FARMINGTON — What makes a great work of art or literature? In many cases, it is the work’s ability to capture some deep and resonating truth about the human experience. It’s why Henry David Thoreau’s meditation on the life well lived continues to draw readers to “Walden” more than 160 years after its publishing. Or why the cult television series “Lost” kept viewers coming back for six seasons as it dug into the flawed natures, part good, part evil, of its ever expanding cast of characters.

At a time of deep division in the country, some institutions are turning to the arts and humanities to bring people together in conversation about the fundamental qualities — and questions — that make us human.

This month, the University of Maine at Farmington announced it had received a $500,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation toward the creation of a digital commons comprising programming and discussion around 24 works of art, literature, film, video games or other forms of creation identified by Mainers as particularly meaningful at this moment in history.

The project developed out of conversations with three faculty and administrators, including university president Kathryn Foster, who, after being approached by the Mellon Foundation, found themselves ruminating on the idea of access and how to increase student and public access to experts and experiences they may not typically be exposed to. That’s when English professor and director of the project Kristin Case came up with the idea of the commons as a collection of shared works and conversations.

“A kind of early, important distinction that we talked through is that a commons is different from a canon and it’s different because it’s really shared,” Case said in an interview last week. “It’s bottom up rather than top down. It’s not a university dictating, it’s a community deciding together.”

The word commons is defined as “land or resources belonging to or affecting the whole of a community.” In this case, the commons will also include writing, conversations and reactions generated by the 24 works.


The university has already begun soliciting Mainers for suggestions on the works to be featured over the five-year project. They plan to select the first 12 works by the spring of 2018 and kick off programming that fall with the idea of covering four works every academic semester.

Those interested in participating can create simple video pitches up to four minutes long highlighting their favorite work of art and why it should be included in the series and submit it to the The New Commons Project website. For those without access to video technology, the university plans to send student videographers to libraries across the state to help record pitches. The videos will also become part of the digital collection.

“A big part of the vision is really understanding that everyone has cultural expertise,” Case said. “Students in our community and older folks in our communities and children and people outside of the university know about all kinds of stuff that we faculty at UMF know nothing about, and so I really hope it will be an exchange.”

In an announcement about the grant, Eugene Tobin, a senior program officer for Higher Education and Scholarship in the Humanities at the Mellon Foundation described how the UMF commons could spawn similar conversations around the country.

“The creation of a statewide digital ‘commons’ of artistic, cinematic, historical, literary, and musical work has the potential to become a national model for public liberal arts colleges and state humanities councils who create, share, and disseminate knowledge in behalf of the common good,” said Tobin. “We are very pleased to support this thoughtful and innovative contribution to the public humanities and the people of Maine.”

The commons team is still working out the details of the selection process. Case said the university will want to incorporate a wide variety of voices in its selections including community members outside the university. She plans to reach out to libraries and schools across the state to help spread the word about the project.


Asked what her submission would be, Case gave the nod to “Walden.” A Thoreau scholar, Case said that at the bicentennial of his birth, Thoreau’s questions about what is most important for living a good life personally and in a community may have particular resonance for people struggling to find balance and support themselves in the modern world. Were it chosen, Case and her colleagues said they could envision programming around the new national monument at Katahdin and the tensions and controversies around maintaining public access to natural spaces.

Eric Brown, UMF provost and vice president for academic affairs, said he planned to recommend the hit television show “Game of Thrones” for consideration.

“I have to begin with the premise of why is the most popular show in television right now one that utterly evacuates the moral center,” Brown said. “It is a game and a show where you can’t say for sure who you sympathize with, who’s good, who’s bad. There’s no clear line. Why is that so appealing right now?”

For her part UMF president Kathryn Foster was conflicted. She had already submitted a video advocating for “The Evolution of Cooperation,” a tome by Robert Axelrod exploring the conditions under which human beings voluntarily cooperate with one another when they are under no mandate to do so.

“He reminds us what these very simple and elegant rules are for when you would cooperate and where you wouldn’t,” Foster said. “The punchline would in part be if the relationship you have with someone is durable and if you’re going to have frequent access to that person, then he believes that cooperation would not only evolve but be sustainable.”

But by the end of the roundtable Foster wasn’t so sure about her choice. There were so many others to choose from. Good thing, Case pointed out, that there’s no limit on the number of entries you can make.

Kate McCormick — 861-9218

[email protected]

Twitter: @KateRMcCormick

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