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Institutionalizing Public Humanities Projects

This past weekend I was asked to come in and give a plenary address to a group working through the second cohort of the CIC’s “Humanities Research for the Public Good” initiative.  Messiah was in the first cohort and I served as a team member, though in truth almost all the work was done by David Pettegrew, Jean Corey, students, and our community partners working on the Commonwealth Monument project.  In the course of our efforts, I think the CIC became aware of all the many good things we do here in Public Humanities work, so I was glad to be able to share with them a little about what we do and how we’ve managed to do it and sustain it over time.   Slides from the presentation are available at slideshare, and embedded at the end of this post.

What follows are a few snippets from my presentation—the parts that were a little more written out rather than just talked through extemporaneously. 


In preparing for this talk, Phil and Anne gave me about two pages of possible things to address in my talk, things like 

  • How can we make public engagement a part of the ongoing life of the institution.
  • How can this kind of work be sustained.
  • How can our institutional missions and the ideal of community outreach or engagement mesh?
  • Is there a way to make public humanities projects grow that aren’t simply bootstrapped?
  • How can you actually make things grow at all?
  • What does a solid program require in terms of administrative support and structure?
  • How can institutions see this work as important even when it is not efficient?
  • How to scale up.  How does that happen.
  • How can Faculty and Administrators better understand one another and work together?

I admit that as we were developing this list I was saying to myself “I really hope that Phil and Anne will be able to find someone who can come and answer these questions, because I sure as heck can’t”  I say that only partially in jest, because the truth is that institutionalization does not mean what it used to mean, especially in an era when higher ed institutions of our sort are themselves under constant threat and nowhere more than in the areas of the humanities and no where more than in the kinds of institutions supported by the CIC.  All of us are in a scramble to get one more student in the door so that they can keep our doors open.  To some degree “institutionalization” means you are at least welcome to stay in the scramble.  Uncomfortable, yes, but in an era where History and English and Philosophy and Religion and Language majors are being discontinued and de-institutionalized, it does mean that institutionalization is an ongoing and iterative process rather than something that is finally and for all time achieve. 

However, I’m going to start whacking a way at this a bit by telling you a bit of our story, not because we have come up with the absolutely best ways of doing these things or answering these question.  Rather, my primary claim today is that the most important aspect of institutionalization is story-telling.  This may be one area in which we have some distinct advantages because we are, most of us, story tellers of one sort or another.  I am fond of saying to my dean and provost colleagues that whatever we read in the best administrators’ handbooks, we aren’t really data-driven. Institutions are story-driven and data informed. Data in itself does not tell us what to value, aspire after, regret, champion, mourn, and envision. Our stories do that.  Thus, as you all well know, the stories you can tell about your projects are important. But perhaps even more important for the processes we call institutionalization are the stories you know and can tell effectively about your institutions.  Our project stories AND institutional stories, are the most valuable resources you can bring to the table.  

[What followed was an extemporaneous discussion of our primary nodes of public humanities work at Messiah University, which I defined as the following: The Digital Humanities InitiativeThe Center for Public HumanitiesThriving Together: Congregations for Racial Justice.]

That’s a little of the story of our projects, but I think a little more important for our purposes here is the story of Messiah University as a whole. If I had to declare a rule one for institutionalizing your work,  it would be similar to the first rule of fundraising; that is make sure that your pitch is not about you or only about you but is about the person whose attention and affections (and resources) you are trying to win.  Too often in seeking the favor of our institutions or donors we end up like the date who spends the evening talking exclusively about himself, to the grief of his partner’s evening.  And we end up thinking that either we just need to get better at telling our story to the institution or else the institution just doesn’t get how valuable and important our story is.  Instead we need to realize that the most important thing we can do is hear and understand and value our institution’s story, and figure out how our story can possibly fit with what is, in the eyes of the institution, going to be a much larger and more important story.  What we are doing when we are asking to have our work “institutionalized” is that we are not asking for “resources”; we are asking that the story we care about can become a part of our institution’s story. Insofar as an institution is concerned, your program qua program is always only a small part of a much bigger and more complex story, and in its own mind it’s own is the much more important story.  This is true even if you are making great progress on solving world hunger, on understanding the cultural effects of climate change, or are developing plans for capturing the oral histories of Ukranian refugees.  No matter how big your story as an idea, insofar as it is as a program within your institution, the institution’s story is always going to be bigger and more important.  Figuring out how your story is or can become part of that story is fundamental.  

