Are the (public) humanities in a data measurement crisis?

My last post was a reaction to problems facing independent artists in Philadelphia related to Pew funding, but it did not much consider the plight of public historians.  I have been working on my bibliographic essay on successful grant funding for public history– which is quite a little essay to research– and I came across a blog entry on History@Work that spoke to the concerns of public humanists (rather than artists).

The article, by Briann Greenfield (of New Jersey, woo!), was the first in a series dedicated to questioning the status of public humanities as crisis.  Mainly, she identified the potential to label our current times as the second coming of culture wars, identifying the 90s as a war about multiculturalism and critical theory as opposed to 2014, a war in the face of “austerity-driven education.”  Are the humanities useful in general, and to what end do public humanities serve economic growth?

I think what this article speaks to in terms of my current research is the critical importance in measuring impact in successfully getting a grant.  What do the public humanities do that we can define, quantitatively or qualitatively, which can persuade a funder to support a project?  The qualitative will always be easier– after the History Truck’s exhibition in East Kensington, I was told by a very friendly hipster that he no longer viewed the space in his neighborhood the same way, especially as he walked east of the El (there was a wooden piece in the exhibition which explored racial boundaries based on an oral history).  Knowing that a person experiences his neighborhood differently because of the History Truck is a nice quote just as any quote which claims the project positively impacted the people and place of the exhibition cycle.  But what about the numbers?  It is not that it is impossible to measure the social impact of a project like mine, but I believe it is also true that public humanities projects are problematic for creating datasets which speak to the importance of a project in an “austerity-driven” culture climate.

As I have reviewed the Historical Society’s grant applications for National History Day, I have noticed clear data from a recent study about what National History Day does for students throughout the nation.  Similarly, I would imagine grant language for projects by the City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program community murals program to provide substantiated numbers in terms of social impact in relation to formerly-incarcerated employees and exact numbers of economically-challenged populations involved in each project.  I believe, in terms of social impact, that History Truck is as compelling as National History Day or a community mural painted by formerly-incarcerated employees, but I wonder how we can quickly measure the potential and actualized impact of the exhibition cycle so that grant language reflects hard-hitting result-based practice that can compete with projects rooted in STEM (Science Technology Engineering Mathematics).

Thinking about measurement can be a bit exhaustive, but it is also helpful in reflecting on general project goals.  If we understand our qualitative goals, are we better equipped to design data collection strategies which demonstrate the full capacity of a project?  Do we just need to know what we mean to do in order to capture how well we are doing?

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