UMaine Elevates the Humanities through Community Engagement

By Christopher Burns

At the edge of the great north woods, the University of Maine Humanities Initiative works to elevate the humanities and liberal arts at a time when support is declining in favor of a STEM education. While the UMHI provides support for faculty and students, community engagement is increasingly seen as essential for the long-term health and revitalization of the humanities.

Founded in 2010, the UMHI set out to “advance teaching, research, and community outreach in the humanities,” according to its mission statement. Since it formed, the UMHI has grown and expanded beyond a limited budget for faculty grants to hosting public humanities days, lectures, and outreach events across Maine.

Maine is a state that will benefit from a renewed focus on the humanities and arts. As a home to artists and writers such as Sarah Orne Jewett, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Waldo Pierce, and Marsden Hartley—and a destination and inspiration for others like Rachel Carson, Marguerite Yourcenar, and Henry David Thoreau—Maine’s history is rich with the humanities. “Culture is a big part of what Maine is,” Jeffrey Hecker (ΦBK, University of Illinois), Provost and Executive Vice President of Academic Affairs, said.

Much like UMHI, the University of Maine has become more focused on fulfilling its land-grant mission to serve Mainers, Hecker reflected. “Since President Ferguson came to campus we’ve been more up front and clear with public engagement,” Hecker said. Engaging public institutions such as libraries, museums, historical and film societies is part of the mission to elevate the humanities and arts in the community.

“[We need to] show that our work as scholars and students is pertinent and important for the civic life of the state [Maine],” said Justin Wolff, UMHI Director and Associate Professor of Art History. “There is no ‘ivory tower’ anymore. We need to go to the people.”

Kirsten Jacobson, Associate Professor of Philosophy, began a service learning program, “Philosophy Across the Ages,” which exemplifies the goals of the UMHI, Wolff noted. It brings together undergraduates from the Department of Philosophy and takes them out to local high schools to engage and discuss philosophy with students. Undergraduate philosophy students gain experience as volunteers and teachers by participating. Since starting, it expanded to include the Dirigo Pines retirement community.

Local historical societies are partners of the UMHI. For Liam Riordan, UMHI Advisory Board Member and Associate Professor of History, historical societies are the “backbone” of public humanities. The Mount Desert Island Historical Society is one institution partnering with UMHI. Recently, undergraduates in the Department of History took advantage of internships offered by the MDI Historical Society. Hecker hopes future partnerships continue to yield these positive benefits for students and public humanities institutions.

In May 2013, the UMHI organized The Humanities in Downtown Bangor, a public humanities day. The UMHI worked with the University of Maine Museum of Art, Maine Discovery Museum, Penobscot Theatre, Bangor Public Library, and Downtown Arts Collaborative to bring Mainers in contact with public humanities and art institutions in their neighborhoods. The day included walking tours of Bangor, art viewings, and lectures and discussions. For 2014, the UMHI is sponsoring a number of events, including a symposium, “In and Out of Place: Finding Home in Franco America,” a Downtown Bangor Public Humanities Day, and a Maine Humanities Summit.

Elevating the humanities in Maine stands to bring economic benefits, according to Wolff. Many of the industries that sustained Maine–pulp and paper, shoe manufacturing, shipbuilding, woolen, and fishing–have disappeared or diminished from their former capacity leaving the state economy in search of a boon. Wolff sees “new modes of income” in a “creative economy” emphasizing Maine’s cultural heritage and memory with cultural trails that promote a new tourism industry. The humanities and arts can “give people a rich cultural experience and help depressed communities,” Wolff said.

For Riordan, the humanities and arts offer even more to Mainers. The humanities “engage [Mainers] in a rich and meaningful way with what it means to be human,” he said. 

Art and literature get people to look at problems of values, purpose, and history with a critical eye, leading people down the path to finding a meaningful life. To be historically and politically aware, think critically, and relate to others is key to a healthy civic life for the people of Maine and the United States.

Christopher Burns is a senior at the University of Maine majoring in English. The University of Maine is home to the Delta of Maine Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.