#MLA16 Special Session Proposal: Public Humanities Pedagogy Workshop

With this year’s conference theme, MLA President Roland Greene urges members to explore how our work as teachers of literature and language constitutes a “public act.” This master class workshop provides conference attendees with an opportunity to collaborate in small groups to develop course outlines modeled on best practices for public humanities pedagogy.

Public humanities pedagogy engages students in project-based learning that uses humanities practice to enrich public life through reciprocal partnerships between university and community stakeholders. Projects vary widely depending on the goals of partners but may include: composition students tutoring K-12 students in writing, English majors leading community-based reading and creative writing groups, media studies students producing digital content for museums–and much more. Some public humanities courses make use of experiential learning strategies familiar to service learning and internship pedagogy, while others involve students in community-engaged research and the production of public scholarship without necessarily requiring work off-campus. But all of these approaches share a commitment to engaging students in project-based learning that benefits the wider public–and they share a conviction that the humanities disciplines offer uniquely rich opportunities for engaging in such work.

As Teresa Mangum explains, “the work most of us regularly undertake in humanities disciplines–such as preserving and reinterpreting the past; ‘problematizing’ ideas, texts, and behaviors; self-consciously using theory and critical methodologies to see old problems anew; and embracing an intellectual approach to action–is all part of the project of going public” as humanities teachers.* When students collaborate with community partners on the work of cultural production and analysis, they not only put their humanities education into service for the greater good, but also build skills that prepare them for the sorts of complex challenges and diverse work environments they are likely to encounter after graduation. Indeed, designing humanities courses rooted in public partnerships requires instructors to cultivate what Nancy Cantor and others have termed “learning environments on and off campus where students can experience the evolution and refinement of theory in practice by encountering the world’s challenges in all their messiness.”**

Supporting students as they collaborate with communities to address 21st-century challenges can seem just as “messy” as the challenges themselves, especially to instructors who may never have experienced community-engaged learning as students. Such teaching requires both students and faculty to stretch beyond their comfort zones and beyond the confines of campus. But public humanities pedagogy is also incredibly rewarding for all involved. Our workshop demystifies community-engaged teaching by providing attendees with opportunities to apply best practices for reciprocal and sustainable partnerships to their own teaching–with the assistance of experienced workshop facilitators.

Elizabeth Goodhue teaches critical service learning courses in literature and public humanities practice for undergraduates at UCLA, and–in her role as Assistant Director for UCLA’s Center for Community Learning–has supported numerous other humanities instructors as they develop and implement their own engaged courses. As a lecturer in Writing Programs at UCLA and Faculty-in-Residence, Tara Prescott, has worked to facilitate curricular and co-curricular community engagement within living-learning environments. Bridget Draxler not only participated in and taught public digital humanities courses as a graduate student at the University of Iowa, but now brings that experience to bear on her teaching at Monmouth College and her work as director of the liberal arts college’s Communication Across the Curriculum initiative. Kim Knight teaches media studies courses at the University of Texas at Dallas that allow students to explore how code can be used for scholarly discourse and to engage with community partners to introduce underrepresented groups to coding through the lenses of the arts and humanities. With such varied expertise in both engaged teaching and curriculum administration, these facilitators will be prepared to field questions from the diverse MLA membership.

Each facilitator will speak for two minutes at the start of the session, using concrete examples from her own teaching to illuminate specific benefits and challenges of public humanities pedagogy in her respective field and institutional environment. Attendees will then divide into small groups led by the facilitator whose experience aligns with their teaching goals. Facilitators will guide attendees through questions designed to help develop course outlines:

1. What are your learning goals for students? How could partnership with one or more community organizations enhance those goals while simultaneously providing a benefit to community partners in your region?
– Subquestions: How can public humanities partnerships enrich the study of historical fields? How can partnerships provide opportunities to engage students in the production of public scholarship in 21st-century media (including mobile technology and Web 2.0)?

2. What types of assessment do you currently use? How could you alter assignments to assess how students are synthesizing what they learn on and off campus? To what extent can the graded work students complete be part of the service they provide to community partners?

3. What goals do community partners have for collaborating with university students/faculty? Consider potential for both short and long-term impact and strategies for extending partnerships beyond a single term.

4. How can you leverage existing networks on your campus and in your region to identify prospective community partners and make your vision of an engaged course a reality?

At the close of the session, we will reconvene the large group for discussion and invite workshop participants to continue the conversation on an MLA Commons page for this panel. The 2016 MLA conference, with its focus on the public practice of humanities inquiry, is an ideal setting for this workshop on community-engaged strategies for teaching literature, writing, and media studies. Our own teaching has been enriched in myriad ways by our collaborations with off-campus partners. We would welcome the opportunity to collaborate with conference attendees to begin charting new directions for engaged teaching in the humanities.

* Mangum, Teresa. “Going Public: From the Perspective of the Classroom” Pedagogy 12.1 (2012): 5-18.
** Cantor, Nancy, Peter Englot, and Marilyn Higgins. “Making the Work of Anchor Institutions Stick: Building Coalitions and Collective Expertise.” Journal of Higher Education Outreach and Engagement 17.3 (2013): 17-46.

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