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Saturday, August 16, 2014

The Engaged Humanities and Spanish Community Service Learning

When I think of the engaged humanities, these are the tenets that come to my mind and guide my work.
by Ann Abbott

Recently an old friend asked if I would be willing to go to her campus this year to give a talk. Yes! I love talking about Spanish community service learning (CSL), and I love the chance to see old friends in the places they work.

To organize the trip I needed to send her the usual--my CV, a photo, title of the talk, a blurb. But I also needed to write a paragraph describing my background and expertise in the humanities. Hmmmmm. Even though my PhD is in Hispanic literature, I have felt very distanced from the humanities for many years. When you do work in the scholarship of engagement, you can take a real beating from traditional humanists. "You make us look like a service department." "This isn't a vocational college." "Literature is the heart of Spanish programs." "There's no theory in what you do."

But in this precise moment in time (Israel's bombing of Gaza with 1,800 Palestinians killed; the riots in Ferguson; the Salaita case on my campus; immigrant children at our border in record numbers), I feel drawn back towards my training in the humanities, even literary analysis, because I see so many misreadings of people's words, so much de-contextualization of violence, and so little understanding of how power works.

So this was actually a timely exercise for me. And this is what I came up with:

Ann Abbott's work falls squarely within the engaged humanities, a strand within the broader humanities that strives to "connect humanities research and teaching with projects to advance democracy, social justice, and the public good" (Gregory Jay, "The Engaged Humanities"). After receiving her PhD in Hispanic literature in 1998, Ann began to turn her attention to critical analyses of the discourses about Spanish-speaking immigrants at the national level, within the local communities surrounding her university and within the profession of language teaching itself. For the past eleven years, she has incorporated Spanish community service learning into three courses ("Spanish in the Community," "Spanish for Business" and a course on social entrepreneurship), published curricular materials that connect students' learning to their local community contexts and written scholarly articles about both the student learning outcomes and the challenges of foreign language community service learning. During this period that many have called "the crisis of the humanities," the engaged humanities offers foreign language programs new ways to connect their scholarly expertise to community-identified challenges, and a new way to connect to students who increasingly want to see concrete outcomes to their education.

For me, the engaged humanities are quite different from a term that might be better known: public humanities and public scholars. (Here's a very good piece about public engagement and scholars, that illustrates what I actually think is just "public" without "engagement" the way I understand it.) Just like the difference between outreach and engagement is fundamental (outreach comes from an approach of "we the experts" helping the people who need us and our expertise; engagement is about partnerships, working on community-identified challenges, co-creating knowledge), a public scholar tends to be thought of as someone who writes op-eds, writes for audiences beyond other scholars, opines on current events in the media. The engaged humanities, however, are about engagement, in the ways I listed above.

Here are some links about the engaged humanities that might interest you.
How would you define the engaged humanities? How would you define your own relationship with the humanities more broadly? Let me know in the comments. Fighting to find a place at the humanities table can be a bloody battle; let's support each other. Or poke holes in the concept of engaged humanities. After all, critical analysis is what we do all day long.

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