Each month, The Stone House Center for Public Humanities interviews a humanities scholar or community member and asks them everything from why they believe the humanities are important to what they're currently binge-watching. We hope that our new blog series, Coffee & Questions, will inspire you, introduce you to a variety of people and fields, as well as create new conversations.
Our guest this month is Shawn Francis Peters, author of five works of nonfiction, including the forthcoming The Infamous Harry Hayward: A True Account of Murder and Mesmerism in Gilded Age Minneapolis (University of Minnesota Press). He teaches in the Integrated Liberal Studies Program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
What are you currently binge-watching?
I'm obsessed with The Crown (Netflix) and Wormwood (Netflix). The latter is directed by the great documentarian Errol Morris, whose work I have long admired. (Side note: Morris in a humanities guy, having majored in history at UW-Madison, where I teach.) I'm not even sure how I would describe the narrative, which centers on the mysterious death of a government researcher in the early 1950s. It's part documentary, part fictionalization, and part experimental art film. Whatever the label, it's brilliant, as is typical of Morris' work.
What projects are you currently working on?
I'm putting the finishing touches on a book about Harry Hayward, an infamous playboy criminal who lived in Minneapolis in the 1890s. Hayward was at the center of a notorious murder plot involving a young dressmaker, and his trial was a national sensation in 1895. The book is coming out in April from University of Minnesota Press, and I'm excited about sharing Hayward's sordid story with a broad audience. I'm also finishing up a book on homeschooling with James Dwyer, who teaches in the William & Mary Law School. When I get those out of the way, I'm diving into a book project about an armed standoff in Wisconsin in the early 1900s.
Why do you believe that the humanities are important to everyone, and not just people in academia?
The humanities matter to everyone because they speak to the core of our experiences as humans. Works of history or literature (the fields that I'm most familiar with) grapple with the profound and complex issues that shape our public and private lives -- things like ethics, the meaning of the past, or what it means to live a meaningful life. Sure, academics can and do pick those things apart, but everyone faces them. It's thus vitally important that we expand the reach of discussions about the humanities and give a wide variety of audiences exposure to them. These exchanges can't be limited to the academy.
What inspires you in your current position/role?
Curiosity, mainly! I teach interdisciplinary humanities courses in the Integrated Liberal Studies (ILS) Program at UW-Madison, and in them I work with students in exploring things like practices and traditions of remix and appropriation. We ask such questions as, "What does it mean to sample something in an artistic work?" and "Can anyone ever be truly original?" I find those issues to be endlessly fascinating, and I'm always learning more about them by working with my students. The same holds true with my search -- I'm curious, and I like organizing clear, compelling narratives from a tangle of different sources.
Check back next month for more Coffee & Questions. In case you missed our previous interview with Margaret Hewitt, Special Collections Librarian at the Butler Area Public Library, click HERE.
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