Are you an English major? A student of history, philosophy, or art? What are you going to do with that? For those who study the humanities, this question is an all too familiar one, yet it is often difficult to answer because students cannot “name” what they know and can do in the “real world.”


This course explores what the humanities do in (and for) that world through the study and practice of public writing – writing that serves professional goals or the public good (or both). Using public writing strategies, students in the course will work to articulate and advocate for the vital role of the humanities in twenty-first century culture.




Defined as “writing that serves professional goals, or the public interest (or both)” public writing is a growing area of undergraduate study, one that demonstrates the central significance of effective writing in both professional pursuits and civic engagement.

Students are introduced to elements of both classical and multimodal rhetoric as instruments in responding to and participating in public discourse.

Within these public contexts, students will examine ethical issues found in writing for and within the public sphere as they work to articulate and then advocate for the future of the humanities in the twenty-first century.

Course Collage

A brief look into course writings, in which we analyze pieces of writing and its relationship to the public and humanities

“Part of what’s happening is that we’re being discounted by those who hold prejudicial views of our disciplines. While the public is quick to defer to experts in fields like medical science, it’s resistant to the very possibility that expertise exists in fields like literature ("you just read books and give your opinion") or philosophy ("navel-gazing"). Given that baseline, it’s no wonder that public portrayals of humanistic research and teaching are flooded with sketchy clichés, sweeping falsehoods, and invented evils.”

-Aaron Hanlon, “Lies About the Humanities — and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them”


Hanlon uses real-world examples to illustrate his point that the truth about the humanities is not quite reaching the general public. He draws us in with experiences we have likely had or heard others have to ground his defense in evidence. Additionally, he does not attribute all of the issues in understanding what the humanities are to this issue of cliches and falsehoods but rather helps us see how large of an issue it is by stating that it is only “part of what’s happening.” Additionally, in this piece Hanlon evokes a lot of personal connection as he describes the issue as “prejudicial views” and later suggests that the diminution of the humanities being tied to sexism and racism. It helps us to understand that dismissing the humanities dismisses a huge part of live and community. These real-world examples are integral to allowing audiences to see how things are.

“It is about the real value of a real education, which has almost nothing to do with knowledge, and everything to do with simple awareness; awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, all the time, that we have to keep reminding ourselves over and over: ‘This is water.’”

Wallace, David Foster. “This is Water.” Kenyon College Commencement Speech. 2005.


I found the conclusion of Wallace’s speech to be super compelling for its ability to succinctly summarize what I would typically say is my main takeaway from my college education in a simple yet realistic manner. As someone receiving a degree in English and history, analysis and research skills are the most prominent aspects of the classes I’ve taken in the past four years. I have been able to apply these skills to think critically across courses and disciplines, and though I knew they are important in the “real world,” I couldn’t quite place how exactly they could translate. I’ve spent so much time buried in academic articles and searching libraries and archives, taking in knowledge so specific to that moment’s research study, but how would that look outside of the library and archive? Wallace identifies awareness as the real value of education, and it’s made me see myself and my skills a little clearer and detached from this bubble I’ve been in these four years. It’s still very blurry, but I can see that there is something beyond what I’ve been doing. This is a long process, and as Wallace tells his audience, we have to keep reminding ourselves to find what is hidden in plain sight.

"O’Connor reminds us that writing is a form of  'deferred presence'; by definition and design, it represents a metacognitive means of standing outside ourselves as thinkers through writing. Having gotten something down on the page, she suggests, she encounters herself and her thoughts there, as if seeing them for the first time."

-Deneen Senasi, Being Human: “Metacognition”



