Humanities Exposed and the Public Humanities

by Lenora Hanson •

The Humanities Exposed Program (HEX) is a public humanities program that is now entering its seventh year funding graduate student and community inspired partnerships.  While the growth of public humanities scholarship has been on the margins of my academic radar for some time, I was most interested in the actual contribution that the “humanities” makes to the “public” when I recently assumed the role of HEX Project Coordinator. The general assumption that the humanities needs the public seems to be a given, but the suggestion that the public needs the humanities is far more suspect in popular discourse.  (Take, for instance, a recent suggestion in the Huffington Post that support for the arts might best be subsidized as a byproduct of tourism and discounted travel packages rather than by an publicly funded institution like the NEH). The HEX program’s stated intent of “supporting creative, participatory relationships between a dynamic range of community groups, non-profit organizations, and humanities students, researchers, and scholars” remains directly committed to the task of demonstrating that the humanities offers a rare form of engagement that we all need.

During two of my recent visits to current HEX projects, the response elicited by the humanities component of the projects was unmistakable. These two projects, one partnered with the Oakhill Correctional Institution and the other with Madison College, are wonderful examples of the aim and flexibility of HEX’s philosophy on partnerships. That philosophy seeks to balance traditional non-profit expectations and responsibilities amongst partners, while never discounting or limiting the possibility for surprise and innovation.

The first project I visited has now achieved veteran status, having been implemented at Oakhill in 2006 and currently undergoing its sixth iteration. Jesse Stavis and Jose Vergara  lead a Russian fiction and creative writing group that uses autobiography as its cohering theme. (Their project follows from Colleen Lucey’s 2010-11 Russian drama and theater course and Naomi Olson’s 2009-10 Russian short story course).  As I listened to their classroom discussion, I was amazed by the sophisticated links and connections that students were making between passages from Solzhenitsyn’s The Cancer Ward and Tolstoy’s  Anna Karenina that they were assigned to read for that week. In particular, I walked away knowing that I would never forget our discussion of the singular smell that death and cancer shared, and the shock one initially faces at discovering that something like death indeed does have its own, embodied odor.  This conversation was of particular interest to me, because of the visceral response to texts that can get lost through the consistent analysis that becomes second nature in literary studies over time. Second, it reminded me that the impression that literature makes is directly related to the life experiences, and in this case the difficulties, its reader is exposed to.

I visited the second project the following Wednesday and, in a transition that marks the broad outreach of the HEX program itself, moved from Oakhill to Madison College. Anneliese Cannon’s project at Madison College draws from her own research into Augusto Boal’s “theater of the oppressed” to work with students in College Preparedness writing courses. My participation in this class required getting involved, somewhat awkwardly at first, in a number of dramatic exercises like “sculpting” the body of another student and attempting to memorize and repeat back a personal, one minute long monologue with my partner. Beforehand I admittedly had my own concerns about students participating in improvisational activities during time that would otherwise be devoted to the stable bodily positions of reading and writing. But the diverse group of students in the class were curious, open, and willing to take the risks that each of these experiments required.  Further, they all seemed to intuit a connection between their previous discussion of Of Mice and Men and the dramatic exercises they were now enacting. In particular, Anneliese’s instructions to really think about the four components of conflict, levels, emotions, and power status overlapped with conceptual themes from their reading. The change in the dynamic and energy of this classroom space was palpable once students started working through the exercises Anneliese assigned. In a later recap conversation of the class students remarked upon the differences between dramatic action and reading environments, as well as how that those different contexts frame interpretation.

Both HEX encounters reminded me of two perspectives that easily get lost amidst the desensitization that develops after remaining in academic departments for long stretches of time. The first is the ability of immediate, firsthand experience, often taken for granted as the foundation for commonality, to generate unique and surprising interpretations. Thus, literary texts shared by a roomful of people can simultaneously engage us with universal themes while still preserving the exclusiveness of one moment and one sensory response by one person. The second is that naturalized and oft neglected environmental factors enable our ability to write and write well in the first place.  Because the critical thinking and inquiry skills that we take as the bread and butter of humanities departments are always shaped by movement and gesture, it is a source rich with benefits for both teaching and research.

I am most likely preaching to the choir here. After all, it is likely that if you are a reader of the Center for the Humanities blog, you are a believer in our need for the humanities. But like any belief, sometimes unexpected events are required to lure us out of routine orthodoxy. And it is precisely those events that the HEX program and other similar public humanities endeavors are intent on creating.

[Lenora Hanson is a UW-Madison English graduate student, and coordinator of the Humanities Exposed (HEX) program.]