So, the first thing I’m going to say in that vein may seem somewhat over obvious, but know your mission, it is the foundation stone of your institution’s story and sense of self. Messiah University’s mission and identity statement makes the following claims

“Messiah University is a Christian university of the liberal and applied arts and sciences. The University is committed to an embracing evangelical spirit rooted in the Anabaptist, Pietist and Wesleyan traditions of the Christian Church. Our mission is to educate men and women toward maturity of intellect, character and Christian faith in preparation for lives of service, leadership and reconciliation in church and society.”  

On the one hand, such mission and identity statements tend to be bland and even banal affairs, claiming to be original while pretty much saying what everyone else is saying in one way or another.  On the other hand, they are portals into your institution’s story and its meanings and values. They are teleological claims that the leaders of your institution take with an earnest seriousness.  Within institutions, each bland and seemingly innocuous statement carries a penumbra of interlocking meanings that are embodied in the various workings of your institution, including its planning and decision-making processes. Most institutions, and certainly effective institutions, attempt to find their own way through the thicket of troubles that is higher education by means of its guiding stories, metaphors, and rituals, most typically embodied at the highest order in a sense of mission and a sense of identity. 

For instance, Messiah is a University of the applied and liberal arts.  In the jargon of higher education, this indicates merely that we are a so-called “comprehensive institution,” with a balanced array of liberal arts and professional programs.  In our institutional history, however, it represents and affirms that we were not simply or only a liberal arts college but that we were interested in providing an education that makes a practical difference in the world. In one of my first conflicts with a University President as a young faculty member, I was chastised for comparing what we did to Dickinson College.  I was very firmly told that was not a good comparison and that form of a liberal arts college was not something we should aspire to, that we were more like places like Valparaiso another comprehensive institution, or perhaps we could aspire to be like Bucknell.  In our instance, the student’s ability to apply and use the education that they receive, most particularly in service to others, is a paramount value.  

This practical orientation is  reinforced by an identity that calls attention to our roots in the “Anabaptist, Pietist, and Wesleyan” traditions of the Christian faith.  This story of origins signals particular kinds of Christian allegiance with particular kinds of values. In our case, the rootedness in these traditions reinforces the preference for practice and the experiential that colors the entirety of our educational ethos.  Anabaptists and Pietists, and even to some degree Wesleyans, are notable for their emphasis on practice of the Christian faith rather than reflection on Christian faith.  Theological and philosophical traditions of learning and speculation springing from these traditions are notoriously thin when compared with the Catholic intellectual tradition or the robust emphasis on philosophy and theology and the other liberal arts springing from the Reformed churches. Nevertheless, these traditions of the Christian faith remain robust due to an undying commitment to values such as the practice of community life together, the pursuit of justice for and service to others, the personal experience of divine presence, and the pursuit of right living as a result of that experience.  These traditions ask less fewer questions such as “What is the world for?”  and more questions like “What can we do to make the world better?”  This, finally, is reflected in our mission statement that puts a premium on education to specific ends that, again, all have resonance with the idea of practical and fruitful forms living, and especially living together: service, leadership and reconciliation.    

Now, this practical and service-oriented ethos is often a burr in the backside of our traditional humanities disciplines, as some of you can probably imagine  As an institution, we are not as robustly equipped as some sister liberal arts institutions to counter narratives of impracticality and uselessness in the humanities. Nevertheless, our stories have also been our doorway into a variety of valuable distinctives in our humanities programs, and most particularly for what we have been able to accomplish in public humanities forms of research. The justifications for our programs have relied significantly on the real-world difference such programs would make for our students and for the world at large.  While I have often found myself wishing that we had a more traditionally oriented liberal arts ethos on campus, I have mostly felt that it is part of my job to figure out how to create a humanities that works in this place and within this particular set of values, respecting and working with the culture and values of the world in which I have found myself, culture and values expressed at the highest level by a statement of mission and identity.

