Web series seeks to spur conversation on most pressing societal issues

October 31, 2018

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Sparking meaningful dialogue about the fundamental issues and questions shaping society today — and highlighting the work being done by Penn State humanities scholars to address those issues — is the onus behind HumIn Focus, an educational web series recently launched by the Penn State Humanities Institute.

The Humanities Institute was launched by the College of the Liberal Arts in the fall of 2017 as an outgrowth of the former Institute for the Arts and Humanities, which flourished at Penn State for nearly half a century. According to John Christman, Penn State professor of philosophy, political science, and women’s studies and director of the Humanities Institute, HumIn Focus advances the institute’s broader effort to showcase the social value of humanities research and to create conversations between humanities scholars and members of the community on topics of pressing social importance.

“We want our faculty and students to listen responsively to questions of social concern, and to explain how their research speaks to and enriches discussion of those questions,” Christman said. “We wanted more than an interview show or panel discussion; we wanted to make something visually interesting and dynamic.”

“We firmly believe that Penn State scholars who have studied the world from a humanities perspective can enrich the ongoing public conversation about these issues,” added Matthew Jordan, Penn State associate professor of media studies. “Ideally, a critical function of the public land-grant university is to help citizens make sense of the world. We see the series helping to deepen the public’s understanding of the issues we will focus on by shifting people’s perspective on them.”

The name HumIn Focus is a play on the Humanities Institute’s name, and the word “Human” and “in Focus” is a nod to that intent.

“The best way to understand out title is to watch the animation on our website where Humanities Institute morphs into HumIn Focus,” Christman said. “More than that, we want to focus on the human condition both in the sense of zeroing in for a close-up look at an issue and zooming out to see the big picture. ‘Human’ and hence ‘Humanities’ are at the center of our focus, but we look beyond that to see the broader world in which humans live their lives.”

The first episode currently available on the HumIn Focus website focuses on Confederate monuments and public memory of why they were erected. Christman said the topic was chosen because it is an issue that has been in the news lately and will most likely be a topic of conversation — and controversy — for some time to come.

“The issue connected easily with the sort of broader questions of history, culture, rhetoric and social geography that humanities scholars can speak about so insightfully,” Christman said. “When we zoom out to consider these broader questions of public memory, community reconciliation, and the meaning of symbols, the particular controversy of Confederate monuments can be seen in a new and more nuanced light.”

Christman and Jordan anticipate the second HumIn Focus episode will debut in the spring of 2019. As the site continues to grow, every chapter of each episode will include follow up questions that help viewers contemplate how they would respond to the content.

“We hope viewers are provoked, informed, and drawn into the conversation about the social issues that animate each episode,” Christman said. “But we want the reflections of our humanities scholars to help broaden those conversations. We want people to be able to think about controversial issues with a keener sense of the historical, philosophical, literary and cultural questions that surround them.”

“Our aim is not to provide specific answers about how to solve the problems or issues — to act as conversations stoppers — but rather to kick start and broaden the conversation that people might be having about them,” Jordan added. “We also want to show that the humanities matter in a democratic society, perhaps now more than ever. Humanities scholarship and scholars are a valuable resource that help us negotiate our turbulent times and help us decide what kind of society we want to be.”

HumIn Focus was one of the first projects to be funded by an innovative funding process that provides seed grants to projects that support thematic priorities in Penn State’s 2016-2020 Strategic Plan — all while advancing the vital and transformative work of faculty, staff and students across the University. Information about the seed grants and the proposals that have been funded to date can be found at http://strategicplan.psu.edu/funded-initiatives .

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated November 01, 2018