Celebrating our Sesquicentennial 1867-2017
University of Illinois Quadrangle
Celebrating our Sesquicentennial1867-2017

Humanities and Public Life



A democracy, John Dewey wrote, "is more than a form of government; it is primarily a mode of associated living, of conjoint communicated experience." Perhaps then, the key institutions in a democratic society are not governmental but educational. At the heart of a democracy are practices and institutions that work to support communicative relations, and to cultivate in the citizenry the dispositions needed to participate in the conversation that is democracy. And within educational institutions, it is the arts and humanities that have consistently devoted themselves to addressing the plight of the public by cultivating the arts of conversation and the rigors of self-knowledge.


Click here to view schedule.



Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research
Illinois Program for Research in the Humanities
Center for Advanced Study
College of Education
School of Literatures, Cultures, & Linguistics
Department of Germanic Languages and Literatures




Romand Coles

Romand Coles  

      • Australian Catholic University
        • Romand Coles is a scholar-activist who works at the intersections of continental and critical philosophy, radical democratic theory, and various modes of political organizing and activism.  Some of the central themes in his published work include: receptive generosity, dialogical ethics, and radical democracy; religion, secularism and pluralization; ecological thought and transformative action in the face of planetary catastrophe; social movements, protest, and broad-based political organizing; democratic educational transformation for commonwealth; action research and pedagogy; aesthetics and politics; and critical cosmopolitanism from below.  Before coming to the Institute for Social Justice, he served as the McAllister Endowed Chair and Director of the Program for Community, Culture, and Environment at Northern Arizona University, where he co-led a prominent initiative for educational transformation around grassroots democracy and sustainability.  During the two decades prior to that, he taught political theory and engaged in radical democratic political organizing at Duke University.  

        Title: Engaged Scholarship and Transformative Publics in the Face of Political and Ecological Catastrophe

        • We live in times of increasingly severe and entangled political, ecological, and educational crises. Coles argues that responding to these challenges requires a “visionary pragmatism” that works at the generative intersections between imaginative, radically transformative intellectual life and fine-grained practices engaged in cultivating practical change. This, in turn, hinges on co-creating knowledge and practice in hybrid publics composed of interdisciplinary scholars and students from educational institutions, on the one hand, and people associated with myriad other communities, organizations, and movements, on the other. Offering a distinctive perspective, he suggests that only by shifting our institutions and knowledge production in more profoundly public and pragmatic directions can we move beyond the ruts of both increasingly stagnant ‘critique’ and diminishing political, ecological and educational horizons. His reflections are at once richly theoretical and grounded in decades of work in political activism, civic engagement, and movements for institutional change in higher education.

Carolyn Rouse

Carolyn Rouse  

      • Princeton
        • Carolyn Rouse is a professor and chair of the Department of Anthropology at Princeton University. Her work explores the use of evidence to make particular claims about race and social inequality. She is the author of Engaged Surrender: African American Women and Islam, Uncertain Suffering: Racial Healthcare Disparities and Sickle Cell Disease and Televised Redemption: Black Religious Media and Racial Empowerment. Her manuscript Development Hubris: Adventures Trying to Save the World examines discourses of charity and development and is tied to her own project building a high school in a fishing village in Ghana. In the summer of 2016 she began studying declining white life expectancies in rural California as a follow-up to her research on racial health disparities. In addition to being an anthropologist, Rouse is also a filmmaker. She has produced, directed, and/or edited a number of documentaries including Chicks in White Satin (1994), Purification to Prozac: Treating Mental Illness in Bali (1998), and Listening as a Radical Act: World Anthropologies and the Decentering of Western Thought (2015). As an extension of her commitment and training in visual anthropology, in the summer of 2016 she created the Ethnographic Data Visualization Lab (VizE Lab) to work with students and colleagues on ways to visualize complex ethnographic data.  One project she is currently working on through the lab brings together 60 years of biological data with 60 years of social scientific data to study epigenetic effects on physical development.