This attachment to mission happens at a fairly high and abstract level.  Practically speaking, I would also encourage to know your strategic plan well and know why it exists and what it is shooting for.  I will say that if there are things more bland and less unique than an institution’s mission statement they are probably an institution’s vision statement and strategic plan.  Nevertheless, as an internal ritual of storytelling and vision casting, strategic planning is more or less a road map.  This is who we are, this is what we would like to become.  If you are lucky, it might be that your particular project actually gets in on the ground floor and is central to the strategic plan.  This has never really happened for me. More likely, you are going to have to be nimble and plan on every four or five years to have to retell at least part of your story of what you are doing in terms of those large if somewhat bland statements of vision coming out of the strategic planning processes.  There is, frankly, not a VP in the country who is going to stand in front of their president and say “I know the strategic plan says we ought to be doing X, but I decided to do Y instead.”  Such a VP might (MIGHT!) say to the same president, “We’re working to fulfill Educational goal 3  of Theme 4 in our strategic plan that relates to engaging the public about our value to the region.  I’ve got this interesting new public humanities project that I think it might be worth investing a few thousand dollars in and I’d like to ask the development office to write some grants to generate further support.”

In our case at Messiah University this kind of nimble shifting of gears and recasting of our story in terms of the strategic planning process has happened on multiple occasions.

[What followed at this point was an extended extemporaneous discussion of the ways in which we’ve connected public humanities work of various sort to important strategic initiative at the University, if not gaining large sums of money then at least riding the coattails of a general momentum in particular directions.  I also briefly discussed the ways we had made use of various kind of policies at the institution to the benefit of our programming, and finally how we had invested in people to achieve some of these ends.  I concluded with the following  reflection on taking stock of oneself and what it meant to want to have one’s own story institutionalized.]

When I sat down to zoom with Phil Katz and Ann Valk a few weeks ago to discuss what I might talk about, my section in the draft program that Phil shared in our call was named “institutionalizing public humanities”.  I admit I read that word “institutionalizing” with a sudden clutch in my gut and catch in my throat.  Somewhere in my alligator brain I heard a voice say “EEWW, who would want to be institutionalized?”  It does not take much thinking to realize that the institutional man or woman is not usually the one that gets the romantic lead in books and movies.  From Huck Finn to Animal House to Invisible Man, to Girl Interrupted, to Shawshank Redemption, institutions, their operations and their representatives are taken to signal the loss of freedom, loss of creativity, loss of passion, loss, indeed, of identity.   In our subconscious we assume that institutions mean restraint, the loss of something more real and vibrant and visionary and alive than what we would really be able to do if given the time, opportunity and resources, and especially if we were left to our own devices.  Sometimes, lurking unacknowledged beneath the question that asks how our important projects can become institutionalized or become an institutional priority lies the unstated question “How can I get the resources to do what I want to do and be left alone to do it in the way I think it ought to be done.”

My disappointingly short answer to that is “You Can’t.”  Part of institutionalizing our passions is a long-term negotiation, not just with our institutions, but with ourselves and our own stories,  practices, and desires.  Institutionalizing what we do is in part figuring out how our stories practices, and passions must be altered in order to be meshed with the stories and practices and ambitions of these things we call institutions.  One of the hardest things about institutionalizing your work, is coming to embrace the fact that it is no longer really your story, or at least not solely your story.   At least part of my discussion today implies that one part of the process of institutionalization is coming to term with the fact that our individual dreams will not be realized through institutions, at least not as we had dreamed them.  But our dreams of various sorts will be realized and sustained as we give them up, at least in part, to our institutions, our community partners, our students, and many, many others on the way to  something we call a public humanities project.  That something  that results will not be what we originally imagined, but, perhaps, in the end, more than we could have asked or hoped for.

Creativity and Community in COVID-time

I wrote the short piece for our Provost’s Newsletter. Though a little in-house for broader dissemination, I do think it’s important that people know how hard and how well faculty and students and working during what has been an extraordinary 9 month period. And also important to recognize that creativity and community aren’t reserved for times of leisure. Now more than ever we need to be artists with our own lives and be committing ourselves to community with others and common good for all.

