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How I Talk about Activism without Talking about Activism

As a scholar of modernism and the Spanish Civil War, I have long been engaged with others’ ideas about engagement—both modernists and scholars of modernism—questioning the intersection of politics and art. As a scholar at the margins of the academy, I have sought to make sense of where my own work might fit, both into the world of scholarship and the wider world in which scholarship takes shape. Now, in my new position as Director of the Engaged and Public Humanities Master’s at Georgetown University, I am defending the cause of the humanities: of our worth, of our belonging, of our work, of our ideas, of our ways of thinking, and of the worlds we create for each other with our creativity, curiosity, community, and scholarship.

From “Concerned” to “Committed” to “Engaged”

The triangular relationship between those working in the arts (or the humanities more broadly), their audiences, and their subjects, was a problem that preoccupied modernist writers and visual artists—and continues to challenge their scholarly interpreters. Cornell Capa, the Hungarian war photographer (with a more famous brother, Robert) coined the term “concerned photography” in the mid-twentieth century to describe the work of war and the conflict photographers who snapped pictures with the hope that such images would inspire distant viewers to intervene. The “concerned” alluded to a political stance, but one that was markedly oriented toward only two points of the triangulated relationship. We, the viewer or photographer, are concerned. The photographic subjects are the object of concern. The gaze and the power-dynamic are unilateral even if there’s the hope that the image provokes concern and, even further, action.

The term “concerned” tries to re-entwine the relationship between politics, action, and artists, which in turn indicates that these have already become disentangled in the mid-twentieth century. The intellectual is divorced from activism, and so a new term is needed for those intellectuals who are activists. In Capa’s construction of the concerned photographic gaze, there is a deliberate purpose in taking pictures, one which is meant to draw humanitarian attention to the subject. This humanitarian dimension has recognizable power dynamics. Extending this term of concern to intellectual production, we may say that to be a concerned academic is to be politically- and justice-minded but involves adopting more of a “savior” mind-set than is desirable. To be “concerned” in this way is to construct a one-way relationship with the subject, and it also implies action, political involvement, and activism.

Over the course of the twentieth century, Capa’s “concerned” morphed into “committed”—as in the committed intellectual, or the committed academic—as a shorthand for saying, “someone who makes their living with ideas” (including in the academy, where tenure once encouraged more political leeway), “but is also involved in activism and politics.” This shift from “concerned” to “committed” attempts to place the academic, intellectual, or artistic actor into a relationship of closer, more binding and solidary connection with those on whose behalf they are “committed.” The academic, artist, or intellectual is seen as struggling alongside others; they have skin in the game of whatever cause they are pursuing, and their own well-being is implicated in the success of that cause. In reality, of course, their position is often more secure, less vulnerable, than those on whose behalf they are “committed”; and the decision to make a commitment belongs solely to the artist or intellectual—which means that the choice to de-commit remains with them too. From “concerned” to “committed,” this shifting terminology was still getting at the same goal: to talk about folks usually considered “aloof” or “out of touch” (those in what we might now call the knowledge production economy) and address the project that some of them were working in to be less so. To be less aloof; to be less out of touch; to be more relevant and more “of the people.”

At the turn of the twenty-first century, the adjective “committed” fell dramatically from use and transformed into “engaged,” particularly in terms of art: “engaged art,” or “engaged intellectuals.” This shift came from the French engagé, which referred to someone who is politically-motivated in their representations and endeavors—literally, they are engaged in activism. To be engagé was to defend a cause. I don’t know why the adjective “engaged” gained sudden traction over “committed”—an extensive textual network analysis would be required to even hypothesize reasons. But one thing I can say is that “engaged” is a great way to describe the larger shift in attention that Capa was trying to describe. Engaged means that the person is plugged in, and that the community they’re involved with—whatever community that is—is informing their work in turn. “Engaged” is not the one-way savior attitude implied by “concerned” and it is not the alongside-but-distanced “committed”; rather, engaged means a long-term dedication and the promise of mutually beneficial development (perhaps a naïve, idealistic definition, but let’s go with it for a minute).

