Sritama Chatterjee is a second-year Ph.D. student at the Department of English, University of Pittsburgh. You can find her on Twitter @SritamaBarna.
When I came to the U.S.A. last year for my Ph.D., it was a moment of crisis for humanities education globally because humanities programs were getting defunded and graduate programs being shut down overnight. There has been a general sense of skepticism among the public about the purpose of universities in general and in humanities education more specifically (to be honest, it has been there for a while now). The situation got even more complex with a decline in tenure-track jobs in the humanities and the adjunctification of the university system that has become increasingly dependent on an economy of academic labor that thrives on unsustainable workload and low pay.
In such difficult times, how might we reimagine the role of the university for a public beyond the university? Is public humanities, given its scope to engage with communities outside academia, a solution to the scholarship and research that often remains insulated within the university space? On a personal note, I have had a love-hate relationship with public humanities as a discipline. This has partially got to do with the ways in which public humanities can be co-opted by the neoliberal university to foreground a particular notion of the public, in which the legitimization of what constitutes a community is defined by the university space which in turn determines the flow of funding. The question here is not of making a certain scholarly discourse available to the public, but the direction in which the conversation is taking place.
Secondly, humanities by its very nature is always already public because of its analytic focus on the human, whether in terms of individuals, communities or spaces, of which the university is an integral part, too. Therefore, what are we talking about when we use the term “public humanities”? Is it another fancy term that has come out of the invisible forces of the academic job market in the U.S.A. where administrators have to hire public humanists, as a mere token, to be able to prove that they are committed to the public? As graduate students in the humanities, how do we make our work within and beyond the academy count in a way that is not simply utilitarian but also emphasizes core values that are at the heart of a humanistic mode of inquiry? How does one negotiate the challenges of being a graduate student while being engaged in public humanities work?
Considering the location specificity of public humanities, as a discipline in the U.S.A., it is important to point out at the very outset that the global connotations of public humanities can be rich and varied. This is because one can be engaged in work that includes communities, especially collaborative work such as translation of documents that might be helpful for the community but outside the disciplinary constitution of public humanities, which is emerging to be a subfield within the U.S. academy. Therefore, although my piece includes advice that might be helpful for an academic community at large, I acknowledge its limitations because it is written from the vantage point of academics based in the U.S. academy. As an attempt to answer these questions, and thinking through the modes of activism that one might want to engage in, I spoke to Jessica FitzPatrick, currently a visiting lecturer at the University of Pittsburgh, who as a graduate student was involved in a public humanities project, housed in one of the prominent cultural institutions in the city of Pittsburgh, City of Asylum. The article also incorporates inputs from Dan Kubis, the associate director of the Humanities Center at the University of Pittsburgh, who was instrumental in starting a Public Humanities Fellows Program at the institution. Here’s what they said about the philosophy that was foundational to their approach toward public humanities, what is being looked for in a potential public humanities scholar, difficulties that might arise and how to work around it and the rewards and benefits of having self-fashioned oneself as a public humanities scholar.
Jessica FitzPatrick: For me, I came to public humanities … through my pedagogy in the classroom and beyond. I designed and piloted the class Secret Pittsburgh as a graduate student, which provided opportunities to me to take my students to field trips in the city of Pittsburgh and the ways in which spaces and people shape our cities. It was at that time, that I realized that humanities is conceived to be public in a way that is not always translatable and hence the need for putting in extra effort to make our work valuable to the communities beyond the university.
I was almost on the verge of defending my dissertation and was on the job market, when the Public Fellows Summer Program in Pittsburgh was started. As a public fellow, my primary work was to research and interview writers who were affected by Trump’s travel ban. When I was writing my dissertation on postcolonial science fiction, I was interviewing many science fiction writers, and this experience that I already had turned out to be useful during my work as a public humanities fellow. What was at the heart of my philosophy was a form of narrative activism, stories that could influence, shape and change the work. However, I had to be careful during this process because I was also working with authors who were in a particularly precarious position, and hence I had to prioritize their safety first. I feel that my work as a public humanities scholar has generated interest among the employers during my interviews on the job market because they have always wanted to know more about the specificities of the work. While on the market, it is also a question of what I can bring in to the table beyond my training in the academy.
On being asked how does one go about crafting an application for a public humanities post available to one as a graduate student, Jessica said, “The translation of skills begins right during the application stage in the form of fleshing out your CV in a way that might not always be obvious. For instance, if I mention that I taught a class, Secret Pittsburgh in my CV, that would not be adequate. The trick would be specifying what I did as an instructor for the class, which makes me eligible for the post. It is about drawing connections between your work-past and present.”
Dan Kubis: One of the ways in which one might consider understanding the "public" of public humanities are the local institutions such as libraries, museums, theaters and parks in an area and what the universities as an institution can bring in, which can contribute to the growth of these local institutions. Often these institutions require researchers to understand their position and importance in history, besides making use of the materials available at these institutions. However, they are often financially not in a position to support this kind of work, and this is the space where universities can come in to collaborate and create partnership in interesting and imaginative ways.
When I asked Dan what is being looked for in a public humanities scholar, he replied, “One thing that we take into account when evaluating an application along with the local institutions is the nature of fit and the kind of experiences that scholars have had, which make them ideal for the position. What is also considered is whether the personal research interests of the scholar feed into the public project in ways that can also be generative for the candidate. Furthermore, it is also important to for potential public humanities graduate scholars to understand what communities they belong to -- professional, personal, place-based, academic -- because that is key to understanding one’s motivations beyond the work.” He also added, “Engaging in public humanities proves to be invaluable, not only if one is pursuing an alt-ac job market, because places beyond the academy are increasingly looking for candidates who have the ability to provide reflection and broader contexts but also effective if one remains in academia through a larger connection with the world.”
If you want to feel inspired as a graduate student by the exciting public humanities work happening around us, here is a website that you may consider checking out.
Acknowledgment: Many thanks to Dan Kubis and Jessica FitzPatrick for being so generous with their time and speaking to me. I would also like to acknowledge Dibyadyuti Roy for an early conversation about the humanities being always already public.
Have you been a graduate student engaged in public humanities? What are some challenges that you faced? How did you navigate around it? We would like to hear about it. Tell us in the comments below!