Mundanely titled: “Good News Around Campus”

In the mad rush we have come to call “COVID-time,” I’m used to describing my own life or hear others describe their lives as “busy” or “frantic.” We’re all “dog-paddling” or keeping our collective “nose out of the water.” Always rushed during the school year, COVID seems to have added an extra gear that gets the wheel of our days spinning yet more rapidly, even as we wait endlessly for a Thanksgiving, a day that the seems, like a point in Zeno’s paradox, to be ever closer and yet just as far away as ever.

Even so, when I’ve had a minute to pause and observe in the middle of all piles of things I must get done, I’ve also been struck by the ways our lives seem to be continuously marked by two other, less frantic words: creativity and connection. Although COVID has been an experience of tremendous and widespread loss—of our normal ways of doing things at which we excelled, of our usual times of rest or worship, and even for many of us the loss of friends or family–it has also given opportunities for newness and, surprisingly, for connection. As I observe faculty and students at work I am constantly impressed with adaptability and creativity in their finding new things to do or their efforts to do old things in new ways. In the Department of Communication, faced with the inability to cover sports events in his photojournalism class, David Dixon, co-chair of the department, has assigned his students to cover seasonal changes and campus beauty as a different form of journalism. In English, students in Young Adult Literature are using digital tools to explore the moral universe of Young Adult texts, and in Writing for Social Change students are developing digital writing campaigns to promote learning about issues such as mass incarceration, immigration, and gender in the church.

I’ve perhaps been most impressed with the ways in which faculty and students have creatively promoted human connection and community even in the midst of a world of social distancing. Kudos to Valerie Lemmon, Professor of Psychology and Assistant Dean of Business, Education, and Social Sciences for working with Stephanie Patterson to develop and alternative form of a school meeting so that faculty to greet each other, talk with each other pray for one another outside the normal confines of a business meeting. The Department of Education has celebrated the new book just published by Obed Mfum Mensah via zoom. The Messiah Council on Family Relations from HDFS sponsored a cooking show featuring student Tariah Rozier demonstrating her skills at cooking Halloween treats. The COMM department bridged the curriculum and social connection by having the Event Planning class create virtual events for students and faculty that would promote community in the department. Education students have been stepping up to fill critical substitute teacher needs in the region, an effort that helps our local schools and their students and teachers while also enhancing their experience as teachers.

There are, to be sure, so many ways in which we may find COVID-time constraining, preventing us from doing what we might otherwise prefer to be doing. But I also discern enabling constraints, all the ways in which the difficulties of our moment are pushing us to a creativity, and to a community, that we might not have otherwise realized. In all these ways and many, many more, I see faculty and students responding to constraints with creativity that sustains community. A blessing even in the midst of busyness.

Alice Dunbar Nelson–Poet of Harrisburg

As I mentioned in my last post, I’ve gotten more interested in the specific connections of the “New Negro Renaissance” that I took up in my book to my own specific location in Harrisburg.  While we tend to think of cultural movements as emanating and developing only in the major metropolitan centers (and so we equate the New Negro Renaissance Alice_Dunbar-Nelsonwith Harlem, or at most with Harlem and Chicago), it was in truth a national and even international movement, that touched culture in many different times and places.  Harrisburg, I learned a few years ago, was a well known center for jazz and a regular stop for big bands and jazz and blues musicians such as Cab Calloway and many other large and lesser lights.

This past week my colleague Jean Corey sent me a clipping (which she received via Alice Dunbar nelsonHarrisburg historian Calobe Jackson) regarding Alice Dunbar Nelson.  I had absolutely zero inkling that Dunbar Nelson was associated with Harrisburg at all, but she apparently lived here for at least a couple of years after her second marriage.  The attached clip from the Harrisburg Telegraph notes her wedding to Robert J. Nelson who worked in the state government.  There are a fairly large number of references to Alice Dunbar and Dunbar-Nelson in the Harrisburg Telegraph, even after she apparently left the city–references to speaking engagements at Harrisburg churches and the like.  I’ll have to follow up further later.