         Viewing writing through the lens that Flannery O’Connor and other authors suggest reveals how the humanities are a process and not static. The constant metacognition and thinking about past, present, and future in a multitude of ways means that we can never really stop exploring and understanding, much like how the sciences will never really stop making discoveries. Many of the misconceptions about the humanities are about how static and never changing it is; as we discussed in class, the discourse on canonicity complicates how we understand what is worth studying. The canon texts that scholars in the 18th century studied are not the pinnacle of scholarly thought—great thinking has occurred since then, outside of their realm, and will continue to occur and urge us to expand our thinking. In the above quote from Being Human, O’Connor points out a phenomenon in writing that I also experience. She describes how writing things out allows her to see her thoughts for the first time. I often have the same feeling when composing my own essays for class, but it is most evident in my process for my history and English theses. I have an idea of what I think and want to say, but as I use writing as an instrument I find myself with much more product than I had anticipated; seeing it on the page and thinking about my thoughts in concrete terms allows me to expand on ideas, follow new paths, really get lost in my thoughts in the best way. Sometimes I begin writing afraid that I have such a small idea, but eventually I realize that I have so many thoughts that are constantly changing as I explore them on the page. Writing as instrument and product reveals just how dynamic the humanities are in their ability to expand beyond the first spark of an idea.

“This is both an issue of values, and a Labor issue: arts workers are vital members of the American labor force. Yet as an industry and workers, we have been largely left behind by the federal government. The lack of arts and culture representation at the highest levels of government contributes to this state of affairs. The Department of Labor Bureau of Economic Analysis reports that Arts & Culture accounts for $877.8 billion dollars and 4.5% of US GDP; more than agriculture, transportation, or construction. The sector also represents over 5.1 million jobs. Simply put, the recovery of arts and culture is essential to full economic recovery.”

-Arts Workers’ Open Letter to Biden-Harris


         In this letter, the arts workers demonstrate a strong understanding of their audience and their interests. Although they appeal to the more creative and abstract side of the presidency through the type of art that artists put out into the world, they ensure to include information in their defense that appeals to the concerns specific to a presidential administration. They use official data from the Department of Labor Bureau of Economic Analysis to demonstrate the monetary value of the arts for the American economy, something our nation’s leaders are deeply concerned with. Indeed, many presidential campaigns center around economic growth and this letter appeals to that directly— “the recovery of arts and culture is essential to full economic recovery.” Further demonstrating the specificity of the audience, the letter brings in the history of the US government through FDR’s programs to urge for this administration to leave a legacy like those of the past. While this is an open letter, the arts workers defend the arts not just in their terms but also in those of their primary audience to target the bodies that can create change. It is by understanding their audience and their interests that the art workers make a plea that appeals to the Biden-Harris administration.

TITUBA: I don’t compact with no Devil!

PARRIS: You will confess yourself or I will take you out and whip you to your death, Tituba!

PUTNAM: This woman must be hanged! She must be taken and hanged!

TITUBA, terrified, falls to her knees: No, no, don’t hang Tituba! I tell him I don’t desire to work for him, sir.

PARRIS: The Devil?

HALE: Then you saw him! Tituba weeps. Now Tituba, I know that when we bind ourselves to Hell it is very hard to break with it. We are going to help you tear yourself free—


HALE: You would be a good Christian woman, would you not, Tituba?

-Arthur Miller, The Crucible, Act One, page42


In Act One of The Crucible, the character utilize fear of death and religious overtones to direct language and incite action. The Crucible has religion as a major factor in the hysteria and desperation of the witch trials, but in this moment Hale uses it in an attempt to appeal to Tituba to convince her to help them. As the major conflict of The Crucible is the contrast between good and evil, or in this case Christianity and the Devil and his witches. In this moment, as Tituba confesses to interacting with the Devil and thus to being on the opposing side of this grand battle, Hale must invoke the other side of the battle. This creates clear sides and identifies enemies. However, by asking Tituba if she is a good Christian woman, Hale is appealing to the societal expectation that she be a Christian woman in order to convince her to give them the information they want. In contrast, however, Putnam and Parris utilize a fear of death to persuade Tituba to tell what they think of the truth. They state that they will hang and whip her, and it is after these threats of violence that Tituba changes course to admit to working for the Devil. She “falls to her knees” and is “terrified” after their threats. Tituba’s fear of harm and death capitulates her to do as they wish as they urge her to tell them how she is involved with the Devil; they do not really urge for the truth but rather for her to confirm the truth they believe. In doing so, Putnam and Parris shape Tituba’s actions and language through threats of death to change Tituba’s statement. Act One of The Crucible demonstrates how religious appeals can be used to persuade, but also how threats of harm can force an audience to state things they may not believe.