        Title: Rethinking Social Justice in the 21st Century: The Case Against Reparations

        • In June 2014, celebrated social critic Ta-Nehisi Coates published a persuasive article in The Atlantic entitled "The Case for Reparations." He argues that, "Until we reckon with our compounding moral debts, America will never be whole." But, what metrics are used to quantify a moral debt? And what does it mean for a country to be whole? Repairing the past through debt repayment is a seductive concept, but reparations rely on the myth of singularity or the philosopher in Plato’s cave who unlike all others is able to comprehend an eternal truth. Ethnographic studies of reparative social justice movements, however, complicate truth claims. For example, the designation of perpetrators and victims, who owes vs. who is owed the debt, is never easy. Using the failures of international donor aid and development as a case study, this talk considers successive attempts at reparations from colonialism (a reparation for slavery) to new indigenous and sovereignty movements that attempt to link rights to allodial land titles and/or forms of cultural citizenship. This talk challenges contemporary calls for reparations by engaging the question of what it means to be human, conceived anthropologically and philosophically, in the 21st century.

Elaine Scarry

Elaine Scarry  

      • Harvard University
        • Walter M. Cabot Professor of Aesthetics and General Theory of Value; Harvard College Professor.  Her interests are beauty and its relation to justice. Mental, verbal, and material creation. Citizenship and consent. The language of physical pain. 19th-Century British Novel. 20th-Century Drama.  Some of her selected works are: Naming Thy Name (2o16); Thermonuclear Monarchy (2014), Thinking in an Emergency (2011), Rule of Law, Misrule of Men (2010), Who Defended the Country? (2003), On Beauty and Being Just (1999), Dreaming by the Book (1999), Resisting Representation (1994), The Body in Pain (1985).

        Title: Unheard Warnings: Nuclear Tyranny Requires a Sleeping Citizenry

        • Gandhi once wrote, "You can wake a man who’s asleep, but you can't wake a man who's pretending to be asleep." The United States population appears to be largely unworried about the possibility of a nuclear war, despite the fact that various experts – such as former Secretary of Defense William Perry – judge that we are currently closer to a nuclear war than at any time since the Cuban Missile Crisis. The nuclear architecture allows one person to kill many millions in a single afternoon, and to initiate an exchange of weapons that will destroy most land species on earth. This architecture can be dismantled, but only if the citizenry wakes up and demands that it be dismantled. This lecture first tries to account for the population's indifference to the possibility of nuclear war, and then goes on to show the key part this indifference plays in keeping this towering injustice in place.

Peter Bandettini



8:30 am Coffee and Arrivals
8:45 am


  • Anke Pinkert (German, UIUC)


9:00-10:30 am

Panel 2: Hacking the Future

  • Chair: Wail Hassan (Comparative & World Literature, UIUC)
  • Keynote Lecture: Elaine Scarry (Harvard University), "Unheard Warnings: Nuclear Tyranny Requires a Sleeping Citizenry"
  • Respondent: Hina Nazar (English, UIUC)


10:30-10:45 am Break
10:45-12:15 pm

Rethinking Social Justice in the 21st Century

  • Chair: Allyson Purpura (Senior Curator of Global African Art, Krannert Art Museum, UIUC)
  • Keynote Lecture: Carolyn Rouse (Princeton University), "Rethinking Social Justice in the 21st Century: The Case Against Reparations”
  • Respondent: Colleen Murphy (Law, Philosophy, & Political Science, UIUC)


12:15-12:30 pm

Happening>>>Collective Reading (Angela Baldus)

12:30-1:30 pm Lunch
1:30-1:45 pm

Happening>>>Reporters at large (Alyssa Jaje, Jennifer Jenson, Michael Ruby)

1:45-3:15 pm

Engaged Scholarship and Transformative Publics

  • Chair: Rini Bhattacharya Mehta (Comparative & World Literature, Religion, UIUC)
  • Keynote Lecture: Romand Coles (Australian Catholic University), "Engaged Scholarship and Transformative Publics in the Face of Political and Ecological Catastrophe"
  • Respondent: Melissa Orlie (Political Science, UIUC)


3:15-3:30 pm Break
3:30-4:15 pm

Public Humanities and Community

  • Chair: Dan Steward (Sociology, UIUC)
  • Undergraduate research presenters from the Education Justice Project, Odyssey Project, Public History, and Spanish in the Community 


4:15-4:30 pm Break
4:30-5:30 pm

The Humanities and Public Imagination

  • Chair: Chris Higgins (EPOL, UIUC)
  • Closing reflections from Carolyn Rouse (Princeton University), Elaine Scarry (Harvard University), and Romand Coles (Australian Catholic University)


Peter Bandettini


  • Chris Higgins, Associate Professor, EPOL

  • Anke Pinkert, Associate Professor, German