Putting the Humanities into Practice

By Shana Melnysyn, PhD Candidate, Anthropology and History

Shana Melnysyn

When I first considered applying for a Mellon Public Humanities Fellowship, I wasn’t very familiar with what the Michigan Humanities Council did, nor was I aware that every state in the U.S.A. has its own humanities council. But as soon as I started investigating their support for small-scale, community-based projects, I learned about their focus on the arts, literacy, history, and racial equity, and I knew it was the place for me.

I’d been a fellow at the Institute for the Humanities at U of M during the 2015-16 academic year. By interacting with the other fellows—artists, philosophers, literary scholars—in our weekly seminar, I learned about the diverse intellectual perspectives and methodological approaches that comprise the humanities in the academy. But out in the world, I continued to wonder what the humanities meant to people, and who was working to promote humanities-based projects for non-specialists? On my first day at MHC, after a warm welcome by the wonderful staff, I began to get a sense of the nature of the projects that the organization supports around Michigan. From library-based programs that encourage families to read and learn together, to museum exhibits showcasing the unique immigration and economic histories of small Michigan towns, to oral history projects collecting stories from people whose voices have often been silenced in dominant narratives—I learned that MHC was making it possible for Michiganders to tell their stories and turn their visions into tangible outcomes that would benefit their communities.

My dissertation research investigates the spaces where popular memory and oral history intersect with and or challenge written or “official” historical narratives. For this reason, I found it especially interesting that so many of MHC’s grantees were doing projects based on oral histories. At an orientation for the recipients of Heritage Grants in July, I met people from all over Michigan who were dedicated to collecting and sharing the knowledge held within their communities. Grantees shared anecdotes about how the interviews and exhibitions they organized had inspired and moved both the contributors and the organizers–showing the immediate impact that such projects can have on local communities. Sharing personal narratives fosters a sense of community, bringing together people who otherwise might not have a chance to connect.

Educators learn about the Battle of the Thames, at a historical monument in Ontario where Native American involvement is featured
Educators learn about the Battle of the Thames, at a historical monument in Ontario where Native American involvement is featured

One of the most rewarding experiences during my internship was attending the first day of a pilot project to develop a new history curriculum for Michigan middle schools which incorporates a Native American perspective. With a group of educators and Native American advisors, I spent the day visiting historical sites in Ohio, Michigan, and Ontario, where we discussed the participation of Native Americans in the battles between British, French, and US forces in the late 18th century—conflicts which further displaced and disenfranchised the original inhabitants of this region. Watching educators interact with tribal representatives and historical landscapes, it was clear what a powerful impact this project will have in crafting an inclusive curriculum. For students in Michigan schools, such a perspective will help them think critically about the importance of histories that have shaped our contemporary society, and to consider the ongoing effects of the erasure of subaltern perspectives from state and national histories. I wrote a blog post for MHC about this experience, drawing on an interview with an Odawa representative from northern Michigan, which you can read here if you’d like to know more about the curriculum project.

Ultimately, the experience of working at MHC broadened my perspective on what humanities-based projects can do for the public good. The sort of knowledge that humanities scholars cultivate and develop in the academy can and should have a place in civil society, and the need for such knowledge to spread beyond the academy is quite urgent. As U.S. society grapples with rapid social change and deepening political divisions, grassroots efforts to mobilize the arts and humanities continue to bring people together across divides, foster community dialogue, and encourage civic engagement. These efforts deserve more attention and more assistance.

From a professional standpoint, I am confident that humanities PhD students can use the unique set of skills they gain through intensive research, travel, critical thinking and analytical writing to make crucial contributions to organizations like the Michigan Humanities Council, and to a wide variety of organizations invested in promoting humanistic engagement with society and with the world around us. Those of us who have the privilege of studying at an elite institution like the University of Michigan have a responsibility to carefully consider the diverse range of opportunities to put our knowledge and skills into practice.

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