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February 14, 2018

David Shumway Says Pittsburgh is Ready for More Humanities

By Daniel Hirsch

David Shumway, professor of English and director of the Humanities Center at Carnegie Mellon University, wants people in Pittsburgh to engage in "smart talk about stuff that matters." That is, after all, the motto of the Pittsburgh Humanities Festival, which Shumway helped found in 2015. Back for its third year, the festival will run February 22 to March 4 and offers an impressive array of speakers and events in downtown Pittsburgh venues. Historians Nina Silber and David Blight will tackle the politics of Confederate monuments. Comic artist Ed Piskor will share insights about his massive project to compress 8000 pages of X-Men mythology into one book. Allison Rapson and Kassidy Brown, known as “We Are the XX,” will join a panel to discuss their work documenting the frontlines of the current feminist movement. And Guy Raz, host of several NPR podcasts, will make an appearance.

In advance of the festival, Shumway recently answered some questions about the festival’s goals, his vision for its future and what he’s most looking forward to.

David ShumwayHow did the Pittsburgh Humanities Festival start? What was the original spark of an idea that brought about this series of event?

The Chicago Humanities Festival, which is now more than 25 years old and has gathered hundreds of writers, thinkers and artists for an annual festival, was the original model. When I experienced it, I knew it was something that Pittsburgh, given the changing demographics of our city, could benefit from and would support. In 2012, I proposed the idea to the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, and together we produced the first festival in 2015. 

You’ve got a pretty broad range of speakers and events this year—an award-winning cartoonist, a Lou Reed biographer, an expert on autism, John and Gisele Fetterman, NPR’s Guy Raz and many more. What if anything unifies all these speakers in your mind?  

The humanities concern human kind and its works, a very broad area, and so our list of speakers is meant to reflect that breadth. The idea behind the festival is to cover a wide variety of topics, rather than to focus on just one area. But, all of the speakers share the ability to connect with audiences and all of the topics are relevant to the world we live in now.

The theme this year is “Continuum: Past, Present, Future,” what does that mean to you? Why did you select this theme for 2018?

The theme is meant to reflect the humanities' concern with the past—with history, with great works of previous eras, with ideas that were born in the past but continue to live in the present. It is also meant to include a concern with how our world is changing—how we might make a better future and how changes beyond our control might affect us.

Are there any events or speakers that you’re personally most excited about or think is particularly important in this cultural moment?

I’m personally most excited about Steve Silberman, author of “NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity. Steve is a dynamic speaker, and his message that the culture should value neurodiversity is compelling. The speaker whose topic is most important at this moment might be Corey Robin, whose book “The Reactionary Mind” has been said to have predicted the election of Trump. Kathy M. Newman from our Department of English will interview Robin.

This is the third year the festival has existed, but what comes next for the Pittsburgh Humanities Festival? How do you see it progressing over time?

This is the first annual festival, the last two having been biennial, and we are pleased to doing this every year. The last festival more than doubled the attendance at the first, and we are hoping for continued growth. We have fewer concurrent core conversations this year, so audiences will be able to attend more of the events. The festival has always been a collaboration, not just between the Humanities Center and the Cultural Trust, but also among a diverse group of other partners, including the University of Pittsburgh Humanities Center, City of Asylum, Pittsburgh Arts and Lectures, the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, and, at CMU, the Humanities Scholars Program and the Center for the Arts in Society. We hope to continue to expand our partnerships in future years to continue to bring in a diverse group of speakers who represent the pulse of the moment.

Learn More about the Pittsburgh Humanities Festival