Books@Work Visits the Chicago Humanities Summit

Books@Work Visits the Chicago Humanities Summit

Ever since its publication last year, The Heart of the Matter has generated substantial coverage and conversation. This report, published by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, makes the case that the humanities and social sciences are essential for civic society, innovation and life in a globalized world. The humanities and social sciences are, in the report’s own words, “the keeper of the republic.”

But what now? How do we translate these claims for the humanities into a stronger public presence? Such questions were at the forefront of the Chicago Humanities Summit, a meeting held on January 9 at the Gratz Center of the Fourth Presbyterian Church and sponsored by the Academy of Arts and Sciences, the Chicago Humanities Festival and the Modern Language Association. The Summit brought together faculty, business and government leaders and university administrators, with the goal of using The Heart of the Matter as an impetus for practical advocacy.

One of the breakout sessions, “How to Move Beyond the Academy,” featured Michael Bérubé, professor of Literature and Director of the Institute for the Arts and Humanities at Penn State and former president of the MLA. The topic of the session was an obvious fit for Books@Work, and so I was eager to participate in the conversation.

The discussion was wide-ranging, moving between topics as diverse as graduate student training, writing for popular audiences, the case for new research and Harry Potter. I was pleased to discover that many of the challenges raised in the session are being positively addressed by Books@Work. A few highlights:

The Goods. Bérubé pointed out that one of the biggest resources we have for promoting the humanities is our “good artifacts”: great literature, art, film, music, sculpture and architecture, all of those remarkable and interesting human creations. At Books@Work, by focusing on texts, we place these artifacts at the forefront of our program, allowing faculty to share the works that excite and interest them. Our experience demonstrates that the “goods” have a universal appeal, as participants are eager to sink their teeth into classic works they may know about but have not experienced.

Specialists and General Audiences. One of the challanges that faculty face, however, is putting specialized, focused, even arcane knowledge into conversation with nonspecialists. Bérubé made the point, correctly, that specialized knowledge itself isn’t the problem (theoretical physics, anyone?), but that there needs to be an emphasis on translation and communication. I would take it one step further: specialists in the humanities gain from dialogue with general audiences, discovering elements of their research they might otherwise have missed. That’s why Books@Work seminars always emphasize the interaction between faculty expertise and participant experience, facilitating a true conversation that respects each member of the seminar. Faculty and participants are both teachers and learners, breaking down the barrier between expert and audience.

Collaboration. Scholars in the humanities can productively engage with government organizations, K-12 schools, businesses and nonprofits. As Bérubé put it, collaboration with non-academic organizations “has to happen.” Books@Work facilitates these collaborations by connecting businesses with local universities and colleges. We are currently seeking to expand our model, working with other nonprofits and community organizations to produce a true learning network on the local level. Perhaps most significantly, Books@Work demonstrates that these partnerships can be mutually beneficial and economically sustainable.

In the spirit of collaboration, the Summit was also an excellent opportunity to learn of other great initiatives around the country. Arts of Citizenship, for instance, is a program at the University of Michigan that helps graduate students collaborate with community partners. Representatives of Imagining America were also in the audience, an organization that promotes “the public and civic purposes of humanities, arts and design.” Books@Work productively extends the spirit of these programs by bringing the humanities directly to the workplace, touching individuals and shaping businesses.

As the Chicago Humanities Summit demonstrates, there is a large and growing network of individuals and organizations getting at the heart of the matter, and Books@Work is proud to be a part of that effort. Our program brings literature of all genres to a diverse adult population. We believe that the value of the humanities extends far beyond the classroom and has tangible, measurable value for individuals, families and communities. Of equal importance, we extend the humanities while meeting critical business needs, demonstrating empirically that the humanities do support economic growth, as the authors of The Heart of the Matter point out. Our work to date suggests strongly that the need for this kind of program is at least as vital as the imperative to change the current narrative of “crisis” in the humanities. Our hope is that Books@Work is a model of creative partnership that inspires new experiments in bridging the humanities, social sciences, business and society at large.

There is still a lot of great work to be done, and we welcome your thoughts and perspectives. Contact us to create a Books@Work program in your workplace or your community.

By Weimer Pursell, silkscreen print by Neely Printing Co., Chicago [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Paul Jaussen

Paul Jaussen

Paul Jaussen is an Assistant Professor of Literature at Lawrence Technological University and former member of the Books@Work team.