At the University of Maine Farmington, the New Commons Project builds a space for creative discussion
Two years ago, Kristen Case was thinking about the role of a university in its community. Case, who is an associate professor of English at the University of Maine at Farmington, felt disheartened by the generally low level of engagement between universities and their communities. “[I was] feeling a little bit like we needed to do a better job making a case for the value of liberal arts, the value of universities, and the value of humanities,” she says. She was looking for a new way to connect neighbors, students, and fellow Mainers. In 2017, with a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, Case started the New Commons Project: a public humanities initiative with the goal of building a shared body of cultural works. A commons is a communally held resource, and in the New Commons Project art, literature and ideas are those resources.
The New Commons Project facilitates discussions around cultural works, which are submitted by Maine residents through video nominations. “We haven’t tried to narrowly define what a nomination can be,” says project codirector Stephen Grandchamp. “Rather, we really just try to let people nominate what’s important to them, and then examine those nominations after they’ve made their case.” A committee of faculty, students, and community members select 12 cultural works per cycle and schedule a series of events and discussions. For example, a Scarborough resident nominated HBO’s The Wire, and Case and Grandchamp coordinated with the Scarborough Public Library to host a related event there in the fall of 2018. “That was really successful, and the nominator was totally involved in that whole process, which was really great,” says Case. The lineup for the remainder of the year includes events and discussions around the canoe (Sept. 3–27), Cheryl Savageau’s Dirt Road Home (Sept. 30–Oct. 23), The Simpsons (Oct. 24–Nov. 15), and James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time (Nov. 18–Dec. 13).
Regardless of the topic, the New Commons Project is expanding cultural horizons across the state. “It’s a really important principle of the project that everybody has cultural knowledge and expertise,” says Case. “When you love something, whether it’s a song, a film, a TV show, or a novel, just by virtue of loving it and knowing it really well, you cultivate a cultural expertise around that thing.”