The Center for the Humanities: Building Public Engagement at CUNY

Silhouettes of different busts (heads) in different colors.
encourages collaborative and creative work in the humanities at CUNY and across the city through seminars, conferences, publications and exhibitions. Free and open to the public, our programs and exhibitions aim to inspire sustained, engaged conversation and to forge an open and diverse intellectual community.

The Center for the Humanities is honored to have been awarded funding from the Andrew W Mellon Foundation to launch a multifaceted “Seminar on Public Engagement and Collaborative Research,” in Spring 2015. Developed during our strategic planning exercise in Fall 2013, this seminar is designed to consider the diverse ways the humanities can function in public life or as a public good. Indeed, the seminar seeks to expand homogeneous conceptions of the “public,” highlighting and bringing into the fold various “publics” stretching from students, to faculty, to community groups, to immigrant populations and populations of varying income levels. Bringing together faculty, students and – uniquely – civic partners, the seminar will develop public programs throughout the city and collaborate on a blueprint for future public humanities initiatives at CUNY. Through “public engagement,” the seminar will incorporate these publics in points of collaboration, open dialogue, and mutual participation.

Beginning in Spring 2015, seminar activities will be open to the public and are meant to challenge definitions of public scholarship, social engagement, and public and academic exchange. Full description is below.

Mellon Collaboration Overview

Due in large part to the generous and continual funding of the Andrew W. Mellon Seminars in the Humanities from 2001-2014, the Center for the Humanities at the Graduate Center has grown exponentially in the past decade, to become a major influence and resource for public scholarship at CUNY and around the city.

The Center was the grateful recipient of four full three-year cycles of funding from the Mellon Foundation, which provided support for twelve annual interdisciplinary seminars made up of eight faculty with course leaves from the disparate CUNY college campuses, two dissertation students from the Graduate Center, as well as two CUNY faculty leaders (who were provided with much needed full-time teaching leave). The topics of discussion for these seminars have ranged from “Family” to “Freedom” to “Poverty,” and most recently in 2013-2014, “Images and Information.”

The Mellon Seminar in the Humanities successfully promoted interdisciplinary exchange, produced a long list of dissertations, articles and books; brought together many faculty participants from across the CUNY system who went on to teach cross-disciplinary courses and to work on panels, conferences, and even co-author books together; and provoked fruitful and ongoing relationships with visiting speakers and seminar participants. These successes became a model for future interdisciplinary seminars at the Graduate Center, and the Committees on the Study of Globalization, Religion, and Science, funded by the Mellon Foundation, soon followed.

Perhaps less obviously, the Mellon Seminar in the Humanities helped to forge a new path for public scholarship at The Graduate Center, providing a thematic core for public programming based on the seminar’s inquiries. While nearly all the programs associated with the seminar reached beyond the scope of the seminar participants’ disciplines, they also extended beyond the academy, inviting artists, filmmakers, playwrights, activists and the leaders of non-governmental organizations. Programs organized by seminar participants continually sought to engage the public, and did so successfully, bringing in audiences from across the city.

As a result, the Center more than doubled its program production in the last years of the seminar, adding an exhibition space with the James Gallery and reaching out to collaborate with faculty and students on successful public programs with a widening network of cultural and community organizations. While some of these organizations were local, such as the Lower East Side Biography Project or the Asian American Writing Workshop a few blocks away, others, like Independent Curators International or Decolonizing Architecture Art Residency, forged international connections. From the immense Schomberg Center for the Research in Black Culture in Harlem to the tiny Mellow Pages Library in Bushwick, and many other institutions and individuals in between, these organizations shared their archives, experience, and knowledge with us as well as with the public.

The effect of bringing these two constituencies together has not only been to increase the enthusiasm of the participants, but also to create an intellectual community, or an “intellectual public.” This represents a turn for the Center for the Humanities: while we once served as a platform for the public intellectual, our strategic planning process reveals that we have now become a space for an intellectual public. Audience surveys from spring 2013 indicate that approximately two-thirds of the Center’s public comes from outside the CUNY system: approximately one-third are students and faculty from other institutions, while the other third are professionals from a variety of fields, with the majority in education-related fields or arts management. Of this final third, approximately half hold advanced degrees. (See Appendix C for 2013 survey results from the Center for the Humanities’ audiences.)

Each of these knowledgeable constituencies has its own diverse, local and extended publics—on its own campuses, in its own cultural institutions, community organizations, readerships, audiences, etc. By shifting its focus to sustained conversations within an engaged public, and away from efforts to serve a more general audience, the Center stands to establish a much needed platform in New York City for scholarship and practice with a community of humanists inside and outside the academy. This shift promises to expand the concept of “the public” itself, as it will activate new correspondences among a range of metropolitan programs. As we have built this community over the last five years, we are delighted to find more and more faculty and students at the Graduate Center who are already involved in some form of public humanities coming forward to express their interest in joining us. As Timothy K. Eatman has argued in his path breaking work on “engaged scholarship,” today’s MA and PhD candidates are in a prime position to advance a new humanist mode that “joins serious intellectual endeavor with a commitment to public practice and public consequence.”1  Combining the academic and the creative, this kind of scholarship connects a diverse set of organizations and practices, according to Gregory Jay, the founding Director of the Cultures and Communities Program at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.2   Scholars partner with a range of agents in the public sphere—including artists, activists, curators and media producers. Although definitions of public scholarship vary, it is clearly an inherently collaborative venture, with research being part of the process as well as the outcome.

1 Timothy K. Eatman, “Engaged Scholarship and Faculty Rewards: A National Conversation,” Diversity and Democracy 12.1 (2009): 18-19.

2 Gregory Jay, “What (Public) Good Are the (Engaged) Humanities?” Imagining America. Imagining
Amer., n.d. Web. 27 March 2014. Cited in Julie Ellison, “The New Public Humanists,” PMLA 128.2 (March 2013): 289–98.

Vision for the Future: Public Engagement and Collaborative Research

In light of the aforementioned findings, The Center for the Humanities proposes to launch a pilot “Seminar on Public Engagement and Collaborative Research” in the Spring of 2015 to consider the diverse ways the humanities can function in public life or as a public good. Bringing together faculty, students and civic leaders, the seminar would produce public programs as well as a collaborative study that would both exemplify collaborative research by scholars in the humanities and provide a blueprint for future public humanities initiatives at CUNY. Through the assistance of Digital Fellows, or Mellon-supported Ph.D. students at the Graduate Center, the seminar will likewise seek to expand these public initiatives into the digital sphere. In both physical and digital spaces, the seminar would give faculty and students an opportunity to think through definitions of public scholarship and social engagement, and to consider the ways in which this kind of humanist practice renews and changes pedagogical practices at CUNY as a whole. Through public programs and activities, the group will develop and implement models for sustainable academic and public exchange. The seminar, in other words, would consider how and if public scholarship could reinvigorate the humanities at CUNY and other urban centers across the country.


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 Supported by the CUNY Doctoral Students Council.