The Hybrid Humanities in an Age of Public Scholarship

By Christine Henseler

Note: This post originally appeared in The Huffington Post

Funding shortfalls and jabs from elected officials aside, what a time to be a humanities scholar. Increased availability and access to material, big data collections, and new tools and technologies provide opportunities for everyone to connect. And these connections move us beyond the divisions and definitions that once determined what scholarship was supposed to look like (i.e., publications) or who scholars ought to be (professors in university settings).

It is no coincidence that the word public is at the center of the word publication. In fact, the public, although in the singular, is made up of many different publics, who, knowingly or not, are already engaged in the research that connect the arts and humanities with their own lives and interests.

The opportunities and challenges afforded by technologies demand that both scholars and publics rethink and rearticulate who they are and how they relate to each other. For starters, academics working in the humanities must break down the divisionary descriptors between the traditional humanities scholar and those who identify as public scholars.

Faculty in the humanities are becoming what I call “hybrid humanists,” because our work resides between the academic and the public communities we co-inhabit; we also reside between traditional analog and digital discovery, collaboration, and knowledge building.

To be a hybrid humanist means that we engage in a self-reflexive understanding of the tools and technologies, programs and opportunities that connect our research to our publics. As such, scholars today must find a professional balance, a hybrid state in which we decide how, when, where, and with whom our research can take on the most powerful of shapes and forms.

The general public might not think that they have much in common with scholarship in the humanities. Yet the humanities, more than any other group of disciplines, participate in a web of relations between knowledge building and public consumption. This is a network that joins scholarly expertise–such as an interpretation of Victor Hugo’s historical novel Les Misérables–with the public enjoyment of its musical adaptation on Broadway and its thousands of fanfiction spinoffs. Scholarship and fandom converge.

To be part of the general public–which we all are–means acknowledging that there is an important place for humanities expertise and scholarship. Just imagine a world in which politicians make decisions about whether to go to war without considering a region’s history, culture, or language. Picture standing on a bridge built by an engineer with no knowledge of a region’s cultural and community environment. We, the general public, understand that expertise, discovery, and consumption live within a large relational web that must be mutually supportive. Without this productive engagement, our bridges would collapse, our international affairs would fall apart, and our worlds would sound like one superficial Les Mis monologue that spans an entire lifetime.

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