News | 12 March 2013

The Work of the Humanities Center


When I started my Ph.D. at UC Santa Cruz in 2005, I honestly had no idea that there was a thing on my campus called a humanities center. Perhaps I had seen the logo, was aware of it as an entity, but had no idea that it was there for me, and that one day it really would be a place where I could push all kinds of scholarly and career boundaries. As I began to take over a pre-existing research cluster, organize events and apply for money for conferences over the next few years, the importance and functionality of the Institute for Humanities Research on my campus became paramount to the successes of these endeavors. As I began to leave the cluster organization behind in favor of more solitary dissertation writing, I was approached by the IHR to work for them as a graduate student researcher.

I had no idea what they might want me to do. I was honestly worried they would want me to make posters and I wondered how I might get better at Photoshop real quick. Lluckily they had other things in mind. When I learned the scope of things they wanted me to do, I realized that I had been pretty unaware of what happened at the IHR. Having been neck deep in teaching and research for the better part of 6 years, I had applied to the IHR for funding and fellowships and I had worked with them on events I had put together. But I had no idea how much they had grown their budget and scope over the years, and how they planned to grow them further into the future.

Part of my humanities center education has dovetailed with my interest in the digital humanities and alternative academic careers. The summer before my GSR-ship I had gone to a Digital Humanities Summer Institute and learned text encoding (funded by a summer fellowship from the IHR) from a woman who herself championed the Alt-Ac track, and writes about it beautifully here. I realized, after much thought, that there was a connection between my scholarly desires to make the manuscripts of Emily Dickinson accessible, my love of teaching, and an emerging interest in the public humanities. All of these efforts have at their center a motivation to bring something to people that might enrich their lives.

Alternative academics and DH also filled a fair amount of my twitter stream, as did some occupy MLA controversy and dismal tenure track job search stories. The social media streams, IRL venting sessions and my new position came together to revive my excitement in academia. I could imagine a place where I could contribute to higher education in a positive way (not just as an adjunct instructor, a track I dabbled in for a few semesters to my extreme exhaustion, as well).

When I arrived on the first day of my GSRship, I was ready to explore the still unknown world of the humanities center. As I began to research funding opportunities to fill our database, I began also to research other humanities centers, curious about this linked network of funding opportunities, alt-ac jobs, humanities advocacy and event coordination. As a GSR my job description grew. I helped with events, corresponded with community members for sponsorships and in-kind donations, and wrote stories about events and scholars on our campus—things I could really imagine enjoying doing daily. I met with faculty to discuss major funding applications and gave them feedback on their proposals, researched and suggested possible collaborators and funding agencies. I attended conferences and talks with an eye towards writing about them for a wider audience, which meant thinking about public humanities in a concrete way through the tone and diction of my writing.  When we decided to switch the format of how we would alert faculty and graduate students to funding opportunities outside the university, I got to make suggestions based on the observations I made about other centers’ pages and communication systems. Unlike the sometimes slow and seemingly irrelevant work of my dissertation, these efforts affected real people and resulted in finished tasks and a sense of accomplishment a long sustained effort often withholds.

I began thinking outside of the UCSC box and imagining where else I might like to share the newly realized skills I had developed as a teacher, researcher, conference presenter and organizer, but might not have the chance to showcase in a dwindling tenure track job environment. I became a superfan of a few humanities centers, which I would like to showcase in the posts that follow.

One characteristic I find to be the most inspirational about these centers is their sense of collaboration and possibility in seemingly bleak times for the humanities, in order to address these bleak times, head on. Centers are thinking about public humanities programs to enrich their communities and ensure their faculty and graduate students’ work has relevance, and they are encouraging graduate students to think about alternative academic careers so that they might thrive post-graduation and they are finding donors to ensure they are able to grow and thrive themselves.

In the next 4 posts I will focus on the activities of the Simpson Center at the University of Washington, thePortland Center for Public Humanities at Portland Statethe Obermann Center at the University of Iowa, andthe Franklin Humanities Institute at Duke. I want to focus on how these centers are working to meet the needs of their students and faculty, as well as the communities they serve and are served by.

What does your humanities center do for you? Comments and suggestions for other centers much appreciated!

Jessica Beard is a Ph.D. student at UCSC writing a dissertation on Emily Dickinson and the archive.