitment to a radically new philosophy to distinguish it from existing programs, starting with a model of professionalization that embraced a wider diversity of desired career outcomes for its students. It could certainly still feature a track into the college-level, hopefully tenure-line, professoriate, but alongside that track and from the beginning it would signal to students that job placements outside the academy upon completion of their degrees, in both the public and private sectors, in government, nonprofit, and creative arts agencies, for example, would be desired, planned-for, and valued outcomes.

These considerations led to the design of the program described some paragraphs above, and that design led to the proposal that the department voted on and narrowly approved in the spring of 2014. But, for better and for worse, the narrowness of that vote reflected enough persistent lack of confidence among a meaningful enough contingent of the Georgetown English faculty that it undercut the force of the vote, and deflated the overall will of the unit to pursue the creation of the program with anything like the full-hearted confidence that such an endeavor would demand: thus the perhaps accidental but also necessary tabling of that proposal.

The happy coincidence, then, of the MLA's report dropping just a month after our vote, and the additional fortuity of the similarities between the MLA's and Georgetown English's respective PhD program designs, enabled the collaborations that followed under the aegis of Connected Academics, but also the pursuit of the alternative design of a PhD Program in Public Humanities, which became the hallmark of Georgetown's participation in the project. Along the way, the institutional home of Georgetown's contribution shifted from the Department of English to Georgetown's Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. The move from a PhD program in English to one in public humanities opened up an exciting and tangibly generative space for greater institutional creativity than those involved in the work had previously thought possible.

From the beginning, attention turned to what already existed in the world doing work under the name "public humanities." This included engaging with, consulting, and at times inviting to the Georgetown campus colleagues involved in, for example, Centers for Public Humanities like the one at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, or graduate and certificate programs that already had public humanities in their names, like the ones at Brown University and Yale University, or cultural theorists, scholars, and practitioners doing advanced work on the political, institutional, and professional economies of public humanities in the higher education field, like Carlos Alonso at Columbia University, Doris Sommer at Harvard University, Robyn Schroeder at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and Edward Balleisen and Maria LaMonaca Wisdom at Duke University.

But the Georgetown team's approach was never so exclusively top-down as this list of prestige-institution affiliations might suggest. The Georgetown project kept a close eye on the way that public humanities practices might meaningfully take root in a variety of institutional, professional, and cultural spaces that were decidedly local, and where the trajectory of influence of those practices came decidedly from the bottom up. We showcased heterogeneous examples of individual humanities PhDs who landed, intentionally or serendipitously, in satisfying careers outside the academy, or within it but outside the professoriate. We included examples of humanities-related projects that engaged local communities through a variety of collaborations, from those that were explicitly linked to community service and social justice work in schools, prisons, and health-related organizations, to others more focused on the promotion of local projects in the arts, from music and theater to public art.

In this democratic spirit, the philosophy of the Connected Academics project at Georgetown entailed an insistence on tying its vision of the public humanities to the public good. From its inception, the commitment to rescuing advanced training in the humanities from the vagaries of the academic job market entailed retaining our traditional theoretical and methodological practices while refashioning a replacement for a dying employment model. The social justice dimension of the public humanities at Georgetown also reflects the university's Catholic and Jesuit identity. These dynamics are all legible in the proposal for a PhD Program in Public Humanities that the Georgetown team finalized in the fall of 2017.

Even more than the 2014 English PhD Proposal, the 2017 Public Humanities PhD Proposal pushes in the direction of curricular innovation, demanding that the training it models transform not only higher education, but also professional employment in the private sector and in creative and arts organizations in the public sector. Anchoring the new model of graduate-level training in the public humanities to a doctoral program, the 2017 Georgetown proposal hopes to deepen and expand what is already available in Masters programs like the one at Brown and certificate programs like the one at Yale, and to reinforce work started more recently at the University of Arizona's Program in Public and Applied Humanities. The doctoral component opens up new questions. How does the mixed model of doctoral training, where students have the option of designing a course of study and mentorship and professionalization for themselves, change the nature of doctoral training in the humanities across all disciplines? How should the fact that it is the only doctoral program of its kind drive how it places its graduates in professorial appointments? Will departments across disciplines decide to seed their faculties with one or two public humanists to train graduate students earning degrees in traditional disciplines in this new dimension of practice? How long before other institutions decide to establish their own PhD programs in public humanities, which will also need faculty with doctoral degrees in the new field? Will there be models for joint placements combining academic and non-academic employment? Might newly minted PhDs in public humanities placed in appointments outside of the academy serve as a vanguard generation of mentors, certainly to succeeding generations of public humanities graduate students, but also to a current generation of peer professionals in non-academic fields hoping to serve as mentors to the next generations of students?

