Branding and the Humanities: First Thoughts

This blog post is not my completed thoughts on this subject and owes a tremendous amount to a draft of an article written by Eric Kansa last fall and posted to github. I read the article, offered comments, and clearly understood nothing. NOTHING. Maybe I do now.

This past month, I’ve had a couple of opportunities to discuss public humanities projects. During these conversations the word “branding” and “brand” came up a number of times. At one point I was told, “you have your brand and I have mine” in reference to two mature and long-standing public humanities projects. In another, I had a lively and earnest discussion about how two relatively vibrant brands could work together. In both of these cases, people were well meaning, if a bit territorial, and generally used the term to describe longstanding and more-or-less focused projects that have distinct visual identities, institutional affiliations, and public expectations. For example, The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota is a brand.

I’m sure that people us the notion of “brand” in higher education and the public humanities because it offers a tidy package for the various elements of a project’s identity. I nicely designed logo and visual identity, a well articulated “boiler plate” description, and a clear set of goals work together to establish public expectations for a project. Moreover, a well-constructed brand has the opportunity to set a project apart in a crowded field of similar projects, to make it better positioned to receive funding, and even to establish a project’s professional credentials. For example, I’ve really enjoyed reading through the 1974 NASA Graphic Standards Manual, and it’s made me think a good bit about how I brand The Digital Press to ensure a consistent graphic identity. At its best, branding becomes a shorthand for establishing expectations, and it is part of what makes a public humanities project “legible” to a public saturated by brand messages.

At the same time, branding the public humanities posses problems. It is grounded in a model of knowledge production that assigns ownership or even possession to an idea or the expression of an idea. After all, a brand is literally a mark designed to show ownership. Most of us in the public humanities business are committed to setting ideas free rather than marking them as the possession of a particular institution or project. Moreover, most folks committed to public humanities are invested in various collaborative approaches to bringing the rich experiences offered by the humanities to a wider audience. These collaborations often require all parties to commit their productive energies to a project that is not entirely in their control. In other words, in a world dominated by brands, ownership, and possession, the public humanities often asks scholars to sacrifice their own priorities, goals, and work in the name of a larger project. Often a successful public humanities brand is developed on the back of a bunch of selfless volunteers.

On a larger scale, branded work and the metaphor of ownership and the market makes it harder for public humanities projects to collaborate as brands can fall into conflict. It makes it harder for public humanities projects to diversify, because brands can be diluted. It makes it harder for public humanities projects to articulate larger goals because the language of the market insists that the survival and expansion of the brand is the most important objective.

The language of branding does, of course, fit into a neoliberal view of education and the humanities where all ideas and their disciplinary manifestations are set to compete with each other to (at best) produce truth or (at worst) to capture resources and advance a particular view of the world. The rise of brands within this context serves, on the one hand, as a way to package collaborative efforts that might defy certain institutional boundaries, but, on the other hand, robs academia (and the public sphere) of the kind of inherent in the free transit of ideas, conversations, and problems.

I don’t have a solution to the problem of academic branding or branding in the humanities, but I do think that it’s a problem that requires more careful articulation moving forward. Just being conscious of how we use the term and how we think about collaboration and interaction between projects would be a start.

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