A Short History of Public Humanities at Yale

A Short History of Public Humanities at Yale

Public Humanities began forming within the American Studies program in 2006 under the auspices of then-chair Matthew Jacobson.  Ryan Brasseaux and Monica Martinez, two new PhD students that fall, requested a Public Humanities “Methods and Theory” course, which led to the inauguration of a Public Humanities speaker series in 2008.  The inaugural lecture on theory and practice in Public Humanities programs throughout the United States by professor Steven D. Lubar, then the Director of the John Nicholas Brown Center for Public Humanities and Cultural Heritage, led to the development of a curriculum.  In the fall of 2010, the first Introduction to Public Humanities course was offered. 

Taught initially by co-directors Matt Jacobson and Laura Wexler and for many years by Ryan Brasseaux, the current Dean of Davenport, eleven graduate students enrolled in the first class.  From the beginning, the class produced outstanding collaborative final projects, including: “Deep Roots: Stories and Tastes of New Haven,” a  cookbook and culinary event featuring four New Haven restaurants, live oral history interviews with the chefs, and a meal provided by each chef for fifty local residents; “May Day Revisited,” a documentary film on the Black Panther Trials in New Haven (1970) projected across three screens simultaneously; and “The Silence Project,” a pop-up exhibit at the New Haven Museum highlighting oral histories about the democratic process and voting from three demographics who don’t have the vote: immigrants (non US citizens), minors (people under 18), and people with criminal records who cannot legally vote. 

In 2015, through the efforts of graduate students Najwa Mayer and Lauren Tilton, who advocated for a conference, Matthew Jacobson inaugurated the Northeastern Public Humanities Consortium (neph).  Initially involving a group of eight schools, this consortium of northeastern public humanities programs now includes programs from: Yale; Brown; Rutgers; Lehigh; BGC; University of Massachusetts, Boston; Tufts; Harvard; Columbia and meets twice annually.  Hosted each year by a different program, we meet on the campus of one of the participating institutions and participate in site visits and presentations by faculty, partner affiliates, and students on ongoing public humanities projects and initiatives.  Additionally, the group has forged collaborations among the participating institutions during the year, collaborating on pedagogical approaches to Public Humanities through shared syllabi and invited speakers.  A white paper, which was developed collaboratively during the first three neph conferences, was polished and distributed among the participating institutions by Matt Jacobson in 2017 (see neph.org).

Between 2015 and 2017, Yale’s Public Humanities program was organized into seven primary areas of concentration: Museums and CollectionsDocumentary StudiesDigital HumanitiesHistory and the PublicSpace and PlaceArts Research; and Public Writing.  The naming of these seven areas of teaching and partner affiliations helped to make programming and a course of study more legible to students.  For example, in a study undertaken by Cyra Levenson and Karin Roffman in 2015, they discovered that nearly 100 faculty across multiple disciplines had taught courses using museum collections during the previous five years; most of these classes were unknown to students outside the specific department in which they were taught.  One of the exciting results of the study was the reorganization of the Public Humanities website to support a desire among faculty in disparate fields but with overlapping interests for an umbrella under which their future courses and projects could be publicized to a wider field of interested students.  A new Public Humanities website (ph.yale.edu) was made public, which is now regularly updated with new course offerings and projects.  (To recommend the addition of a course, faculty affiliation, project or news item, please email us at publichumanities@yale.edu)

In 2019-20, the Public Humanities became a certificate program, which means that any Yale graduate student can—with the approval of the Public Humanities DGS or assistant DGS and their own program or department—earn the certificate by fulfilling the Public Humanities requirements during any point in their graduate education.  Many current students and alumni have completed phenomenal public humanities projects in addition to their graduate degrees, including Claudia Calhoun; Lucy Caplan; Anna Duensing; Najwa Mayer; Anya Montiel; Joey Plaster; Sylvia Ryerson; Jub Sankofa; Courtney Sato; and Lauren Tilton.  Sato’s Sterling Library exhibition, “Out of the Desert: Resilience and Memory in Japanese American Internment,” which was featured in an article in The New York Times and Anna Duensing’s Sterling Library “An American and Nothing Else: The Great War and the Battle for National Belonging,” have also resulted in the creation of related Digital Humanities Projects.  For more, see the list of student and alumni projects on the website.  If you would like a project or name listed, please email us (publichumanities@yale.edu)