Gwendolyn Bennett of Harrisburg

Although I’ve published my book on the Harlem Renaissance, it remains one of the pleasures of the scholarly life to continue to learn and discover yet more about things I gwendoline-bennettfeel I know quite well.  One thing that has continued to interest me is the ways in which the “Harlem” Renaissance extended and had connections to many places, including my home town of Harrisburg PA.  I wrote briefly about Esther Popel Shaw’s connection to Harrisburg, and discovered, or was reminded (one of those things I think I knew, but never followed up on), that Gwendolyn Bennett, one of the most significant poets of the younger generation had a Harrisburg connection.  According to this clip noted by Harrisburg Historian, Calobe Jackson, Jr., she made the honor roll in 1917.

Gwendolyn Bennett, Honor studentAt this point I haven’t been able to determine much more than these scant biological connections, but I am intrigued with the role that regions some distance from our cultural centers end up playing a role, major or minor, in the lives of our writers and in the larger movements that they create.  I discovered a similar connection to Alice Dunbar Nelson that I’ll note in a later post.

Review of Goodbye Christ?–American Historical Review

It was nice to find another review of Goodbye Christ?, and the first I’ve seen in a print journal of some substance.  Tiffany Ruby Patterson from Vanderbilt University does a very thorough overview of the book and has some kind words to say.  Unfortunately behind a paywall for now, but you can find it here if you have access.  A couple of short excerpts:

In Goodbye Christ? Christianity, Masculinity, and the New Negro Renaissance, Peter Kerry Powers has written a deeply researched and fine-grained study of how issues of masculinity and Christianity are entangled in the writing and worldviews of African American intellectuals in the twentieth century. He argues that the New Negro Renaissance was not a secular period as some have argued but one where secularism and Christian beliefs competed in shaping the struggle for leadership. Instead he demonstrates that the period was a moment when “Christian religious practices provide the backdrop, characters, imagery, and theme of most of the important work of the Renaissance, even when they are deployed to resist the religious traditions that they reference” (15)

This study also speaks to the work that still needs to be done on Christianity, non-Christian belief systems in America, gender matters, and intellectuals.  Goodbye Christ? is grounded in excellent research and is meticulous in its arguments.  it is a must read for scholars of religion, gender, race, sexuality, and intellectual leadership.

So, must read. Do.

“Beyond The Review: Reading African American Literature and Religion”


was very happy this week to publish a new review essay in The Cresset for their Lent 2019 edition. On the one hand publishing has not lost its charge, perhaps because I do it so rarely.  But beyond that it was good to see in print my meditations on being part of a mini-movement in literary and cultural studies that has been taking religion in/and African American lit more seriously.  Besides my efforts on the Harlem Renaissance, there are many other, probably more important contributions going on, and I look at three recent works by Wallace Best, M. Cooper Harris, and Josef Sorett just to give a sense of the importance of what’s going on, besides my evaluation of the works at hand.  I also liked the challenge of trying to write 

about academic literary criticism for a non-specialist audience, and to take up the issue of why lay readers ought to read criticism, even against their better judgment.  Not an easy task, and one at which I think I only partially succeeded, but which the editor liked enough to print at any rate.  A little flavor of this aspect of the review:


“Unlike breathing or the beating of the heart, reading is a skill developed within particular cultures, each with its own values and peculiarities, and each with its own notion of excellence. At its best, literary criticism models forms of readerly virtuosity that stretch our imagination beyond the straightforward pleasures of enjoying a good story. The best criticism allows us to know literature within a cultural ecosystem of reference and connection. In the normal course of things, we pluck books from the Barnes & Noble bookshelf or the Amazon algorithm as we might pluck up a flower in a field, enjoying (or not) the pleasure of the text. Literary criticism reads the role that flower plays in the field. It considers the ways it depends on or perhaps destroys other features of the field, or perhaps the ways other cultural ecosystems consider it a weed or an invasive species to be eradicated. SorettWhile reading literary criticism is not always a walk in the park, doing so can make our pleasures more aware and engaged, delivering enhanced or other pleasures, much as we might take pleasure in not only the scent of the air, but in being able to name the flowers and the trees and understand our relationship to them and theirs to one another.”

You can read the rest of my review here…


Presentation–St. Stephen’s Cathedral–12/2 & 12/9 2018

I had the great good pleasure of presenting on Goodbye Christ? the past couple of Sundays at St. Stephen’s Cathedral. My slides used in the presentation are embedded below, though I offer them mostly as a demonstration of my astonishingly limited visual imagination. Some of the slides don’t stand easily on their own and require more explication than I care to include at the moment, but maybe I’ll work on it later. And I’ll be glad to respond to any questions in comments sections below.

