BUILDING PUBLICS: Introduction to Modes and Methods of the Engaged Humanities

AHIS GR8011 | Fall 2020

Wednesdays, 4:10-6:00 | Zoom

Prof. María González Pendás | [email protected] 

Department of Art History and Archeology | SoF/Heyman Center for the Humanities

This course initiates graduate students in the practices, research methods and intellectual strategies in the interdisciplinary field of the Public Humanities, which promotes civically engaged and public-facing modes of pedagogy and scholarship. Humanists today are called to operate in an expanded media field, to engage with publics well beyond academia, and to better think through and act upon the conditions of inequity that concern them. Critical new arts and humanities research now develops in close collaboration with communities and institutions that exist outside of academic silos and literary media, beyond campus and the canon. All the while, community organizers, activists, and policy makers variously mobilize artistic, spatial, and humanistic practices as modes of communal building and, at their best, as crucial to processes of justice and emancipation. And yet, disciplinary-bound methods of research and teaching prove limited for the art history student drawn to shape an activist voice in podcasts, the philosopher who aims at teaching incarcerated students through performance, and the literary scholar whose work addresses climate justice in exhibition spaces—to sketch but a few of the experimental and expanded modes of scholarship that students from across the humanities are increasingly imagining.

Building Publics introduces such students to one another and to the central approaches of this urgent field, asking that they apply them to their own public project. Situated at the intersection of humanistic and social work and open to all students from the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, the course will integrate the study of projects and concepts informing the public humanities with training in methods of civic field-work and digital technologies. Readings and discussion sessions will provide basic familiarity with public projects developed through artistic, architectural, and literary practices and explore underlying theories on praxis, intersectionality, post-coloniality, and digital humanities. We will discuss the complex logistics of community building and social action, the production of reciprocal forms of knowledge, and modes of engagement with non-academic publics and organizations. Workshop sessions will introduce students to methods in oral history, podcasting, and mapping, among others, to help them conceptualize a public humanities project. These will pertain New York sites and community partners; address any form of environmental, racial, ableist, economic and gender justice; and take on any of the many media we will explore. In casting the humanities as ripe for new forms of radical imagination, Building Publics is aimed at students who look to advance civically engaged scholarship and expand their career prospects both within and beyond academia.         



An on-line course designed as a hybrid of synchronous seminar sessions, asynchronous skill-training workshops and lectures, and one-on-one project design, the course is structured as follows:  

Seminar sessions (SS) require the active reading and discussion of texts and the analysis of case studies explored through various media. In these sessions, students will be asked to respond to a variety of interdisciplinary practices both historical and contemporary, and to make connections across disparate methods. For the synchronous meetings, students shall be prepared to discuss the assigned material with the rest of the group and bring in examples of emerging public humanities initiatives. Each week, one or two students will be asked to submit brief (15 minute) videos with a presentation on the week’s topic, distributed to the group the day before as starting point for discussion. A report of the presentation will be submitted the week after. All students are required to assist meetings well prepared. Absences are not permitted except for medical purposes, and will be made-up in ways agreed upon with the instructor. Sessions might be supplemented by guest speakers and by attending public humanities programming. Sept 9- Nov 12 in 90’ Zoom meetings. 

Methods Workshops (MW) require students to complete at least two on-line training workshops that might include a podcast production training session with the SoF/Heyman Center; a public writing workshop with Public Books; a session on digital curatorial practices (TBD); an oral history workshop with the Oral History Masters of Arts; or selected tutorials on digital mapping or online exhibition software with the Center for Spatial Research. Students will agree on these with the instructor and submit a brief report on each workshop. Completed at student’s discretion.

Public Humanities Project require students to research and design a public humanities project that identifies and intervenes in a social problem and is related to the student’s scholarly vocation. Projects must engage with a non-academic public in the research phase, in the presentation phase, and ideally in both. Students will meet with the instructor (3 times at least) to identify specific community connections and institutional partners, and determine suitable methods of engagement and media production. However specific and applicable, we will strive for speculative approaches that show deep social engagement, thoughtful consideration of the public at stake, and reciprocal forms of intellectual production and social work. By mid-term, students will identify a local community or institution with which to partner and conduct at least one interview. This will constitute the preliminary research for a draft proposal that must include: project description, affiliated organizations or community contacts, description of media and methods, related projects and bibliography, and tentative schedule (due Oct 21). Students will present their project-in-process in a brief 10 min. video submitted to all students for group feedback (due Nov 15). The final assignment will consist of a revised written project proposal and partial implementation—whether this be a preliminary design of an on-line community cookbook, for instance, or one episode of a podcast series (due Dec 20). The final write-up will include: project description, affiliated organizations or community contacts, description of media and methods, related projects and bibliography, and a tentative schedule. It will also include a 2000-word statement essay to combine a project abstract, reference to some of the readings and examples discussed in class, and their critical position towards the field of the public humanities. A selection of these essays will be published in the SoF/Heyman Public Humanities Initiative Newsletter. Group projects are welcomed, particularly from students from different departments. 

Office Hours:  Tuesdays, 2-3:30, by appointment

Grading Breakdown:

  • Seminar Attendance and Participation: 15%. 
  • Workshop Attendance and Assignments: 15%
  • Community Research and mid-term project proposal, including video: 25%
  • Final project and written summary: 35%


  • Students will be able to think critically about what constitutes the public humanities and to assess work in the field. They will be able to identify the terms and intentions behind alleged forms of public engagement, the success of the methods and media used for such engagement, and asses how well they serve both the representation of marginalized publics and the advancement of humanistic thinking. 
  • Students will be prepared to research, plan, explain, and budget a public humanities project. 
  • Students will be able to identify a set of social issues that concern a specific community and the institutions that serve its ends, and will develop academic and non-academic connections around such issues.
  • Students will gain exposure to institutional and financial resources to help them further develop public humanities work and teaching, a set of skills and contacts by which to pursue career development beyond academia.

Academic Honesty: University policies regarding academic dishonesty will be strictly enforced. Plagiarism or cheating of any kind will result in a failing grade in the course and further disciplinary action. All written assignments must be your original work and must cite all sources, using footnotes or in-text citations, and include a bibliography. Be cautious about information posted online; make sure it has been written or vetted by recognized scholars. For the correct format, see the Chicago Manual of Style. Honesty is particularly critical to this course, where ideas will develop collectively not only in the class but also in interviews and private conversations with community members and non-scholars. In addition to academic integrity in your writing you will be asked become familiar with protocols of copy and privacy rights when producing, archiving and sharing publicly-produced information. 

Media Rights: Seminar Sessions will be recorded and parts of it may be made available, in edited form, through the SoF/Heyman Center for the Humanities Public Humanities Initiative. Seminar participants must be willing to participate and must sign a media release form the start of the course.

Disability Students: Students requiring academic accommodations should present a letter from Disability Services Office as soon as possible after the start of the term. If you believe that you might have a disability that requires accommodation, you should contact Disability Services at 212-854-2388 and [email protected]

BUILDING PUBLICS: Introduction to Modes and Methods of the Engaged Humanities