“Making the thing is the thing”: Observing the 2023 American Examples Cohort

A sign beside an open laptop that says "You got this."

Photo by Prateek Katyal on Unsplash

By Trevor Linn.

Why can’t I study the humanities and create humanistic projects for myself? Do I always have to do it for other people? Is my own curiosity and enthusiasm for the topic not enough? These are all questions that I have found one answer to in Dr. Judith Brunton‘s statement during the recent the 2023 American Examples Public Humanities workshop:

“Making the thing is the thing, and it’s not about the audience.” 

As I learn more about the world of academic faculty requirements, I see that more and more graduate programs, postdoc positions, and university full-time jobs are expecting public scholarship. But these requirements seem to push the original goal of public humanities—joining serious humanistic intellectual work with a commitment to public access and consequence[i]—to the background. It seems to me that the “scholarship” is no longer the focus of the phrase “public-facing scholarship.” Has “public-facing” become the star of the show?

As a student in REL’s Religion and Culture MA program, I’m required to take two courses on public and digital humanities (REL502 and REL503). These courses help me learn about, experiment with, and become more familiar with the variety and usefulness of digital projects and formats. Dr. Brunton’s comment got me thinking: shouldn’t that be one of the goals of public and digital scholarship, too?   

I think these questions are related to my work on the editorial team of Religious Studies Project Digest, where I  get the impression that some institutions may expect their faculty to do public-facing scholarship. The aim is to reach the publics that support the institutions. But I don’t think that means public humanities should only have the goal of serving those it is presented to. Public humanities projects can be a place for scholars to learn about the new methods and modes of delivery that these projects involve. Perhaps the outward-facing shift to questions about “Who is this for?” risks making “public humanities” just another outlet to publicize research to fellow scholars?  

Hearing, “Making the thing is the thing, and it’s not about the audience,” nicely summarized my idea that public humanities gives me the chance to not just share knowledge, but to stretch myself to create knowledge in new and innovative ways. Therefore, thinking about every piece of digital work and public-facing product as something that is meant to be for some audience seems like the wrong reason for doing academic projects. I think a better way to think about public humanities might be to think of it as a chance to try a new method, develop a new skill or experiment a new platform. Along the way, I might share my knowledge with others who have similar interests and questions.

“Making the thing” is the process of learning the new technique or program. While that process is “not about the audience,” creating digital scholarship for myself just might be a secondary outcome from the process. In this way, I am a part of the public that these new media and mediums might serve. Learning how to create podcasts, websites, digital storyboards, or videos are useful processes for creating knowledge. I might realize something while making “the thing” that is maybe wouldn’t happen while writing an article or book.   

As a scholar, I enjoy learning new things. Learning digital methods to share my passion for humanities scholarship is as exciting and important as more conventional ways of learning about religion, history, literature, etc. This passion drives my rationale for making public-humanities “things.” But that’s “the thing” in Dr. Brunton’s remark: remembering that I am also part of the audience that public humanities is meant to serve, should allow me to be ok with taking time to do public humanities for the humanities side of it. With that in mind then, I can confidently tell myself that not every piece of public work needs to be something designed with a specific target audience in mind, because sometimes I am the project’s intended audience, and that can be “public” enough.

[i] UBC Public Humanities Hub.