The Humanities for the Public Good (HPG) initiative is laying the groundwork for a new interdisciplinary, collaborative, and practice-based humanities PhD. Imagining a world transformed by humanities scholar-practitioners, we are designing a program that will support students and humanities scholars who want to connect disciplinary expertise with careers dedicated to social justice and the public good. Funded through a four-year grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and supported by the Graduate College, HPG is hosted by the Obermann Center for Advanced Studies and has been supported by an advisory board composed of faculty, academic staff, and graduate students. In this report, we provide a brief overview of our work in 2020-21.
HPG Supports New Approaches to Pedagogy and Course Design
When many of our planned events proved unsustainable during the COVID-19 pandemic, we treated that necessary pivot as a chance to reflect on the core values and purposes of our work as a team and on our aspirations for graduate education. To do so, we turned to Liberating Structures, a democratic approach to facilitation that encourages trust and collective meaning-making. We asked Liberating Structures facilitators Anna Jackson and Fisher Qua to help us develop an inclusive, equitable approach to pedagogy that could work through COVID, while also addressing our larger goal of moving toward a student-centered, justice-oriented graduate program. Ultimately, we hosted a series of virtual workshops designed to share Liberating Structures methods with faculty, staff, graduate students, and at a number of other universities, whose humanities center directors attended.
- In Summer 2020, a series of workshops imagined graduate education as embracing complexity, solving problems, and working for justice, while also exploring practices for stimulating conversation and liberating the full potential of groups.
- In Fall 2020 and Spring 2021, HPG Postdoctoral Fellow Ashley Cheyemi McNeil organized a UIowa Liberating Structures User Group which helped participants practice with LS structures and supported facilitation in classrooms, meetings, and teams across campus.
- In Summer 2021, a series of workshops encouraged participants to carry hard won knowledge from the previous year into their current arts or scholarly project and guided them through a values-driven action plan for next steps.
We held nine workshops to teach Liberating Structures methods, with over 200 people in attendance. These workshops not only laid a strong foundation for our future graduate program. They had the unexpected but powerful additional effect of transforming many spaces and communities on campus. We have heard of and been witness to Liberating Structures methods being used in undergraduate and graduate courses, faculty and staff meetings, community-engaged partnerships, and a variety of other settings to help facilitate complex conversations and decision-making. In our work with a program evaluator this fall, we hope to track and evaluate the broader impacts of our Liberating Structures training.
A commitment to equity and to culturally attuned pedagogy also informed our Course Redesign Minigrants. The goal was to inspire faculty to align courses in their departments–which our future students might wish to take–more closely with the values and objectives of HPG.
- In Fall 2020, awardees included eleven faculty across ten departments and three colleges (Liberal Arts & Sciences, Education and the Graduate College)
- In Summer 2021, awardees included seven faculty across six departments in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and the School of Social Work.
Two cohorts of faculty redesigned graduate courses to foster a more equitable, inclusive, and student-centered pedagogy. Collaboratively, they imagined not only how graduate training can prepare students for various careers, but also how graduate curriculum can be enriched by diverse voices and perspectives.
Our LS team also coached us in adapting their democratic, inclusive method to several of our major activities during the year. In January 2021, HPG Postdoctoral Fellows Ashley Cheyemi McNeil and Laura Perry co-designed and led the 2021 Obermann Graduate Institute on Engagement and the Academy. This week-long institute had taken place for nearly 15 years, but was occurring online for the first time. Liberating Structures offered ways to build community and facilitate tough, complex conversations in a virtual space. Graduate students participating in the Institute also left with LS methods in their repertoire and were able to apply them immediately to their on-campus teaching and off-campus engaged projects.
In Summer 2021, PI Teresa Mangum collaborated with Professor David Cwiertny, a hydrologist in the College of Engineering, who has a grant with similar objectives for engineering students. Together, they organized a week-long Summer Institute on Cross-Disciplinary Graduate Education. This workshop, which brought together 21 faculty members from nine colleges, also adapted Liberating Structures methods as the faculty explored future opportunities for experiential, student-centered, team-taught courses.
