ASECS 2012 Proposal: Student-Curated Web Archives and the Practice of Public Scholarship

This is the proposal for my 2012 ASECS talk; I’ll post the full (and very different) piece soon!

The process of creating sound public knowledge shares a great deal with the knowledge-making procedures in the arts and humanities.  These procedures include interpretation, judgment, imagination, and expression….  In this respect, then, the humanities scholars are natural allies for the public….  In strengthening the public sphere, they can shore up their own place in a society that sees little need for them.”

— Noëlle McAfee, “Ways of
Knowing: The Humanities and the Public Sphere”

I wanted to open with this quote from Noelle McAfee’s “Ways of Knowing” because it gets at something central to what we do, I think, as scholars and teachers of literature–and, in many ways, what we do as scholars and teachers of 18th century literature. If we believe, as John Guillory has shown, that the cultural capital underwritten by English departments today is no longer that of a shared body of knowledge that distinguishes the educated and the elite, but instead that of a set of skills, with writing front and center, then McAfee’s point is even more well-taken. She writes that the “knowledge-making procedures in the…humanities” include “interpretation, judgment, imagination, and expression.” These are remarkably similar to what characterizes the creation of “sound public knowledge.” In both cases, it is not so much a question of what is studied as how it is studied, because the “it” is never completely distinct from the “how.”

Indeed, one of the things I routinely encounter as a teacher of everything from composition to Restoration and 18th-century theater and advanced research methodologies is the desire students have to see subject matter or content as distinct from the form and the structure through which it is represented. By turning students into knowledge-creators, especially public, self-conscious knowledge-creators, we can help overcome this shortsightedness–which is itself a product of an educational system that teaches to the test. Encouraging students to see their work as something that not only exists in and as part of the public sphere, but also itself offers a clear contribution to a scholarly conversation presents one way to transform students into self-conscious knowledge-creators. Technology may pose as many problems as it offers solutions, but with judicious choice and thorough familiarity, some tools can make this transformation less radical and more revelatory.


In “Making Connections: The Humanities, Culture and Community,” part of the findings of the ACLS’s National Task Force on Scholarship and the Public Humanities, James Quay and James Veninga explore the relationship between the humanities, institutions of higher education in the liberal arts tradition, and civic engagement. Considering the radical cultural changes shaping our world today, Quay and Veninga note that the greatest “test of…democracy” is located in “enriching public conversation and extending participation in this conversation to all Americans.” The most central challenge facing higher education today, they find, is overcoming the sense and practice of a divide between academic scholarship in the humanities and public engagement. And yet, this divide is not insurmountable; it is more accurate, and indeed more useful, “to consider scholarship and the public humanities not as two distinct spheres but as parts of a single process, the process of taking private insight, testing it, and turning it into public knowledge.”

This process is most visible when (excuse the generalization) the Ivory Tower meets Joe Public: in a crowded DC museum, in an open, collaboratively-produced web archive like The Hurricane Digital Memory Bank, in a prison performance of The Tempest organized jointly by faculty, students and the incarcerated. In “The Humanities and the Public Soul,” Julie Ellison puts it this way: “The specific importance of public scholarship in the arts and humanities is to provide purposeful social learning, spaces where individuals and groups with ‘trustworthy knowledge’ convene to pursue joint inquiry and invention that produces a concrete result.”

Works Cited

Ellison, Julie. “The Humanities and the Public Soul.” Imagining America: Reports and Resources. 27 July 2011. <>.

McAfee,  Noëlle.  “Ways of Knowing: The Humanities and the Public Sphere.” Standing with the Public: The Humanities and Democratic Practice.  Kettering Foundation Press, 1997.

Quay, James, and James Veninga. “Making Connections: The Humanities, Culture and Community.” American Council of Learned Societies.  27 July 2011. 1990. <>.

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