The Public Humanist Turns Five

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What started as a local blog has become that very rare thing in the media universe: a reliable place for thoughtful commentary on important issues. We talked to Hayley Wood, the originator and editor of The Public Humanist (TPH), about its winning formula and what the next fi ve years might look like.

Mass Humanities: How did TPH come into being?

Hayley WoodHayley Wood: Five years ago blogs had taken off but it was not the norm for a humanities council to have one, and i thought that a blog with many contributors would be an excellent way to showcase the work, thinking, and research of the many project directors and scholars i had met over the years at mass Humanities. i also wanted a forum for humanities thinking that was casual, openended, and that lost some of the authoritative, “i know the answer to this complex question” voice that we often associate with scholarship.

i invited writers to adopt a “letter to a friend” style and i also invited them to express uncertainty and questions about their topics and interests. it found its way into the Valley Advocate‘s Web site by way of my husband, who is managing editor there. He was developing the Advocate‘s site and on the lookout for blog writers. i thought: perfect fi t! The Public Humanist remains the only blog on the site with multiple contributors and the only one supported by a separate nonprofi t organization.

MH: Describe to me the process by which an idea typically becomes a story on TPH?

HW: Knowing the wide spectrum of areas of knowledge this group of writers represents, I often think about a current event or news item that has a public policy or broader humanities relevance, and I will scour my list for the right person to shed some light on it or bring historical perspective to a current problem. Another important source of ideas is the Mass Humanities calendar of events, which is a reminder to me of the many public programs the Foundation has supported with grants. I often invite writers connected with those public events to talk about the thinking behind them.

MH: What have been some of your favorite moments as editor of TPH?

HW: When I get a particularly insightful and high quality piece, or something that is moving to me—a lot of material on history and literature I find moving—I’m thrilled to add those words to the blogosphere and, frankly, to elevate the genre of blog writing. I also get a great sense of accomplishment whenever we present a slide-show gallery with a strong set of images—old photographs from Massachusetts archives in particular. I love the way blogs incorporate images. I’ve learned many interesting things reading and editing these incredibly diverse essays.

MH: Interesting. Like what?

HW: That spiritualist and former Universalist minister John Murray Spear built (with help from his utopian community comrades) a machine called the “God Machine” on a hill in Lynn in an effort to create a mechanized messiah that would radiate a new spiritual energy to all who had contact with it. That’s one. Or that ink was made from oak nut galls in mid-19th-century Massachusetts. And that Barack Obama is a believer in the concept of “just war,” as defined by Augustine and Aquinas.

MH: Because you’ve steered this column for the past five years, what purpose do you think it serves, both in terms of the humanities and beyond it?

HW: The Public Humanist is an intellectually rigorous and accessible platform for writers and readers. More and more I’m getting inquiries from young scholars I don’t know who would like an opportunity to write for it—that tells me that the blog is respected and offers a unique means of publishing that they value. The blog encourages scholars to express complex ideas or dense histories in language that is meant to entice, not exclude. I was a managing editor for an academic journal in graduate school, an experience from which I learned a lot about academic discourse. I learned that a great many scholars are not skilled writers, or have had little encouragement in their publishing lives to avoid jargon and language that has been developed to exclude readers. The Public Humanist’s guiding ethic is the opposite of this: it is about making intellectual content fun, interesting, and not difficult to understand.

MH: What are your hopes for the next five years of TPH?

HW: I’d like to develop more themes that are repeated. Now, for instance, I have writers who regularly contribute on certain topics, say independent documentary films, 19th-century American history, or feminism. But the blog could have regular interdisciplinary features. I sometimes think about words that have a lot of power and history and whose meanings have evolved significantly over time. It has occurred to me that writers might like the challenge of discussing the use and over-use of certain terms in American discourse, along the lines of William Safire’s former “On Language” column in the Times. I’d love to develop a stronger presence on visual art and art criticism, too. I’d like the blog to more demonstrably connect people to the outstanding work of Mass Humanities and the public programs it supports with grants. And of course I’d like to develop a television pilot!

[Check out the slide show of the Top Ten TPH posts!]

Published in Mass Humanities Fall 2012 Newsletter Issue (pdf).