Urban Humanities and Their Publics

As our planet grows more urban by the day, the need to understand the histories, representations, interpretations, physical designs, and experiences of city life grows ever more critical.  Humanities scholars have become major caretakers of this important direction in knowledge-production, offering new opportunities for idea exchange across disciplines, reconceptions of how we talk about the urban, and fresh terminology for understanding processes of urbanization. Too often marginalized in these conversations, however, are people outside the academy, particularly those whose lives provide so much material for humanistic inquiry.

The “Urban Humanities and Their Publics” initiative is built on two core values.  The first is the often cited concept of “shared authority,” which was first coined by historian Michael Frisch in 1990 and which typically applied to the practice of oral history.  As Frisch wrote, “Who, really, is the author of an oral history…Is it the historian posing the questions and editing the results, or the ‘subject’ at the heart of the consequent texts?”  Drawn more broadly, these questions apply to other disciplines that seek to illuminate or make big claims about the life of the city, with just as much resonance: What, indeed, is a city without its people?  What is the humanities without humans?  For whom and by whom is scholarship produced?

Secondly, we emphasize “publics” as a way to emphasize the public-facing orientation of our work.  With exhibits, digital projects, lectures, teach-ins, film screenings, and hands-on workshops, we take what we are learning out into the world to be made actionable, replicable, alive, and relevant to everyone.  Opening up scholarship and research to public scrutiny forces us to ask better questions and revise our worn-out habits of mind.  More than that, it elevates humanistic thinking by realizing it as an everyday practice, carried out by everyday people.

Related Events

This day-long symposium examines how we can use data and digital strategies to enhance and disrupt the kinds of research questions, methods, and narratives that define the humanities. It also complicates the role of the urban university in a global “city-state” such as New York, where the boundaries between university and city are quite blurred. This symposium is an opportunity to rethink our alliances, forge stronger and more equal relationships between university-affiliated researchers and community-based organizations, and amplify opportunities to share both resources and authorship with one another.  visit event page for more details

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