At Georgetown, the Office of the Provost announced during the 2016-2017 year its intention to establish a Center for the Humanities, a first for the university, and the first of its kind in the DC region.4 From the beginning that initiative aligned with the goals of the work under discussion here. An early description of the center stipulated that it would be built on four pillars, each designating a current area of humanities practice: the digital, the interdisciplinary, the global, and the public. The university started offering a graduate certificate in public humanities in the summer of 2018, and in spring 2019 approved the creation of a Master of Arts Program in Engaged and Public Humanities. The doctoral program might be coming soon.

Part 2. The ACLA Seminar in "Public Humanities as Comparatist Practice"

Given the history narrated above, spring 2019 was an auspicious moment for the American Comparative Literature Association to land on the Georgetown campus. Thanks to the ACLA's robustly generative seminar structure, it provided an effective platform upon which to build a provisional laboratory space to explore the possible modes of conduct of public humanities in and among multiple linguistic, local, regional, national, institutional, and professional spaces.

The call attracted proposals from the mix of parties whose diverse voices were needed at the table: two advanced students in doctoral programs in English at flagship public universities, one full-time non-tenure-line faculty member holding a recently earned PhD in comparative literature and Italian and working at a prestigious private institution, two tenure-line faculty, one an assistant professor (PhD in romance studies) at another prestigious private and the other a full professor of English (with a PhD in comparative literature) at a regional comprehensive institution. These were joined by two other participants holding PhDs but not working in the tenure-line professoriate: one (with a PhD in comparative literature) is the Director of the Association of Departments of Foreign Languages for the Modern Language Association, and the other (with a PhD in English) is a project director at the National Humanities Alliance.5 Though work by these latter two, and by the non-tenure-line recent PhD, is not included in the present cluster, they made invaluable contributions to the seminar. To deepen and extend the scope of the cluster, it includes an additional solicited piece co-authored by an eminent senior scholar of romance studies at an elite private and her UK-based graduate student collaborator on a variety of public humanities projects. I organized the seminar and hold a PhD in English, serve as Chair of the Georgetown English Department, and was an active participant in the work of Connected Academics.

As the essays in this cluster make clear, what public humanities is and how it best works in the world remains an open question, a question that benefits from the complexity and richness brought to it from scholars of comparative studies. Jennifer Ballengee, writing as a full professor of English at a comprehensive regional institution with a strong national presence, provides a model of public humanities grounded in social justice commitments at local and global scales. In "Public Humanities and Crossing Borders," Ballengee reminds us of the value that public humanities holds for students who don't enjoy the privileges available at elite institutions. She describes a newly redesigned Master's Program in Global Humanities at Towson University that features an internship component that puts students in fields of professional work as part of their academic training, as well as an endowed chair program that supported a multi-year project that she designed around the current refugee and immigrant crisis. That program, she tells us, featured a service-learning component that brought students into local organizations around Towson working with refugee and immigrant populations, and later featured a study abroad component that led to Ballengee and her students visiting a refugee migrant camp in Greece. Ballengee's essay opens with an immersive depiction of what she observed in that camp. She explores the delicate balance of conducting public humanities work through fieldwork that tests the limits of ethical possibility when that work engages the most precarious populations.

Gerard Holmes provides practical recommendations for how graduate programs can reform current practices to better place their students inside and outside of the academy. Holmes draws on his experience in arts nonprofits to make the case for humanities graduate programs emulating these sibling organizations, preparing students for nonprofit work. Holmes' essay not only offers a practical guidebook to specific changes that existing programs could make, it also suggests that such changes will come from the vision and leadership of those whose careers are most directly feeling the impact of the crisis: current graduate students.

Bécquer Seguín, as assistant professor at Johns Hopkins, and Sushil Sivaram, a doctoral candidate in English at Rutgers University, each pursues an analysis of a distinct mode of the "public" as space of practice in what can qualify as public humanities. In "Why Write for the Public," Seguín employs the mode of professional biography to narrate the parallel stories of his coming to academic and public writing from his experiences as an academic and (to use Ballengee's Woolfian term) a common reader. He extends that trajectory to include his emerging vocation as editor/mentor/curator, facilitating the transition to public writing for peers and colleagues. Seguín, along the way, recalls when many more prominent voices in critical public discourse belonged to figures who held academic titles and positions. He calls not so much for a return to that model but for a new model that better aligns contemporary humanities training and access to public spaces of discursive dissemination. We ought to train students to produce work, and alter the profession to reward that work, which lives in broader spaces of discourse. And we ought to shift the mindset among the existing professoriate to embrace our eligibility to participate in public discourse.

