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How DH is Connecting Universities to the Public

Posted in DH Blog

By: Hayley Brazier and Heidi Kaufman

A new book making a splash in academic  circles is Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s Generous Thinking: A Radical Approach to Saving the University, which offers  solutions to some of the biggest challenges facing humanities departments and higher education today.

yellow book cover of Generous Thinking
(Image source:

Fitzpatrick offers a bold challenge in this book. She challenges us to “cultivate a greater disposition toward . . . ‘generous thinking,’ a mode of engagement that emphasizes listening over speaking, community over individualism, collaboration over competition, and lingering with the ideas that are in front of us rather than continually pressing forward to where we want to go” (4). In addition to prompting a different kind of engagement among academics, Fitzpatrick is also making the case for forging broader connections with the public. She explains, “I’m asking us to take a closer look at the ways that we connect with a range of broader publics around and throughout work, publics ranging from our students to our local communities and beyond, to all the ways the university engages with the world” (4).

According to the publisher’s website, American universities are often “at odds with the very publics they are intended to serve,” which means they increasingly hold a difficult place in society: while they are invaluable institutions in American society, they are not necessarily winning any popularity points within the broader public sphere.

In speaking about her research, Fitzpatrick notes that many students and humanities scholars are trained to be antagonistic toward the scholarship of their peers and mentors. “Everything in their educations to that point,” she says during a recent presentation, “had prepared them for interrogating.” This approach-by-interrogation is characteristic of many university disciplines, which she finds to be a major problem. We train students in a method of agonistic criticism, a form of analysis that tears down and proves wrong often before understanding the potential of another scholar’s argument. Adjusting their approach to criticism and debate can open up more generous thinking about what’s good or potentially helpful in scholarly work. This approach follows a process of “building new ideas rather than tearing old ones down.” So in the context of her book, the word generosity denotes a scholarly practice that supports openness, listening, and “Learning to think with rather than against,” says Fitzpatrick.

photo of Kathleen Fitzpatrick wearing a suit jacket, maroon shirt, and smiling without teeth
Kathleen Fitzpatrick (Image source:

As the Director of Digital Humanities and Professor of English at Michigan State University, Fitzpatrick’s background in the digital and public-facing humanities has afforded her a front-row seat into what works well—and what doesn’t—in building meaningful relationships among humanities scholars, students, and the public.

Digital humanities projects fulfill Fitzpatrick’s call for inclusivity and the open sharing of ideas among scholars, students, and the public. Just take a look at many of the DH projects we have featured on this blog, which offer fantastic examples of university-based, open-access initiatives that connect humanities scholarship with a broader public. For example, the University of  Delaware’s Colored Conventions project (CCP) focuses on digitizing, transcribing, and disseminating meeting minutes from nineteenth-century American political conventions led by Black Americans from 1830-1888.

Another public-facing DH project we have featured on the blog is Stanford’s Chinese Railroad Workers in North America, a collaborative project that seeks to provide a voice to the Chinese workers who played a central role  in the construction of the American transcontinental railroad, built from 1865-1869. The initiative takes the form of an online digital archive, which contains a vast accumulation of primary sources including historical documents, oral histories, art, archeology, artifacts, and images. 

These historic photographs are an example of the types of sources Chinese Railroad Workers in North America has accumulated. (Photo Source:

The University of Oregon is also using DH to connect the university to the broader public. Just recently, UO Libraries and Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art’s collaborative initiative has led to the publication of The March a digital exhibition that makes use of the James Blue papers held at UO Libraries’ Special Collections and University Archives. The collection draws from academic sources, but is aimed at a large, public audience.

While all of these DH projects would be classified as academic scholarship, they are designed to invite and welcome participation from a broader public audience. Their strengths, therefore, come from openness and community contributions which, in turn, help to bring the work of the humanities into public light. Yet, public DH projects also often aim for collaborations with the public. Hence, these projects are not simply or exclusively bringing academic work to the public; rather they are initiating and fostering collaboration among scholars and non-scholars. These DH projects embody the kind of generous process that Fitzpatrick calls for.



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