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Princeton University: Beginning in New Jersey

In this post, Dr Sara Brooks discusses the experience of bringing Being Human to North America. As Being Human hits the states, she talks us through the cultural similarities and the opportunities of experimentation and connection they hope to generate in becoming hosts.  

Earlier this year the Humanities Council at Princeton University signed up to become Being Human’s first North American institutional host. While we prepare to select the slate of events that will make up the festival’s New Jersey branch, it is a good moment to share how we’re making the Being Human festival with an American accent.

A group of people at a work bench measuring a piece of wood

From the first it has been clear that this would be a Being Human for Central New Jersey. New Jersey often seems to be cast in the character roles behind New York City’s starring players. The state, however, cannot be summed up by Bruce Springsteen or Jersey Shore. It is the only state in the US that is as densely populated as England or the Netherlands, and more than one in three New Jerseyans are first- or second-generation residents of the US. In New Jersey our potential audiences were in many ways quite like those of our UK colleagues: keen to learn about themselves, representative of many different cultures, and yet sharing many daily experiences.

But if the audiences are comparable, American universities offer contrasts to those in the UK. Princeton’s undergraduate curriculum is a familiar variant of the American liberal arts formula, which requires students dive into collegiate level work in a range of disciplines. Our students have a markedly different experience from the subject-dedicated bachelors work familiar in Britain. Princeton also has a strong institutional dedication to service among its students, not just on campus, but in the urban and suburban reaches close by. As a consequence, many of the relationships that the University nurtures with our neighbours have been focused on connecting students with community needs, rather than connecting our neighbours to our scholars’ research.

Group of people playing steel drums to an audience outside

Joining the Being Human festival was the perfect opportunity to enhance the ways we invite our (many) neighbours in, and hopefully to get an invitation over to theirs. So while we adapt Being Human to our neighbourhood we found four strong qualities for talking with our neighbours about the humanities using the festival’s model.

The first is the spark of experiment in Being Human events. Without its capital letters being human is not always the experience of the classroom. We hope to share and spread the fun and delight of work in the humanities. There’s lot to learn from, with a record of hundreds of inventive events, happenings and collaborations.

Second, Being Human, with capital letters, emphasizes discovering ways to connect the scholarly work happening on campus with the neighbourhoods around it. There are lots of ways to interpret service, and doing, not just telling, the humanities to a wider public seems more and more essential. Third, we’re all working in an increasingly fact-sceptical environment. The humanities are about the sophistication of human interpretative capacities. With live, non-traditional events like those we’re looking to host, we aim to escape the enclosing and reactive attention bubbles that descend on campuses as much as elsewhere.

Finally, most importantly, the stress on joining with other groups and organizations is vital for us. We have great colleagues and neighbours! We’re using our links with our campus colleagues who are dedicated to community-engaged learning, innovative pedagogy, service and civic engagement to make the most effective connections. Their long-term work with Princeton’s fantastic neighbourhood community organizations, schools, and non-profits, help us imagine the shape of our Being Human collaboration.

This year we’re aiming for only a small (but mighty) number of events that will build on existing local strengths. As we identify creative, up to the moment ideas, with partners on and off campus we look forward to reporting back.