Humanities Research for the Public Good

Connecting Independent Colleges with Their Communities through Undergraduate Research

The humanities enrich our lives and offer us tools to make better sense of the world. The humanities help connect individuals and communities. For more than a decade, however, leaders in higher education and humanities scholars have worried about a “crisis” in the humanities, marked by a decline in the number of college majors and a popular perception that philosophy, history, literature, and languages no longer have relevance to contemporary issues or the public good. Many independent colleges and universities have countered these claims by pointing to the growth of enrollment in humanities classes and citing surveys of employers that emphasize the importance of strong writing, critical thinking, and a knowledge of diverse cultures for successful careers in tomorrow’s workforce.

Humanities Research for the Public Good offers a different response to these criticisms by helping CIC member institutions demonstrate the power of the humanities to shed light on the past, to offer new insights on current issues, and to engage both students and members of the public in contemplating a better future. By making visible the significant collections contained in college archives, libraries, and museums, the project aims to show how these raw materials of humanities research can address the concerns and experiences of local communities.

“When you see what the humanities have to offer, you want to share them as broadly as you can.”

Edward L. Ayers, Historian and President Emeritus, University of Richmond

CIC awarded $10,000 grants to 25 member colleges and universities in Spring 2019 and 24 additional institutions in Spring 2020 to support undergraduate research projects that incorporate a public presentation of research findings. In the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, the second cohort of projects was postponed until the 2021-2022 academic year.

All funded projects make use of a significant archival, library, or museum collection held by the college or university. Institutions must collaborate with a community-based organization to share this research with the public; the projects—which take many forms—must address a topic of importance and interest to the local community.

Humanities Research for the Public Good was designed to:

  • Connect independent colleges and universities with cultural and civic organizations in their local areas for the benefit of both students and the public;
  • Make better use of existing campus collections for teaching, undergraduate research, and public engagement;
  • Enhance the research, collaboration, and communication skills of students in humanities disciplines;
  • Encourage humanities faculty members and collections specialists who work in campus libraries, archives, and museums to apply their expertise to issues of public policy and community concern; and
  • Increase public interest in and appreciation of humanities research.

This initiative is generously supported by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, with supplemental funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities. In 2020, Humanities Research for the Public Good received a J. Franklin Jameson Archival Advocacy Award from the Society of American Archivists. This award honors an individual, institution, or organization that promotes greater public awareness, appreciation, or support of archival activities or programs.

Project Director

Anne M. Valk serves as project director and evaluator of the “Humanities Research for the Public Good” initiative. In January 2020 she became executive director of the American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning at the CUNY Graduate Center. She is a specialist in oral history, public history, and the social history of the United States in the 20th century, and the award-winning author of books on women’s history and African American history. She has served as director of women’s studies at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, deputy director of the Center for Public Humanities at Brown University, associate director for public humanities and lecturer in history at Williams College, and president of the Oral History Association. Valk has a BA in psychology from Mount Holyoke College and a PhD in history from Duke University.

Current Status

Applications are no longer being accepted for this grant program. However, the grant guidelines provide an excellent overview of the goals and structure of Humanities Research for the Public Good.

Each campus team must include a full-time faculty member in the humanities who will serve as a mentor to the student researcher(s); a collections specialist—such as a librarian, archivist, or museum curator—with expertise in collections for research and presentation; and a senior campus administrator with responsibilities for public outreach or external partnership. Each institution must partner with at least one nonprofit community-based organization (for example, a museum or historical society, public library, social service provider, or civic organization) to develop a program of public outreach.

Eligible Projects

Projects should engage undergraduate students in research activities that utilize institutional collections (such as those held in a special collections library, archive, or museum) to address issues of importance and interest to the local community. The student research might include a course-based project, an independent study, or a stipend-funded research assistantship. The resulting public program could take the form of an exhibit, public walking tour, website, video documentary or podcast, lecture or other face-to-face presentation, or some other creative format for sharing research, engaging members of the community, and promoting community conversations.

Here are a few examples of projects funded during the 2019–2020 academic year:

  • Augustana University (with Washington Pavilion): “Re-presenting” Native Americans in South Dakota’s Archival History
    A collaboration between Augustana undergraduates and high school students from the  Flandreau Indian School, this public exhibition draws upon the South Dakota Episcopal Diocese Archives to reconsider white missionaries’ perspectives on Native Americans and fill in some of the “archival absences” of Native Americans.
  • Daemen College (with Open Buffalo): Skateland: Oral History and Community Archive
    A digital archive of photo collages and oral histories from skaters at the Kiddie Skateland roller skating rink, a neighborhood anchor that served Buffalo’s east side for over 40 years.
  • Lewis & Clark College (with the Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon): The Vietnamese Portland Podcast Series
    A series of student-produced podcasts that explore the untold stories of Vietnamese migrants and the development of their community in Portland, using material from the “Vietnamese Portland: History, Memory, Community” archive.
  • Mars Hill University (with the Appalachian Barn Alliance): Influence and Legacy: The Farmers Federation in Madison County, NC
    A public program documenting farm life and rural culture in western North Carolina from the 1920s to the 1960s, drawing upon the archival records of the Farmers Federation.
  • University of Denver (with the Denver Public Library): Engaging the History of the Jewish Consumptives’ Relief Society
    A student-curated exhibition that explores the work and legacy for public health of the Jewish Consumptives’ Relief Society, which offered free treatment for tuberculosis to poor immigrants and other community members in the early 20th century.

For additional inspiration and ideas, please visit Humanities for All, an annotated database compiled by the National Humanities Alliance with support from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, which showcases a number of public humanities projects developed by small colleges and universities in collaboration with community partners.

Participating Institutions (2019–2020)

View a more detailed list of participating institutions, project titles, and community partners.

Alaska Pacific University
Augustana University (SD)
Berry College
Bethany College (KS)
Butler University
Champlain College
Connecticut College
Daemen College (NY)
Fisk University

Franklin College
Gustavus Adolphus College
Hollins University
Lewis & Clark College
Mars Hill University
Messiah College
Oberlin College
Reinhardt University

Rust College
Saint Mary’s College (IN)
Simmons University
St. Mary’s University (TX)
Stevenson University
University of Denver
University of Findlay
Wofford College

Participating Institutions (2021–2022)

View a more detailed list of participating institutions, project titles, and community partners.

Augsburg University (Minneapolis, MN)
Bushnell University (Eugene, OR)
Carlow University (Pittsburgh, PA)
College of St. Benedict (Saint Joseph, MN)
Columbia College Chicago (Chicago, IL)
Defiance College (Defiance, OH)
Doane University (Crete, NE)
Ferrum College (Ferrum, VA)

Fontbonne University (St. Louis, MO)
George Fox University (Newberg, OR)
Goucher College (Baltimore, MD)
Muhlenberg College (Allentown, PA)
Saint Peter’s University (Jersey City, NJ)
Saint Vincent College (Latrobe, PA)
Springfield College (Springfield, MA)
St. Lawrence University (Canton, NY)

Thiel College (Greenville, PA)
Trinity College (Hartford, CT)
Tusculum University (Greeneville, TN)
University of the Incarnate Word (San Antonio, TX)
Wagner College (Staten Island, NY)
Washington & Jefferson College (Washington, PA)
Wheaton College (Norton, MA)
Widener University (Chester, PA)

Contact Information

Contact Philip M. Katz, CIC director of projects, at (202) 466-7230 or, or Anne M. Valk, senior advisor for “Humanities Research for the Public Good,” at