Coming Together in Crises, Working Groups Design Innovative Curriculum
One cornerstone of Humanities for the Public Good has always been the insights and designs emerging from HPG’s energetic and collaborative Working Groups. Over the past two years, Working Groups have explored how the humanities can be invigorated through imaginative collaborations and partnerships. We experienced a vivid, immediate demonstration of the importance of humanities social justice work when we found ourselves shifting overnight due to the COVID-19 pandemic, responding to the killing of Black Americans, and grappling with subsequent attacks on Asian American and Pacific Islander communities. As our Working Groups shifted to virtual communities, they quickly came to see how collective experiential learning offers community, strength, and purpose. Their work paved new paths for humanities graduate education and to careers that would be enriched by employees with advanced studies in the humanities.
The 2020-2021 Working Groups grounded their work in the thoughtful research of the previous year’s Advisory Board members. In the 2019-2020 academic year, the Advisory Board was organized into five Working Groups. They investigated the structural integrity of traditional humanities doctoral training, asking what parts of the degree should be sustained in an HPG degree and which parts should be reimagined. Teams of UI faculty, staff, and students researched possible building blocks of a new PhD, considering career pathways, community engagement, graduate student internships, and curriculum. They asked how courses, dissertations, and degrees might be structured in a Humanities for the Public Good PhD program. Read more about the 2019-2020 working groups and their key recommendations in this report.
While the 2019-20 year was based on investigation and research, in 2020-21 we turned to invention and design. Having seen the great success of the summer 2020 internship program, we focused on deep experiential learning options that included opportunities to work with public partners. Ultimately, we settled on the emerging model of the humanities lab. Like their counterparts in the sciences, humanities labs foreground inquiry, exploration, and collaboration. Often based on the creation or development of a specific project, humanities labs are spaces (physical or intellectual) where transdisciplinary teams convene to respond to a hypothesis or problem of importance in the world and across communities. Once again, we organized the Advisory Board into five Working Groups, asking each to design a humanities lab. We charged the groups to imagine collaborative projects based on wicked problems, including racial justice, environmental change, and pandemics. We encouraged the Working Groups to translate the best of humanities methods, subjects, and practices into the action-oriented learning a lab structure could make possible.
At key points in the design process, we learned from the work of humanities lab leaders across the U.S. and Canada. In September 2020, we began our year of design by inviting lab leaders from the University of Maryland Baltimore County, Indiana University, and Arizona State University to speak with us about the innovative work made possible by the intellectual and physical spaces of humanities labs. At our mid-year retreat, we hosted an in-depth conversation with humanities and social science lab leaders from Cornell University, Duke University, Memorial University of Canada, and the University of Michigan about how to launch humanities labs and sustain them in viable, ethical ways. Read more about these Humanities Labs here.
Working Groups considered the facets of their chosen wicked problem, identified the strengths and resources already available at the University of Iowa, and designed a lab prototype. The reflections and insights of the working groups in 2019-2020 carried forward to this year’s cohort and informed their lab designs in many ways. For instance, one group, initially brought together by the large topic of “the public good,” re-envisioned the traditional comprehensive exam as a project-based, community-engaged internship experience. The Public Good Working Group identified the comprehensive exam as an effective lever to pull to transform the nature of humanities degrees, to turn the often alienating solitude of preparing for comps into a communal project, and to support the whole person of graduate students through their program experience.
As they designed their humanities labs, members of the Working Groups considered how a degree program could be built around such collaboration and how classes and applied learning opportunities could be woven together through a lab model. We grounded our inquiry in practical questions: how would we create teams and resources; design courses; pace, fund, and complete multi-year humanities labs in collaboration with departments and campus units?
The Community-Engaged Racial Justice Working Group designed a structure for 2-year lab cycles of collaboration with a community partner around a hyper-local expression of racial justice. Realizing that “doing” community engaged racial justice work here in Iowa is a unique and complex process, this group is first co-creating a toolkit to guide this work, which will be useful for other labs and for departments and centers across campus engaged in collaborations around racial justice.
Working Groups also asserted that humanities graduate curricula could be enriched through collaborative, problem-based research made possible by these humanities labs. The Environmental Change Working Group proposed a cluster of courses at the intersections of departments, disciplines, and public engagement with, for example, climate change organizations. The projects and partnerships made possible by these courses would integrate humanities methods with scientific expertise and community approaches to understand and address environmental change.
Another group, charged to build a lab focused on racial justice, found that they shared a sense of urgency and depth of knowledge about health equity and racial disparities in medicine. Taking seriously the University of Iowa’s core institutional identities as a writing and humanities powerhouse and as the leading medical center for the state, this Health and Racial Justice Working Group is developing a range of curricular offerings to prepare humanities graduate students to collaborate actively with medical professionals as they explore the histories and complexities of medicine, health, and the medical-industrial complex. These courses and the lab itself will ideally act as bridge-builders, bringing together humanities researchers and healthcare practitioners to use their combined expertise to tackle race, gender, and class inequities in medical settings, which too often harm the most vulnerable patients.
