Thursday, March 31, 2016

Susannah Ottaway - Compelling Partnerships

Susannah Ottaway is a professor of history at Carleton College, and served as the History Department Chair and Director of the Humanities Center at Carleton College. She was also the David and Marian Adams Bryn-Jones Distinguished Teaching Professor of the Humanities from 2011-2014. At Carleton, much of her energy has been channeled into helping to create and then direct the Humanities Center, which was founded in 2008. As Director, Susannah coordinated a series of Faculty Research Seminars, allocated and supported funding for faculty-student research collaborations, and oversaw the coordination of public outreach and programming in the humanities. Susannah was recently elected to serve on the Board of the Humanities Center and is co-project director of the Humanities Center's new Echoes of War project.

Waiting to meet my daughter near a playground the other day, I heard a familiar sound: “WILL…YOU…JUST…LISTEN…TO…ME?!” A young girl stood with her fists clenched tightly at her sides, eyes screwed up in concentrated fury and frustration. All the force of her will was bent on compelling communication with someone (a parent? a schoolmate?). How often have we all felt that sense of utter powerlessness in the face of another’s apathy, or, worse yet, antipathy?

The urgency of that little girl’s plea struck me so forcefully because it echoes my sense of how desperately our society needs us to pay attention to one another’s voices, especially across borders and barriers of language, faith, status, and ethnicity. But it is easy for us to feel as impotent as ignored children; how can we compel communication that matters? How can we bridge the gaps among us with words that connect us and show us the character and qualities of the differences that define us?  

Learning to listen to the words of others – words from the past or present, from great books or popular culture – is the very essence of all work in the humanities. Literary scholars tease hidden meaning out of complex texts; poets bring emotion to life in stanzas that help us understand the human condition; middle-school history teachers guide students to empathize with past cultures, and so on, in the rich diversity of skills and disciplines that define humanistic inquiry. Communication is what we do in the humanities, and we do it best – in the most transformative manner – when we engage in partnerships that connect us more deeply to our own communities and allow us to achieve authentic insight into the experiences of cultures that are vastly different from our own.

To me, the Minnesota Humanities Center’s ‘Absent Narrative’-based educational programming and its Veterans’ Voices initiative embody this approach to partnership and highlight the work that the public humanities can do to build understanding among the disparate communities whose stories together make up Minnesota’s past, present, and future. As the recent Director of Carleton College’s Humanities Center, I was able to witness the effects of such a partnership when--in conjunction with the Minnesota Humanities Center and with help from our local VFW post Carleton hosted the exhibition 'Always Lost: A Meditation on War.' The exhibit challenged students to confront war in ways that we rarely see in the academy; as one commented on his blog: “The emotional power of the exhibit caught me unprepared…Poignant quotations and poetry…[communicated] that physical pain is only a fraction of the trauma wrought” by war.

Standing in the exhibit, I saw visiting parents absorbing the messages of the exhibition alongside their college students and Carleton faculty, and engaging in conversation with one of the Northfield Veterans who helped us staff the space. That exhibition was made possible not by “outreach” from the college, but by the partnership that connected the college, town, and Humanities Center together in a shared goal of inciting thoughtful engagement with war--one of the most enduring and excruciating plagues of human experience.

As individuals, we can, and should, insist, like the little girl on the playground, that others listen to us. But it is through the compelling partnerships that we form across our institutions and communities that we can sustain conversations and build experiences that can help to transform our society.

1 comment:

  1. "Institutions" of all sorts get bad press these days. Sometimes they deserve some of it, almost never all of it. But Susannah makes a compelling case that when institutions form partnerships, they reinforce each other's virtues and minimize their self-protective vices by breaking through borders and barriers to sustain conversations and build experiences. The whole is not the sum of its parts; it's the multiplication of them.