Graduate Institute on Engagement and the Academy Meets the Moment

Supporting the next generation of graduate students is at the heart of Humanities for the Public Good. That’s one reason why it was such a natural fit for our two HPG postdoctoral fellows, Ashley Cheyemi McNeil and Laura Perry, to take the lead on designing and co-directing the 2021 Obermann Graduate Institute on Engagement and the Academy this January. They describe their experience designing and facilitating this year’s Institute, including navigating—by necessity—an Institute occurring online for the first time.

Growing out of a shared sense of purpose and shaped by our team’s long-standing core values, the Obermann Graduate Institute is one part of the thriving Iowa landscape in which the ecosystem of Humanities for the Public Good is putting down roots. Each January, fifteen graduate students from disparate disciplines gather together to delve into their shared commitments to engagement and learn from one another as well as visiting speakers and their co-directors. During the institute, students hone their understandings of public engagement by considering foundational and cutting-edge practices in engaged scholarship, teaching, and advocacy.

This year’s institute benefited immensely from the collective wisdom of the invited speakers, who included Erica Kohl-Arenas of Imagining America and University of California-Davis, Mallory Hellman and Emily Spencer of the Iowa Youth Writing Project, HPG Advisory Board member Victoria Burns, Carrie Schuettpelz of University of Iowa, and Tamara Marcus of Linn County and Advocates for Social Justice. They spoke with graduate students about the many complexities of engaged work, including the ethics of campus-community partnerships, the nitty-gritty of how a nonprofit operates, and the challenges of being both an activist and academic. We are tremendously grateful to them for their insights and for leading by example in their own commitments to building a better and more just world.

Figuring out how to make the Graduate Institute successful as an entirely virtual event during the pandemic was a grand experiment of design. How could we build community and trust between participants in a virtual space, to allow us to have the deep and tricky conversations demanded by our topics? How could we combat Zoom fatigue and provide asynchronous options for those managing new care-taking responsibilities and upended schedules? How could we design a virtual experience to uplift and support these graduate students, even as we challenged them to rethink and redesign their projects? How could we anticipate the curveballs that this year would inevitably fling our way?  

Our priorities for the Institute were safety, community, energy, and reciprocity. We built the 2021 Institute by holding each design decision up to those values. We also benefited from critical guidance from the Institute’s co-founder and Obermann Center Associate Director, Jennifer New, at each step of the way. “Zoomifying” what in years past has been 3-4 full days in person helped establish our parameters of convening:

Every Fellow had at least a wisp of an idea of a community-engaged project they wanted to pursue. Before the start of the Institute, Fellows chose one of three different approaches to conceptualizing their project: an outreach letter to a potential community partner, a video or audio trailer of the proposed project, or a map representing the relationships between key partners and aspects of their proposed project. Over the first three days of the Institute, Fellows revised their assignment as they developed their ideas during our sessions, most refining their design to incorporate and reflect deep reciprocity with their real or imagined community partner.

During our first three morning sessions, we introduced and explored each day’s focus (Research + Narrative; Teaching + Facilitation; Policy + Advocacy). In the afternoon sessions, we invited guests from our local Iowa City corridor community, peer institutions, and past Grad Institutes to share their experiences and engage with the Fellows around the day’s focus. On the fourth day, we invited experienced and enthusiastic faculty and staff from across University of Iowa’s campus to offer feedback to this year’s Fellows and help brainstorm next steps as the graduate students looked forward to the possible future pathways of their engaged careers.

Throughout the institute, to build and prioritize community within the cohort, we incorporated ample time for Fellows to break out with consistent partners to process the day’s theme, readings, assignment revisions, and debrief what was coming up for them. We also worked to model inventive and lively convening structures so that the Fellows would have additional facilitation and collaboration tools in their repertoire (including many learned from our sessions with consultants Anna Jackson and Fisher Qua of Liberating Structures). To allow Fellows to harvest ideas and invitations from this Institute, we created a collective and comprehensive slide deck with our accumulated invitations, readings, and reflections. A modified and anonymized version is available here

Four days before the Institute began, a violent insurrection at our nation’s capital knocked the wind out of us. We expected that at least a couple Fellows would pull out of the institute or not show; and those that could still show up, we imagined, would be on a rollercoaster of emotions, pulled a hundred directions away from the topic at hand for the institute. But we were wrong. Despite the worry and sadness that defined January, all fifteen Fellows showed up the morning of the first day with open minds and hearts. And though there were certainly myriad and compounding forces trying to pull us apart, those forces didn’t hold a candle to the commitment to community and engaged work through which each Fellow resolutely anchored themselves and each other. The 2021 Graduate Institute Fellows exceeded our expectations in every way. To those of them who read this, never forget: we’re pulling for you!