When I was finishing my Ph.D. in English literature, I confessed to a good friend and fellow grad student, “I feel like I no longer get the purpose of our discipline. I mean, what exactly are we teaching when we teach anything in the humanities?”

Yes, I was having a small crisis of faith. But such things are hardly provocative or even new. Endless versions of “what use are the humanities?” are often laid on the table (of governing boards and finance committees) or dissected by the intelligentsia in the press, even as universities build new multi-million-dollar centers dedicated to the contentious exploration of the humanities.

With my friend, I expected the usual commiseration academics express whenever anyone raises the perennial question of who we are. I hoped for a long night of deeply intellectual conversation spanning a good millennia of ideas—exactly the kind of thing in which we had been professionally trained. I at least counted on an insight or two beyond the overplayed answer of “Critical thinking! Critical thinking!” that we humanists fall back on when deans with budget cuts demand justification for the square footage we take up on campus.

But instead she simply replied, “Then maybe you should get out.”

Why Are We Here?

And yet, as is well-known to anyone who’s ever asked the question, “Why are we here?” it is hard to simply walk away from such ponderings, to opt out, give up, or “get out.” Instead, I went deeper, even as I went sideways, away from the tenure-track and toward the trade world to try to follow the road marked “engagement” rather than head straight for the exit sign. I wanted to find the big questions the humanities challenge us to ask. And the people who could answer them.

This is what I do as the Arts and Culture editor here at Hippo. And it’s what I’ve done in the past working with the humanities core courses at The University of Chicago. It’s what I did when I started one of the earliest podcasts to bridge a gap between academia and the wider world over the subject of food. And it’s what I do for academics I coach who need encouragement and insight about their writing.

Whether I’m working with tenured professors writing their latest book, tenure-track faculty looking to write a crossover article, or grad students struggling between personal enthusiasm for a cultural artefact and the sometimes dogmatic insistence of a dissertation committee—I try to ask the big and the difficult questions. When we sit down together for the first time via the intimacy of Skype in these sessions, I ask the most difficult question of all: “Why are you writing this?” Academics almost universally tell me this question sends them into fits of agony.

If they respond “because I need it for tenure/promotion/degree” or “I was told/encouraged/invited to,” I know we’ll be in this together for awhile. If it’s “because I’m interested in it” or worse, “I don’t know, I just found this thing and wanted to write about it,” we still have a long way to go. But if the answer is “because I thought it was weird” or “it didn’t make any sense,” there’s a good chance I can help the writer get her work out there in the public arena more quickly. And when someone replies “because I want to change the way people think about…,” I’m intellectually smitten.

And that’s what I look forward to doing here at Hippo as well. Helping academic writers change the way the world thinks. And using the framework of the humanities (i.e., what it means to be human) to do it.  I want to hear what you have to say about life, love, war, peace, art, stories, the page, the stage, comedy, tragedy, food, TV, film, radio, race, gender, philosophy, poetry, poverty, monarchy, citizens, language, literature, community, identity, the past, the present, the future, the mind, the body, sex, drugs, and rock and roll. And everything  else that makes humans tick. As Hippo’s Arts and Culture editor, I’m looking for writers from the humanities (and humanities-esque social sciences like history and sociology, but not only those) who are ready to use their big ideas to make that change.

So, what’s your big idea?

Read our submission guidelines,  drop me a line at anne@hipporeads.com with your questions, or leave a comment below with your own ideas about why the humanities matter and what humanists should write about.

Feature image courtesy of Thierry Gregorius, via flickr