Research isn’t something that should be hidden away from prying eyes, writes Professor Sarah Churchwell. As chair of public understanding of the Humanities at the University of London’s School of Advanced Study she knows the value of built-in feedback from the public, and introduces three articles addressing the issue.
Humanistic research can be described in many ways, but in part it’s a habit of mind, a set of mental paradigms sometimes called critical thinking.
Thinking critically means approaching evidence sceptically, in a testing spirit – which is one of the many points of convergence between humanistic and scientific thinking. Researchers in all disciplines are constantly testing hypotheses against real-world evidence for their accuracy, and adjusting our hypotheses to fit the evidence.
The human mind is prone to confirmation bias, also known as experimental bias in research settings – finding what you were looking for. Training as a researcher means trying to undo or resist those biases. No one can do it perfectly, but constantly testing arguments against counter-evidence and counter-argument improves our ability to do so.
When we think of humanistic research and writing in these terms, it becomes instantly obvious why it can and should be done with publics, if not ‘in public’ in the sense of performing while you work. But creating a society that collectively engages in public critical thinking, in testing evidence and questioning received wisdoms, is vital for the survival of democracy, for the promotion of equality and social justice, and for strengthening civic bonds, reconnecting communities in our increasingly divided, and divisive, polity.
Three of us who do humanities in public have gathered here to share some reflections on why we do what we do – two of us who are more senior, and have been fortunate enough to do humanities in public for some time (The Importance of doing history in public and The value of the humanities goes way beyond money and jobs), and one of us an early-researcher taking their work into the public sphere for the first time (Rehumanising scholarship). We hope you find these reflections thought-provoking and might be inspired to try different forms of doing humanities in public.