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Sunday, Sept. 21, 10:58 p.m.
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UMaine elevates humanities through community engagement

At a time when support for the humanities continues to dwindle, the University of Maine Humanities Initiative is elevating the humanities and liberal arts through research grants and collaboration between departments and public humanities institutions. 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 its formation, the UMHI has grown and expanded beyond a limited budget for faculty grants to hosting public humanities days, lectures and outreach events across Maine.

The UMHI believes that “exposure to the arts and humanities are key to the economic, cultural and political health of Maine.” Home to artists and writers such as Sarah Orne Jewett, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Waldo Peirce 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,” said Jeffrey Hecker, provost and executive vice president of Academic Affairs.

Engaging public institutions such as libraries, museums and historical and film societies is part of the mission to elevate the humanities and arts in the community. Hecker reflected that, much like the UMHI, UMaine has renewed focus on fulfilling its land-grant mission to serve Mainers.

“Since President Ferguson came to campus, we’ve been more upfront and clear with public engagement,” Hecker said.

Justin Wolff, UMHI director and associate professor of Art History, cited the success of the service learning program Philosophy Across the Ages organized by Kirsten Jacobson, associate professor of philosophy, as a model of future UMHI programs. Philosophy Across the Ages takes undergraduates from the Department of Philosophy and brings them into local high schools to engage and discuss philosophy with students, which gives undergraduates experience as volunteers and teachers. Since starting, it expanded to include the Dirigo Pines retirement community.

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

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 the UMHI partnered with.

Recently, undergraduates in the Department of History took part in 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 appreciation 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 engage Mainers with public humanities and art institutions in their neighborhoods. The day included walking tours of Bangor, art viewings, and lectures and discussions.

The UMHI is sponsoring a number of events in 2014, including a symposium, “In and Out of Place: Finding Home in Franco America,” “The Humanities in Downtown Bangor” and a Maine Humanities Summit in Augusta.

Elevating the humanities in Maine stands to bring economic benefits, according to Wolff. He 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,” Riordan 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 are key to a healthy civic life for the people of Maine and the United States.