One thing I was pleased to hunt up and discover for this presentation were the tangential but still interesting connections of the City of Harrisburg to the Great Migration and the cultural currents of the New Negro/Harlem Renaissance, stuff I hadn’t looked in to at all in my book proper.

One thing that can’t be represented here is the great pleasure it was to lead discussion in a church whose people are interested in knowing more, and desirous of doing more to make the world a better place through educating themselves and others. A good place to worship, and belong.


Esther Popel Shaw, Poet of Harrisburg


I didn’t really look into the poetry and other writings of Esther Popel Shaw while working on Goodbye Christ?, but digging around for the ways the Harlem Renaissance may connect to the City of Harrisburg for a presentation I’m doing at St. Stephen’s Cathedral, I discovered her biographical connection to the region.  Born in Harrisburg and the first African American to attend Dickinson, she left the area to attend Howard University after not being allowed to live on Campus. She eventually worked on various literary and political journals in Harlem for a while and was a teacher for much of her life.  I hesitate to say these poems are representative since I don’t know enough about all her writing, but a nice collection can be found at The Beltway Poetry Quarterly.  I reproduce one of them here.  The ironic juxtaposition of American (and/or Christian) ideals with the realities of racial violence was a common trope of literature of the period


“I pledge allegiance to the flag”—
They dragged him naked
Through the muddy streets,
A feeble-minded black boy!
And the charge? Supposed assault
Upon an aged woman!
“Of the United States of America”—
One mile they dragged him
Like a sack of meal,
A rope around his neck,
A bloody ear
Left dangling by the patriotic hand
Of Nordic youth! (A boy of seventeen!)
“And to the Republic for which it stands”—
And then they hanged his body to a tree,
Below the window of the county judge
Whose pleadings for that battered human flesh
Were stifled by the brutish, raucous howls
Of men, and boys, and women with their babes,
Brought out to see the bloody spectacle
Of murder in the style of ’33!
“(Three thousand strong, they were!)
“One Nation, Indivisible”—
To make the tale complete
They built a fire—
What matters that the stuff they burned
Was flesh—and bone—and hair—
And reeking gasoline!
“With Liberty—and Justice”—
They cut the rope in bits
And passed them out,
For souvenirs, among the men and boys!
The teeth no doubt, on golden chains
Will hang
About the favored necks of sweethearts, wives,
And daughters, mothers, sisters, babies, too!
“For ALL!”

–Esther Popel Shaw

Review: Marilynne Robinson, The Givennness of Things

The Givenness of Things: EssaysThe Givenness of Things: Essays by Marilynne Robinson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

My review of Marilynne Robinson recently appeared on Reading Religion. The opening…

A friend once complained to me that he thought Marilynne Robinson’s novels were “slow.” Slightly aghast, my response was that glaciers are slow, but they dig deep. They gather force patiently through time, and their full effects are seen only as they recede. They rewrite continents.

This comparison is apt for Robinson’s collection, The Givenness of Things. The pieces vary by occasion. They are written for disparate audiences, sometimes as commencement speeches, sometimes as invited lectures on a chosen or assigned topic. Necessarily, then, the reader does not quickly arrive at a neatly formulated thesis. However, over time, a sustained argument comes into view. Points of emphasis build through repetition; interesting asides are picked up and elaborated. Robinson’s thinking gathers force less by the secure scaffolding of an academic essay than by the gathered observations of human beings thinking and acting in these early hectic years of the 21st century.

Or failing to think. Robinson is convinced that we Americans have become a forgetful people. The list of things that we have forgotten is long: we have forgotten the legacy of the Reformation; we have forgotten the value of the common good manifested in things like publicly funded libraries and schools; we have forgotten the principles of the Civil Rights Movement; we have forgotten the intellectual, imaginative, and spiritual capacities of the common person; and we have forgotten that our minds are more than our brains. Fundamentally, we have forgotten ourselves. In the process, Robinson says, we have forgotten God.

You can read the full review here:….

View all my reviews