Snow can’t stop the public humanities

Even though the snow cancelled school, it couldn’t stop the Center for Public Humanities’ kickoff event, “Envisioning the Public Humanities” on Saturday, Jan. 18.

Oakland University’s new center was co-founded by Dr. John Corso-Esquivel, associate professor of art history, and Dr. Andrea Knutson, associate professor of English, in fall 2019. 

According to Oakland University’s website, the mission of the Center for Public Humanities is to advance excellence in public humanities and the arts to support and enrich Southeast Michigan’s diverse learning communities.

The event, according to Corso, was a talk by experts to generate ideas and discussion. Originally, the event was supposed to have a luncheon where small groups could imagine how the new center might be able to serve the OU community and its surrounding residents. 

Since the snow closed campus on Saturday, preventing the in-person event from taking place, the format shifted to a webinar. 

“It was actually an opportunity since we envisioned the Center for Public Humanities as a ‘nomadic’ one, that is, we would move our programming to the spaces our communities prefer. That includes online!” Corso said via email. “It was an inspiring way to engage a community separated by snow, but united by our commitment to the arts and humanities!”

The event featured keynote speaker Dr. Susan Smulyan, director of Brown University’s public humanities center, and Kara Noto, an OU alumna and graduate of the master’s program in public humanities at Brown. Corso said Dr. Smulyan’s center has been a model for OU to follow. 

Dr. Smulyan runs one of the oldest programs in public humanities and, according to Corso, one of the most prestigious. During the webinar, she discussed the definition of public humanities, the public arts and a community arts studio for high schoolers called New Urban Arts in Providence, Rhode Island. 

Noto, who graduated from OU in 2007, talked about her life experiences and how they led her to where she is now. Corso said she has one of the best perspectives about how public humanities might work at OU, not only because she was once a student here, but because she has recently been teaching in the communications, journalism and public relations department. 

“We wanted to be able to have them speak to our community, but we didn’t want it to be a static lecture,” Corso said via email. “That was an important part — outreach to folks who have a stake in the arts and humanities.”

Their talks were broken up into 10-minute segments in order to acknowledge the questions and comments being made during their presentation. There were about 25 people tuned into the webinar and contributing to the live chat taking place during the presentations of the two speakers. 

As Michigan filled the skies with snow flurries, those tuning into the “Envisioning the Public Humanities” webinar were able to have a lively discussion from the warmth of their own homes.