I construct this very short etymological constellation—concerned, committed, engaged—because I want to highlight that the humanities have always known their interventions in the public sphere were not necessarily standard operating procedure; and that these interventions mattered. Throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, these terms made visible the rift between intellectuals, artists, and academics and the public sphere, where action was demanded and power at play. And so, we arrive at what I’ve been gesturing towards: thinking about the humanities as engaged and public. What does the “engaged” mean, for folks in the academy today? Can one be an engaged humanist without being politically motivated? (Answer: no) What is the role of activism in the academy? How can the community partnerships forged in the name of integrating the university into the surrounding community be sustainable and equitable?

Finding Models in the Spanish Civil War

These questions have always informed my work, in multiple and shifting ways. As I started this administrative position in August 2021, I harkened back to texts from modernist studies, to Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle or Jacob Riis’s photographs in How the Other Half Lives. Modernist craft, while concerned with ideas, was also always already concerned with changing the world with challenging and difficult representations of that world and—in many cases—working to intervene in various ways into the public sphere. Many of these modernist representations were “concerned” (one-way, or savior-oriented) rather than “engaged”—but there are engaged models, as well.  From my research, I drew inspiration from the women journalists and photographers of the Spanish Civil War like Muriel Rukeyser and Kati Horna who confronted the question: what are you doing to prevent this? Their answer was to advocate for Spain, creating art that viscerally portrayed what they witnessed. In other words, they linked art and politics, aesthetics and activism. They were not the first to do so, of course, but the passion and dedication and creativity with which they did so was remarkable. For them, art and politics were one and the same. For Horna and Rukeyser, the answer to “what are you doing to prevent this?” was: all I can.

What are you doing to prevent this? Poster from Madrid, depicting mother and child near a bombed building
Unknown author, 1937. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

It was Martha Gellhorn, still young and developing her famous journalistic voice, who, when confronted with the civilian casualties of Spain and the fascist support from Italy and Germany, wrote to hell with “all that objectivity shit.”[1] As Nancy Cunard wrote in the 1937 pamphlet Authors Take Sides on the Spanish Civil War, “The equivocal attitude, the Ivory Tower, the paradoxical, the ironic detachment, will no longer do”—a message signed by W. H. Auden, Pablo Neruda, Ramón Sender, and Stephen Spender, among others.[2] Both Cunard, faced with the real demand of denouncing fascism, and Gellhorn, attempting to portray fascism’s consequences in such a way as to be both fair and true, would advocate leaving academic detachment behind and committing oneself to the struggle. Unlike some people in the interwar years (and since), I acknowledge willingly that our world, including the academy, is in crisis. But to the unyielding demand for commitment, at the price of detachment and balance, voiced by Cunard and Gellhorn, I say: what if we took the strengths of the academy—including our objectivity, peer-evaluated research, and complex methods—and turned them outward?

As someone who up until now has existed on the periphery of the university—first as a graduate student, then as a writing instructor adjunct hired by the semester—I am unaccustomed to answering the question I just posed, as I am usually not empowered to have official strengths or resources. I’m much more accustomed to a precarity that has conditioned me to accede to circumstances through endurance and silence. My personal history of activism has been quiet. My privilege has allowed that mutedness in a way I recognize it would not for others. My activist history has also been personal: advocating for myself (as a Latinx white lady, as an adjunct, as a disgruntled Millennial who knows the deck is stacked, as a person with chronic health conditions) or advocating for people with developmental disabilities, propelled by my experience as the sibling of a non-verbal autistic man. My version of being “engaged” has leant toward representative participation (sitting on my union’s executive committee, for example) or witnessing (serving as a Commissioner on the District of Columbia’s Developmental Disabilities Fatality Review Committee). So, although I’ve sought to combine humanistic public scholarship and commitment in my life before this position, to be in the engaged humanities is something new.

The Stakes for the Engaged and Public Humanities

I only started as director in August 2021, so I can share the tiny insights I’ve gained so far and some of my vision for what the engaged and public humanities mean to me and to the program. I ask again: what if we took the strengths of the academy and turned them outward? I am advocating for a type of engaged humanities that serves its constituencies outside the academy, and that envisions its interventions taking place outside of the pages of journals that only our university libraries can subscribe to and outside of the classroom as we usually recognize it.

