In September and October of 2018, graduate students from several humanities programs, including Asian studies, classics, comparative literature, English, and Slavic, gathered for a mini-course on the non-academic applications of scholarly knowledge. Although students did read and discuss a small selection of texts about the divide between the “ivory tower” and the “real world,” this was not a typical graduate seminar. Since each student approached the course with the ambition of producing a public-facing project, we operated more as a workshop than a seminar, with the participants helping each other refine their sense of audience and develop practical paths toward implementing their vision.
We also formed a support group. With the many competing demands of graduate education and the constant pressure of having to think about one’s professional future, students often feel that their interest in public-facing documents, whether artworks, demonstrations, or publications oriented toward a general audience, are undervalued or discouraged outright. This mini-course, entitled “Reimagining Public Engagement” and supported by the Rackham Graduate School as part of the Mellon Public Humanities Initiative, was specifically designed to assist students in thinking about the ways various publics engage with the products of scholarly research. By developing a broader sense of how intelligent non-specialists absorb and use the work that originates in the research university, students were able to conceptualize their own projects with greater precision and to imagine how such projects serve them in their intellectual development, wherever their career paths ultimately take them.
Navigating these questions productively demands that we learn to recognize the many ways that professional academics contribute to popular discourses, as well as how those discourses are then fed back into scholarly inquiry. Accordingly, we explicitly rejected the popular term “alt-ac,” used to signify alternatives to an academic career. While it was a natural byproduct of our enterprise to examine how our skills and expertise could be applied outside of an academic setting, we were programmatically opposed to the notion that we ought to consider such applications as consolation prizes for those who do not land a tenure-track job. On the contrary, we quickly found that the notion that scholarly and public-facing projects cannot coexist within the same career, let alone amplify each other, is a myth, especially given the recent turn toward public engagement within the university. At least one consequence of our activity was that it gave all of us permission to pursue research directions and media that we already knew we were interested in.
This is the second time we have offered “Reimagining Public Engagement,” which reflects our department’s ongoing commitment to nurturing graduate students’ own interests and skill sets across disciplines, media, and discourses. By incubating exciting and original public-facing documents—an online game about the history of foot-binding in China; short documentary films about Syrian refugees in the United States; a collaborative translation of a novel that touches on the lead translator’s own family history—we are expanding our vision of what good humanities research can look like while also helping each other appreciate both the role our work can play in our lives and the life our work can have beyond us.