By Anthony Lewis – Contributing Writer
The onset of the fall semester brought the New Commons Project, a public humanities initiative spearheaded by Interim Provost Eric Brown and Associate Professor Kristen Case, and generously funded by the Mellon Foundation.
“For the New Commons Project, we wanted to ask students, faculty, high school students and community members to propose works of culture that we need now,” said Case.
Open to anyone in Maine, the New Commons Project aims to create a canon of 24 works of culture, which can include “novels, paintings, plays, albums, films, performances [and] works of philosophy.”
A project by and for the community, one of the key concepts of the New Commons is the nomination of works that can be applied to modern society in a constructive and meaningful way.
“What are our cultural resources for the moment that we’re living in? What are the things we really need to turn to in this particular moment?” Case asked when describing the questions the New Commons Project tries to answer. “Maybe we need a work to teach us about something, or maybe we need that work because it brings people together, or maybe we need that work because we’re all really stressed out and need something that will make us laugh.”
The project came as a result of an invitation from the Mellon Foundation–a multibillion-dollar endowment that writes grants primarily to private institutions–to have UMF submit a proposal for a highly coveted grant.
Professor Brown, who was tasked with the daunting responsibility of drawing up the proposal, met with a representative from the Mellon Foundation in the fall of 2016.
“Mellon was looking specifically at COPLAC schools,” Brown said. “UMF is part of this Council Of Public Liberal Arts Colleges. President Foster and I had an initial talk wondering if we should go for it. We had to get a preliminary paper to them by mid-January, and this was in mid-December.” Professor Brown smiled and raised his eyebrows, as if to wonder to himself how he ever pulled this off. “We thought that, even though it was going to be a crunch, in the end it was worth doing.”
“The idea of a commons is to have one resource we all have access to and that we all have to care for,” said Case. “The whole idea behind the grant is that we want to think about culture as a commons. We’re looking for something that is not housed at the university. It belongs to everybody.”
The idea that the New Commons Project is rooted in community was echoed by English professor Dan Gunn.
“I think the idea here is to combat the notion that there’s a strict canon controlled by academics, and the value of the humanities as only to do works out of that canon,” said Gunn. “The idea is to think of the humanities as a resource for everyone in the community, and to think of that canon as shifting.”
Music professor Steven Pane expressed a similar sentiment about the project.
“The big misunderstanding in our culture is that somehow, whether it’s Bob Dylan or The Iliad, that these things are what you do in school,” said Pane. “But really it’s what you do in life. Rather than associating this with college, it should be all of ours to share.”
“A lot of times, when people hear about this project, they think ‘oh, this is something for some other kind of person’,” said Professor Case. “Something that is for some person who knows more about culture than I do, or who’s an English major, which is insane. The whole project is designed to counteract the idea that culture is something you have to have special expertise about. Every single person in the world knows about culture.”
Professor Case gets more and more excited as she speaks; her voice rises, her hands gesticulate and a smile flashes across her face. “You live in a culture. You consume it every day. This is really just trying to convince people that the culture they know and care about is what we’re interested in.”
The first round of selections will be made in March of 2018 by a committee including Professor Case, Professor Brown, students and members of the community. The deadline for submissions is March 15, 2018.
Submissions, in the form of 3-4 minute videos, can be uploaded at www.maine.submittable.com/submit.