In the spirit of a lab working environment, groups convened around open-ended questions and trusted the process of collaboration as they built their own communities this year. This form of research and inquiry felt countercultural to traditional metrics of success and helped to sustain group members during a year that asked so much and left so little room for reflection and experimentation. The Pandemics Working Group, for example, focused on Inquiry Amidst Catastrophe. Inspired by Peter Felten’s concept of Formation Mentoring Communities, the working group developed a deep and sustained mentoring structure for the HPG program, where faculty, staff, students, and community partners can gather to support and guide professional projects and goals. Living their emerging design, they prioritized the value of a stable, intentional community to support both professional and personal development.
We are deeply grateful for the insights of the 2020-2021 HPG Working Groups, for their willingness to actively design new forms of graduate education, and for their wholehearted support of one another during a turbulent year. Explore the full slide deck from our May 2021 year-end retreat here. Several of the Working Groups elected to continue working together in Summer and Fall 2021, to push forward on their existing designs and develop new forms of humanities graduate education. These Working Groups will initiate pilot courses, create toolkits intended for both public and academic audiences, connect with community partners, deepen cross-campus collaborations, and design courses to support the launch of HPG Humanities Labs in the coming years.
Graduate Internships Build Local Roots, Have a National Impact
Even as we continued to plan and develop curriculum, HPG has also launched a pilot program in experiential learning via graduate internships that has proven to be a great success and that we know will be a strong, important part of the eventual program. Led by Jennifer New, Associate Director of the Obermann Center for Advanced Studies, the HPG Graduate Summer Internship Program has connected 27 UI graduate students with ten local organizations, including theaters, nonprofits, museums, archives, and environmental organizations. We’re delighted (though not surprised!) that many internships and informational interviews over these past three years have led to job offers and other professional opportunities for HPG interns.
Interns spent two summer months working with and for a campus or community partner on a thoughtfully designed project. Students attended weekly cohort meetings to learn and practice various professionalizing skills. Via a shared writing space, they also reflected on what they learned in the field and how it applies to their individual career paths. Interns also conducted several informational interviews, to gain further insights about potential careers both on and off campuses. We are deeply grateful for the patient, creative, resourceful mentors in the internship sites who not only worked closely with the students but also taught and learned with us about the possibilities of graduate internships. This 2020 report compiled by Jennifer New shares more about previous graduate internships and lessons learned.
The internships this year demonstrated the tremendous power of bringing together humanities skills and methods with social justice work. Interns helped local arts organizations assess their programming impact and intended audiences, producing reports about the impact of virtual programming for a local theater and the art programming needs of local school districts. Another worked to understand the significance and future potential of a newly-acquired archive of over 2,000 VHS tapes for a local nonprofit. Interns were able to flex their digital skills in public-facing projects, including an interactive map, a virtual timeline of Tom Brokaw’s press passes, podcast episodes about labor strikes, video interviews with immigrant and BIPOC food producers, and a website of current and historical Black-owned businesses in Johnson County. Watch interns speak about their internship experiences here and read their blog posts here.
HPG has been excited by the growing interest in graduate internships both at University of Iowa and nationally. We know there are many looking for ways to build or expand graduate internship offerings across the country. Leonard Cassuto celebrated the HPG internship program in the Chronicle of Higher Education in an article speaking to the broader need for more programs like this one. At UI, the English and History departments partnered with the AAU and the UI Graduate College to offer virtual internships at national institutions like the Library of Congress. We have already begun exchanging ideas and learning from one another in a series of conversations between internship program directors and site partners.
HPG Program Carves Future Paths, Together
In 2021-2022, the work continues in earnest. Working Groups will actively design and test out new forms of humanities courses and trainings designed to equip graduate students to serve the public good. Workshops and events will invite the UI community and the broader public to join in conversations about reimagining graduate education. Next summer, we hope that another round of HPG internships will offer a new cohort of humanities graduate students the opportunity to sharpen their humanities skills and commitments in the service of Iowa City organizations and communities. Most importantly, the Humanities for Public Good team will work to actively engage UI departments with humanities graduate degrees in the Humanities Lab design process, in community-engaged projects, and in planning for the HPG degree.
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