I am thinking deeply about how to pivot the work of my graduate students outward to the community. In addition to the deep scholarly thinking and humanities training their instructors encourage in coursework, experiential education is key. At Georgetown, our scholarly strengths as humanists—our reflectiveness, our inquisitiveness, our love for complexity and contemplation and conversation that comes to no pat conclusion—are fostered in coursework, and then cultivated during an internship through a reflective journal and director- and peer-led coaching sessions. The graduate students must complete a mentored internship for academic credit and a final capstone project, requiring a public-facing component. That capstone description is purposefully broad. I’ve suggested to students that they can make several episodes of a podcast; create a digital exhibit or a physical exhibit (as pandemic restrictions allow); stage a performance; host a series of events; create a lesson packet for high school teachers; conduct several oral history interviews and digitally archive them. All of these possibilities move away from a traditional written thesis and encourage community partnerships and experiential humanities that face away from the university. With these partnerships, though, comes the part of engaged humanities that I think will test me the most: how to be a sustained partner with the community.

I suspect my teaching and pedagogical philosophy, more than my research skills and knowledge, will guide me in sustainable, equitable engagement with community partners. Regular meetings. Showing up. Open communication. Co-planning. Leading through service. I do know that working and collaborating with community partners, like museums, libraries, theaters, educational and tourist organizations, artist foundations and societies, will involve putting my point of view second and listening. This is going to be difficult, coming from a space where being visible and noteworthy was a key strategy to guarantee contract renewal. But the humanities have as its foundation a collection of voices and interpretations, and a commitment to sustaining dialogue among them; and I must listen, say these models and this deep history. Encouraging students to forge community partnerships or conduct oral histories for their capstones is to admit that I am not the only voice worth listening to or the only individual worth speaking with. It is to concede territory where academic specialization is valued but not valorized. It is to imagine an alternative construction of what matters in the study and pursuit of the humanities beyond tenure.

The engaged and public humanities are an act of imagination: can we imagine ourselves and our disciplines differently? Can we imagine prioritizing projects, endeavors, and individuals related to and situated in the public sphere? To start leaning into this vision is to transcend our limitations and what came before us and hope anew. In this very particular line of thinking, I draw from my disability and chronic health advocacy, having witnessed how folks negotiate a world that never had them in mind to exist in it; yet they find ways to do so, through creativity, community, and resiliency. And also, they do so through deciding not to care what others think in order to exist in the world, a way of being born out of necessity simply to be. So in this act of imagination, I want to meet the academics who are writing in shorter forms, who are writing for lay audiences, who are creating spaces of interchange on public forums or in public spaces, who are making the personal political in their scholarship. I want to meet them because we will desperately need new modes of research and new evaluative models for that research.

And it will be new. For a long time, it will probably look very different from the humanities scholarship we recognize. Back in September, a prospective student wrote me: “I want to take academia into the streets!” I laughed and shared that she had found the new tagline for the program. But that is what I anticipate doing: I am on a journey. To leave the academy and take to the streets is to admit that I don’t know, but that I have a way of knowing that is valuable and I am skilled in using the tools to understand across difference. I may be encouraging us to abandon what we know, but I’d rather have a journey, knowing I can come back home, than be forced out.

Make no mistake; we are being forced out. It might be happening slowly, but we’ve hit the iceberg and the ship is sinking. We humanists must alter course for our own survival; we must recognize new kinds of work and new partnerships, or we’ll have very few colleagues left. The university has weathered change before—I think, for example, of the creation of the land-grant institutions, the slow admission of Black Americans, the actually-quite-recent admittance of women to co-educational institutions. There are more changes that each of us could name and probably have experienced. But what is happening now in the United States is profoundly different, as never were seventy percent of the faculty temporary hires and contract workers, and never were core humanities departments being dismantled before our eyes. The academy is changing, and it is up to us to steer its next iteration. Will the academy two generations into the future have the humanities in it? I hope it will. I am not certain. One thing I know, though, is that the engaged and public humanities are essential for the survival of the university, and for the humanities as we know them. The academy is in crisis and is dissolving before our very eyes. What are you doing to prevent this?


Thank you to LaToya Council, my writing partner. Our weekly writing sessions are a welcome feminist pillar of scholarly discussion, reflection, and endeavor. Thank you also to Joshua L. Cherniss and his father, Cary Cherniss, both readers of drafts, for their comments and feedback in support of this piece. Lastly, I am grateful to Debra Rae Cohen for her encouragement and knowledge.

[1] Caroline Moorhead, Gellhorn: A Twentieth-Century Life (New York: Holt, 2003), 6, 111.

[2] Authors Take Sides on the Spanish Civil War. London: Left Review, 1937.