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Penn State Humanities Institute Aims to Bring Conversations on Pressing Social Issues Beyond University’s Walls

by on February 13, 2020 5:00 AM

Philosophy, history, cultural studies, literature – subjects many people don’t often relate to their daily lives. A new institute at Penn State, however, strives to change this, connecting the humanities to everyday issues the average person might see on social media or discuss with friends and family. 

Established three and a half years ago, the Humanities Institute at Penn State derived from the university’s previous institute for arts and humanities; John Christman, professor of philosophy, political science, and women’s studies, was brought on as the director and has been in the role for the majority of the institute’s existence.

From the start, Christman says, one of the new institute’s primary goals was to establish an organization that was more public-facing than its predecessor. Part of the institute’s mission, he says, “is to show the public that work [being done] in history and philosophy and the languages is directly relevant to the problems they face … [and] show, outside the university, how this work is directly relevant to things we talk about with our friends and family every day.”

Examining struggles for representation

The Humanities Institute is working to accomplish this goal by providing communities with an array of media and events. For the former, thanks to an Andrew W. Mellon Foundation grant, the institute produces a documentary series, called HumIn Focus, with the help of WPSU.

"The documentary series has to do with social problems and it looks at those problems through the lens of humanities in related disciplines like history, philosophy, literature, and cultural studies. Our first episode was on the confederate monument controversy, the second one was on migration and immigration, and our third will be on democracy and it will be called Who Counts?,” explains Christman.

Who Counts? Struggles for Representation and Recognition is also the name of the institute’s overarching theme for 2020, which will inform the rest of its initiatives for the year. It’s a theme Christman feels will resonate deeply with the public, given the 2020 presidential election and the year being celebrated as the centennial of the women’s vote.

“Internally in the institute, we’d been talking a lot about the ways society recognizes its members and who’s in and who’s out and these subtle, really problematic ways in which people get recognized either politically or culturally or they don’t,” he says. “We’d been thinking of these things for a while. Then, the College of Liberal Arts decided to make the centenary of women’s suffrage its own internal theme. It has a series called Moments of Change and this coming year, the centenary is going to be the Moments of Change theme.

“Once we saw that, we wanted to use that to connect with our already established thinking and talk more generally not just about women’s suffrage, not even just about voting, but about how people get represented in their societies or often do not.”

Taking a broad view and asking how people are represented in societies sufficiently or insufficiently, Christman says, requires one to look to history, philosophy, storytelling, and related disciplines.

Beyond the election and the suffrage movement, the matter of representation and “who counts” can be connected to a wide array of social issues, enough that community members should be able to find an issue relevant to their lives.

“[The election] spurs these broader themes of having a voice in your society,” says Christman, pointing to the Black Lives Matter and the Me Too movements. “These are all about people claiming not to have voice, so we want to look at what it means for a society to represent its members adequately, including non-members, people trying to enter [society]. All of these are related to specific political issues that are being debated in the election, but they’re broader and bigger.”

The Who Counts? documentary will be broadcast by WPSU in the spring and will be available – along with the institute’s previous documentaries – at Additionally, the institute will be hosting lectures and community events throughout the year.

“We will have public lectures on representation, past and present, one in March and another in April, and [they] will include our annual Humanities Institute lecture, where we’ll bring in a speaker. … Then next fall, we’re beginning to plan a conference that the public will be invited to come to that will have a public lecture component on democracy and the history of democracy in the United States, both its triumphs and shortfalls,” says Christman.

John Christman is director of the Penn State Humanities Institute, which examines a variety of societal issues, including through its upcoming "Who Counts?" programming. Photo by Darren Andrew Weimert

“We want to listen’

The community events will incorporate discussions with community members, including high school students, at locations in State College and throughout central Pennsylvania. The interactions, Christman hopes, will benefit not just communities, but also Penn State.

“[First,] we want to hear from [communities],” he says. “We want to guide our research by the things that are on the minds of non-university folks, of the public. So, we want to listen. Secondly, we want to be relevant to their lives. We live in a university community and we are here to advance the interests of the community as well as the rest of the world. We’re neighbors in a community and we want to be valuable.”

At the same time, the Humanities Institute hopes its work will further enhance Penn State’s image as a university leading “top-notch” research in the humanities and as a place to consider for studying history, philosophy, and literature at the highest level.

Already, it offers students a Public Humanities Fellows program in which undergraduate students can learn about relating humanities studies to social issues as they participate in the institute’s initiatives.

Lauren Kooistra, assistant research professor of humanities and associate director of the Humanities Institute, coordinates the Public Humanities Fellows program.

“The institute aims to both support the [humanities] research that speaks to pressing issues, and to make sure that this research goes beyond the university walls through many possible venues. The students are on the ground as a part of this mission, and provide an angle we would not have without them,” she says.

“The students work in project-based courses connecting to organizations in the community where there is a story that needs to be told,” Kooistra adds. “They come alongside of these organizations and support them by creating websites and documentary-style film pieces to bring to light the issues and put a face on them (so to speak). They are actively engaging with community members, interviewing people, assessing situations, gleaning a storyline, and exposing issues that may be otherwise hidden. 

“We think that this experience is important for them to not only be thoughtful and intelligent in how they themselves navigate responsibly and helpfully in the world, but also in opening up conversations in the community and among their peers that might otherwise go by the wayside or remain closed off.”

Lauren Kooistra is associate director of the Humanities Institute and coordinates the Public Humanities Fellows Program. Photo by Darren Andrew Weimert

Creating spaces for dialogue

Sara Jacques, a member of the Penn State Class of 2020 and a Public Humanities Fellow at the institute, notes that this type of work is exactly what she hopes to do in her career.

“What I thought was an impossible dream job is actually completely possible with a background in public humanities,” Jacques says. “I'm gaining multimedia skills that I otherwise wouldn't have and are not just crucial to the job market, but are also helping me share stories in strategic ways that appeal to people in 2020. The Humanities Institute has given me serious direction as I wrap up my time as an undergrad and move toward an eventual career in museum curation.”

Through all of its initiatives, whatever social issue it is tackling, the Humanities Institute keeps one result in mind. It is nicely summed up when Christman is asked what he considers to be the most rewarding part of his job as the institute director.

“It’s when you talk to people and watch them realize how relevant things like history, philosophy, literature, and cultural studies are to their everyday lives – both students and non-university folks – [as they] come to be fascinated in these subjects, not just in an esoteric exercise, but in something directly related to what they talk about with their families,” he says.

Jacques encourages community members to attend the upcoming Who Counts? events.

“I think local, accessible programming like this does a good job of introducing people to ideas they otherwise wouldn't be exposed to, and God knows if there's a time to become even slightly more politically involved, it's now,” she says. “They create spaces for open dialogue and encourage learning and participation with these ideas.”

It’s a sentiment Kooistra mirrors, noting, “It is easy to go about our daily ways without ever being disrupted in our patterns of being and thinking, but I also think that allowing ourselves to be open to disruption is how we grow and thrive as human beings. As a white woman of privilege, it is important for me to be placing myself directly in the path of stories that are not mine, and I think that Who Counts? (and with it, HumIn Focus) provide safe spaces in which this can happen.

“I would encourage members of the community to consider us a resource in their personal learning journey.”

To learn more, visit

Holly Riddle is a freelance writer in State College.


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