Sushil Sivaram's piece on literary festivals in India brings the cluster's travels full circle. It complements Seguín's piece in its advocacy for a space and practice of public-humanist discursive exchange that gathers not only voices and texts but also bodies at sites of collectivity. And Sivaram introduces the concept of the "possible institution of practice," which not only describes the potent futurity of the literary festival in the Global South, but might also best locate where a comparative and critical public humanities finds itself at this moment in its increasingly global historical unfolding. India's literary festivals, Sivaram tells us, "function like possible institutions because a type of performance replaces discipline . . . 'Possible' refers to . . . an ethos [and] a sense of community that institutions can stimulate." This nuanced, suggestive, if short-of-conclusive formulation of public humanities as "possible institution[s] of practice" might be as far as this cluster, and the seminar on which it is based, needs to go in answering the questions that brought its interlocutors together.

The afterword, co-authored by Doris Sommer and Alyssa Erspamer, provides an account of work happening in the world, across local, regional, and transnational spaces, under the auspices of public humanities. They ground their contribution in the work of Pre-Texts, a brainchild of Sommer's that they describe as "a training program to develop facilitators to promote high-order literacy in spaces that bridge academic and underserved groups." Pre-Texts has established itself in myriad locations across Latin America (where Sommer focuses her scholarly work) and more recently in Europe. The program "gathers popular practices from working and underemployed people who use challenging texts as raw material for making new pieces of art, in any medium. The protocol takes reader-response theory at its word, appreciating a reading as the creative collaboration between a found written document and a particular new interpretation." One result is the StoryDads project that teaches incarcerated men to communicate with their children using the methods of textual engagement and reinvention modeled by Pre-Texts. Sommer and Erspamer conclude by offering a general vision for public humanities work going forward where the "frozen" stability of existing institutional structures can be leveraged to serve and support the "unfreezable" play of imaginative freedom that should enliven interactions with challenging art, whether in the form of text, or image, or object, or performance.

This cluster aims to measure and model the depth and complexity of this moment of unfolding professional, intellectual, and perhaps ethical crisis. It aims to demonstrate how our current situation might best be approached as a moment of productive challenge rather than one of irremediable threat. The cases of public humanities work discussed here suggest that this moment of apparent crisis for our guild is not only survivable, but perhaps also a gift, coming in the form of a vitally renewed humanities practice that the forebears in our disciplines never thought to imagine, or to want. Creative work is proliferating rather than constricting as we head into the middle decades of the twenty-first century, and cultural history is becoming more democratically accessible across proliferating platforms and media. We must face what is coming with a renewal of critical analysis, historical knowing, and imaginative recreation. And that will continue to take training, and investigation, and exchange. While I insist, in closing, that the question of what constitutes public humanities practice should remain productively open, I also close by advocating that more of us devote our talents and our labor to public humanities in whatever way it makes the most sense for us, and in whatever way we each best understand our vocation as scholar, or critic, or teacher, or artist, or writer, or activist, or citizen.

Ricardo L. Ortiz is Chair and Associate Professor of Latinx Literature in the English Department of Georgetown University. He has published two books, Cultural Erotics in Cuban America (2007) and Latinx Literature Now: Between Evanescence and Event (2019), and numerous articles and chapters on Latinx literature and culture.


  1. Modern Language Association, Report of the MLA Task Force on Doctoral Education in Modern Language and Literature, May 2014; the Georgetown faculty most directly involved in the Mellon-MLA's Connected Academics project were Kathryn Temple (primary investigator) and Ricardo L. Ortiz, both of English Department.[]
  2. ReinventPhD,” MLA Connected Academics; Vimal Patel, “Proposal to Offer Job-Friendly English Ph.D. Draws Criticism,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, September 15, 2014.[]
  3. Eric Hayot, "The Sky is Falling," Profession, May 2018.[]
  4. Robert Groves, “The Georgetown Humanities Initiative,” The Provost’s Blog, June 21, 2017.[]
  5. Beth Seltzer, “On Hundred Job Ads from the Humanities Ecosystem,” Profession, Fall 2018.[]

Past clusters