With under eight weeks to go before the start of the UK-wide Being Human festival, Dr Sara Brooks, professional specialist in global and public humanities at Princeton University, outlines the North American version of the festival, its cultural similarities and how, as hosts, they hope to generate opportunities of experimentation and connection.
Earlier this year the Humanities Council at Princeton University signed up to become Being Human’s first North American institutional host. While we prepare to select the slate of events that will make up the festival’s New Jersey branch, it is a good moment to share how we’re making the Being Human festival with an American accent.
From the beginning, it was clear that this would be a Being Human for Central New Jersey. New Jersey is often cast in the character roles behind New York City’s starring players. However, Bruce Springsteen or Jersey Shore cannot sum up the state. It is the only US state that is as densely populated as England or the Netherlands, and more than one in three New Jerseyans are first- or second-generation residents of the US. Our potential audiences were in many ways quite like those of our UK colleagues: keen to learn about themselves, representative of many different cultures, and yet sharing many daily experiences.
But if the audiences are comparable, American universities offer contrasts to those in the UK. Princeton’s undergraduate curriculum is a familiar variant of the American liberal arts formula, which requires students dive into collegiate level work in a range of disciplines. Our students have a markedly different experience from the subject-dedicated bachelors work familiar in Britain. Princeton also has a strong institutional dedication to service among its students, not just on campus, but also in the urban and suburban reaches close by. Consequently, many of the relationships that the university nurtures with its neighbours focus on connecting students with community needs, rather than on connecting our neighbours to our scholars’ research.
Joining the Being Human festival was the perfect opportunity to enhance the ways we invite our (many) neighbours in, and hopefully to get an invitation over to theirs. So while we adapt Being Human to our neighbourhood we found four strong qualities for talking with our neighbours about the humanities using the festival’s model.
The first is the spark of experiment in Being Human events. Without its capital letters, being human is not always the experience of the classroom. We hope to share and spread the fun and delight of work in the humanities. There is lot to learn from, with a record of hundreds of inventive events, happenings and collaborations.
Second, Being Human, with capital letters, emphasises discovering ways to connect the scholarly work happening on campus with the neighbourhoods around it. There are lots of ways to interpret service, and doing, not just telling, the humanities to a wider public seems more and more essential.
Third, we are all working in an increasingly fact-sceptical environment. The humanities is about the sophistication of human interpretative capacities. With live, non-traditional events like those we are looking to host, we aim to escape the enclosing and reactive attention bubbles that descend on campuses as much as elsewhere.
Finally, most importantly, the stress on joining with other groups and organisations is vital for us. We have great colleagues and neighbours! We are using our links with our campus colleagues who are dedicated to community-engaged learning, innovative pedagogy, service and civic engagement to make the most effective connections. Their long-term work with Princeton’s fantastic neighbourhood community organisations, schools, and non-profits, help us imagine the shape of our Being Human collaboration.
This year we are aiming for only a small (but mighty) number of events that will build on existing local strengths. As we identify creative, up to the moment ideas, with partners on and off campus, we look forward to reporting back.
Dr Sara Brooks, a professional specialist in global and public humanities at Princeton University, trained as an intellectual and political historian concentrating in early modern European history. She shares her time between the Council for the Humanities and Stanley J. Seeger Center for Hellenic Studies.