A Defining Humanities Experience

By Rachel Cawkwell, PhD Student in English Language and Literature

Humanties. It was one of the several misspellings of the word humanities that I made while transcribing four hours of audio from focus groups I conducted this summer. Each new sentence seemed to result in a…creative…new version of the word. But this one gave me pause. It may be a fault of my humanistic training that I look for meaning in too many places, including my spelling mistakes, but it seemed important to dwell on the connection of humanities with human ties if only because it resonates with the larger questions that were running through my mind this summer.

Rachel Cawkwell

As a Mellon Public Humanities Fellow, I did an eight week fellowship with the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) in the Office of Challenge Grants. During this fellowship I read tons of grants and evaluations of grants. I took meeting notes and wrote up summaries about grants. I edited grant guidelines and designed promotion material and sample budgets for grants. I had conversations about the types of grants and the way that different agencies award them. I sat and mused about what sort of program I would design if I was applying for a grant or what grant lines I would launch if I was the NEH. This was all immeasurably helpful in thinking about the current state of humanities research, teaching, and programming, and what I personally want to do in the future. But this fellowship also gave me the space to think about the import of the huamnitesi. I mean, the humaniteis. Ugh. THE HUMANITIES.

Alongside the grant work, my side task was to continue the work started by another fellow, Malcolm Tariq. Following his two focus groups, I led four more, all asking people in their twenties and thirties about the humanities. I talked with Masters students, PhD students, medical students, librarians, policy researchers, poets, city officials, and people at funding agencies, among others. I queried, “What are the humanities? What value do they have in daily life? Is our relationship with the humanities changing? What sort of humanities projects should the NEH be funding?” And for all of them, that first question resulted in a long moment of hesitation. They were familiar with the word “humanities,” of course, but they usually had a fuzzy idea about what it meant. A lot of people admitted to doing a quick Google search for the word before or during the focus group to get their footing. I mean, most people googled the NEH, too. Both of these searches are a problem. The NEH is a valuable resource for humanities practitioners, but do people know if they are eligible to apply? Do people think of themselves as doing humanities work?

NEH Courtyard where Rachel sat and pondered the humanities

This is where I find value in my spelling mistake. Human ties are at the center of humanities endeavors. No, the NEH is not funding humanitarian work exactly—not disaster relief or humane societies exactly—but it cares about all of the linkages that make up human life and human culture. It cares about projects investigating and building those connections. In the focus groups I conducted, people emphasized this aspect of the humanities as much as they talked about critical interpretation or communication skills. One participant said the humanities “[give] me a broader horizon in the ways that I interact with people and empathize and just understand where people are coming from” and another, talking about activism and social change, explained how humanities “provid[e] the language and context and understanding…[that make] these type of movements successful.”

Humanities studies and activities provide the space for people to reach across time and culture, thoughtfully and respectfully. Both the grant work and focus groups convinced me of that value. Whether or not I go into academia or a more public version of humanities work, I’ll keep using and promoting self-conscious, culturally-aware, critical questioning and reasoning. I’ll keep putting human ties first.

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