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"I really felt transformed by a vision of what the humanities can do for the larger public," says newly seated Humanities director at Wittenberg

Kenneth E. Wray Endowed Chair Christian Raffensperger recently gave a lecture on the war in Ukraine at the Clark County Public Library as part of the Knowledge Shared Series of the Margaret Ermarth Institute For The Public Humanities.
Wittenberg University/Facebook
Kenneth E. Wray Endowed Chair Christian Raffensperger recently gave a lecture on the war in Ukraine at the Clark County Public Library as part of the Knowledge Shared Series of the Margaret Ermarth Institute For The Public Humanities.

Humanities director expands teaching beyond Wittenberg's campus.

Christian Raffensperger has a mission - To expand the education of humanities beyond classrooms and into communities - in other words - take it to the people. Raffensperger is the new director of the Margaret Ermarth Institute for the Public Humanities at Wittenberg University. Recently, he spoke to WYSO’s Jerry Kenney about the mission and why it’s also a personal one for him.

Christian Raffensperger: The mission of the Margaret Ermarth Institute for Public Humanities is really to take the humanities and learning and put it into the community. That's really what we want to do and especially I think it's important for the humanities because there is such a strong anti-intellectualism prevalent in so much of society. And you know, it doesn't really affect business education, of course it doesn't affect STEM, which is getting a big push and the humanities really seem to take a blow from it. And so I would like to show people through practice that the humanities are something that matters to all of us. It's not something for ivory tower academics to ponder over. They're part of our daily lives.

Jerry Kenney: Has that always been a part of the institute or is that a mission that you have brought as you take on your new position?

Raffensperger: That's the mission that I brought, trying to reshape what the institute is doing. And really, it's a local focus as well. I'm really interested in Springfield and Clark County. I serve on the board of the Clark County Public Library, and it's gotten me really interested in what we're doing locally, and I hope that we could make a difference here. And I think that's really essential that universities in that faculty are trying to pay attention to the communities that we're in because, you know, historically there's always that town / gown divide, but really, we're just people who shop at the same stores and do all the same things. And I want the institute to kind of showcase that. So, for instance, none of our events are on campus. We're getting events at the public library. I work with United Senior Services. I started talking to the Masonic home, trying to get us out into the community and just be people sharing our experiences and knowledge.

Kenney: And so, I think a description of the types of events that you have might help us understand what it looks like to take humanities out into the community.

Raffensperger: Absolutely. Yeah. So, the first type of event we're doing is a series that I call Knowledge Shared, which is getting faculty to go give talks about their expertise and share their information with the broader public. And so, for instance, in October, Stacy Ryan, who's a political scientist, is talking about bias in the media. And so that's especially relevant, of course, with an election coming up in November. So that's the Knowledge Shared series. We also are doing something called Humanities Thrives and the humanities are Important to us, as I was saying earlier. And so, what I've done is I've tried to enlist public figures in the local community to talk about why the humanities are important to them. And so, for instance, we've got two so far, I'm trying to space them out.

So, Maureen Massaro, who is the director of the Wilson Sheehan Foundation, is giving a great talk that's on our website about why the humanities matter to her, and she thinks they matter to the Clark County community. Bill Martino, the director of the Clark County Public Library, has done the same, and I'm going to continue to recruit people to participate in that, sharing their lived experience of why the humanities matters. The third and last thing that we're doing is we're trying to get increasing educational opportunities for our secondary school teachers. And so, building that relationship that Wittenberg has excelled at, of connecting with the local teachers and continuing their education.

Kenney: So, relationships and collaborations are an important part of this process.

Raffensperger: Relationships and collaborations are a hugely important part. And both the Public Library and United Senior Services Sale program, Springfield Area Institute for Lifelong Learning are partners of our Knowledge Shared series.

Kenney: How has the response been to your efforts so far?

Raffensperger: Terrific. It's been really terrific to get people to respond and think about this. People I've reached out to, to participate in, for instance, the Humanities Thrives interviews have been really excited to share their ideas and positive about it. People who I've asked to sponsor things like the public library, like United Senior Services, are interested to be engaged in what's going on.

Kenney: Why is this important to you? Why is this mission center to your focus?

Raffensperger: Yeah, so this is important to me largely because of some experiences that I've had over the last several years. In the spring, I was a fellow at the National Humanities Center, which is in the Research Triangle in North Carolina. And there I really felt transformed by a vision of what the humanities can do for the larger public. I write articles, I write books. They're read by scholars in all countries around the world. But really, I don't actually impact my community very much. And I thought, that's not okay. I have information and I have skills that should be connected with what's going on and so do my colleagues. And I think that they can benefit, the community can benefit from me. But also, I know very well that I can benefit from the Springfield and Clark County community. And the more people I meet and the more people I talk to, I've given talks at Kiwanis and Rotary in the last couple of months. The more I feel integrated into my community. And that makes me feel more well-rounded. And so, it's become a little bit of a personal mission for me in that way.

Kenney: Yeah, I was going to say this sounds very, very personal to you. And so, it must be a blessing to be able to move that personal interest in a professional way.

Raffensperger: It's really reinvigorated my love of what I do, being able to share with my neighbors and quite literally, you know, taking the dog for a walk and having people stop me and say, oh, you know, I saw that you're giving a talk and can we talk about Ukraine and that it's really nice. It's a nice feeling to be part of a community. And so, I appreciate that.

Kenney: I guess finally I would just ask; do you foresee ways in which this mission of yours could be expanded into other communities?

Raffensperger: Absolutely. And I think this could be expanded beyond Springfield and Clark County. You know, one of the things I want to do is I want to get to Centreville, which, you know, it sounds like an odd thing, but Clark County is not really just Springfield. There are other places and I'd like to reach out and get there. But this is the same thing that Oberlin can do in their community. OTTERBEIN And there's a WWU in theirs and reach out and build those bridges.

Kenney: Christian Raffensperger is the director of the Margaret Air Morath Institute for Public Humanities. Christian, thanks so much for your time.

Raffensperger: Thank you very much for having me.

Jerry began volunteering at WYSO in 1991 and hosting Sunday night's Alpha Rhythms in 1992. He joined the YSO staff in 2007 as Morning Edition Host, then All Things Considered. He's hosted Sunday morning's WYSO Weekend since 2008 and produced several radio dramas and specials . In 2009 Jerry received the Best Feature award from Public Radio News Directors Inc., and was named the 2023 winner of the Ohio Associated Press Media Editors Best Anchor/News Host award. His current, heart-felt projects include the occasional series Bulletin Board Diaries, which focuses on local, old-school advertisers and small business owners. He has also returned as the co-host Alpha Rhythms.