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Via this series of interviews, Distributaries seeks to sketch out the contours of the public humanities ecosystem—the centers, institutes and initiatives undertaking the work of the public humanities—at the City University of New York. Apart from sharing the specific work these programs and centers do, we also wish to offer up their visions of the ‘public humanities’ as a field, and the rich ways in which the ethos of this term is realized.

This time around, I had the opportunity to speak with Dr. Katina Rogers, Co-Director of the Futures Initiative at the Graduate Center. We spoke about how she conceptualizes the public humanities and the publics it serves, how the public humanities encourage thinking about post-PhD careers more expansively, and how the Futures Initiative emphasizes collaboration—the backbone of good publicly engaged work—in the research and learning it supports.

—Queenie Sukhadia

In the time since I had the pleasure of having this conversation with Queenie Sukhadia, my own professional context has changed significantly enough that the editors and I wanted to add a brief note of context. In September 2021, after working at the Graduate Center for seven years, I left my position in order to start an independent educational consultancy. While it was a very hard decision to leave CUNY, an institution I care about deeply and where I have loved working, my hope is that I will be able to carry the lessons I learned there to institutions nationwide. This change, which I am privileged to be able to make, is also a way to pause; among other things, it gives me the flexibility to work differently and to balance my time differently, with more time available to my young kids. In this way, I am like countless others who have significantly changed their relationship to work during the Covid-19 pandemic.

At the same time, I believe this work can have a real impact on the norms and structures of humanities graduate education. I hope to be able to work with other institutions to help design and implement programs that offer the level of care and engagement that I always found true at the Futures Initiative. I am filled with anticipation to see what this new relationship to universities—and to work—yields as time goes by.

—Katina Rogers

The Seminar on Public Engagement and Collaborative Research shows the words of the Seminar's title connected by three flowing lines

Queenie Sukhadia: How do you understand the term 'public humanities'? What do you think are its limits and possibilities?

Katina Rogers: When I think about public humanities, the first question for me is always: who is the public?

I was having this conversation with others at the Graduate Education at Work in the World conference. I think that what is meant by ‘public humanities’ in a place like CUNY is often quite different than what's understood by that term in a different institution, maybe a smaller or more rural or elite institution. By its nature, CUNY has so many students and it's so deeply embedded in the fabric of New York City that a lot of the things that happen at CUNY and in CUNY classrooms might be considered public humanities in other spaces simply because they’re so deeply connected to people's lives—how they're moving through the city and what their experiences are. So, I think that there's something about public humanities work that is a question of framing, of taking what is happening in a particular space and really intentionally pulling back the curtain on that or sharing it with a group outside the university.

But really, when I think of public humanities, I think of humanities-oriented work that matters to people outside of the university. So it's really about understanding our cultural heritage and the things that make us who we are in terms of our identity—whether that's food, music, art or literature. It’s about how we understand our place in particular communities and how that identity changes in different spaces.

QS: Excellent. I think you touched a bit on this in what you just said, but can you speak a little more to CUNY’s role as a public university? What are its responsibilities to the public? How do you define this public that higher ed is supposed to serve?

KR: I think that a public university—and especially a large and distributed public university like CUNY—definitely has a responsibility to the people, which, as per CUNY’s mission, is all the people in New York City that want an education. I think the institution has to be accountable to what that means.

I think that those moments of pause, of listening and recognizing where there are opportunities to engage differently are crucial to the public humanities.

The challenge then is that the university can't do that without resources. So it’s really about: how can CUNY and other public institutions lobby and advocate for their value as a public service, as a public good, to the city and the state in order to ensure that they have enough funding to actually carry out those responsibilities? I think that that is also a place where public humanities work and other public-oriented scholarship can really play a role. The more an institution looks inward and retreats on itself to shore up its defenses and fulfill the conservative impulse to do rigorous scholarly work (with all its coded meanings), what it ends up doing is making the scholarship that much harder for people to understand. It makes it harder for that scholarship to have any kind of impact. Instead, there's a certain amount of listening that has to happen in public universities. People need to listen to their students, students need to listen to what they're hearing within their communities, and then we all need use that listening to inform the scholarship and the kinds of projects we undertake. Then it becomes, at least in theory, that much easier to advocate for why the educating and research we do really matters. So, I do think that public education is a crucial public good. It's one of the most important things that the City University of New York can offer. Yet, we've seen historically that who is served by the institution has shifted over time and not everybody is served evenly. So, again, I think that those moments of pause, of listening and recognizing where there are opportunities to engage differently are crucial to the public humanities.

That's another thing I would say—when I think of public humanities work, I think of lots of different types of knowledge and knowledge production. That's also an important part of honoring where students are coming from. To me, that seems like a humbler stance toward scholarship. There's a willingness to learn rather than to always be the expert.

QS: That’s a great segue into my next question, which centers on the public. How do you think about defining this public, naming it in specific ways, rather than leaving it to be an amorphous entity?

KR: I think that how we define the ‘public’ changes all the time—it's very contextual. So there's always value in having shorthand ways of talking about it.

When we talk about the public from an academic context, we're talking about people who are not necessarily affiliated with the university. So there's that. But I think that in terms of specific projects, it's often more valuable to think at a smaller scale. For example, project ‘X’ really matters for people who live in Brooklyn and who are interested in understanding the historical balances of the neighborhood in which they live. So, I’d suggest naming the public by thinking about people in specific places or thinking about what the characteristics are of the people that you think might be interested in a project.

The idea of the public might change when you're writing for a broadly distributed mainstream media publication, for instance. In that case, the idea of the public is a little bit more anonymous. But then there’s also a sense of who typically reads that publication. What's the general education level that that publication targets, you might ask. What are the general backgrounds of people who are likely to be interested and engaged in this publication?

For a more community-oriented project, you might want to think about the public as people who have a stake in what may come of those research results—so people who are involved in that particular cultural practice or who have had a part in whatever historical question you might be engaging with. It really depends on the context. And it has a lot to do with questions of audience and questions of stakes.

Queenie: Thank you for thatpeople are going to find these recommendations really generative, I think. The next thing I want to ask you—and you already gestured at it when you spoke about the university needing resources to do effective public-oriented work: How does public humanities and its practice shift in the climate of austerity in which we are currently operating and in fact have been for a while?

KR: Yes, it's so hard. In February, the Futures Initiative put on this conference called ‘Graduate Education at Work in the World,’ and a lot of the questions that we were engaging with over the two days of the conference had to do with public engagement. I mean, more broadly speaking, they had to do with graduate education reform, but so much of what we and the other participants were discussing really came down to why we think our work matters and how we can articulate that through different types of projects or programs.

I felt two things really stood out in many of those conversations. First, there's so much that can be done with limited resources—so much that people are already doing. There’s a lot of really incredible work that can be done without massive overhauls; it can be done within the context of a single class just by changing some of the approaches to assignments or the lens through which someone might present something. There are lots of things that can be done immediately and on a small scale.

In conditions of austerity, I think that there’s some value to saying no and setting boundaries.

At the same time, not everything can be done that way. There's a limit. And I think we’ve been feeling this very acutely for almost seven years now. There's never been a moment when it didn't feel like the budget was really on a razor's edge of sustainable and unsustainable. And yet every year it gets worse. People are stretched very thin and this creates an environment in which it’s very difficult to plan, in a hopeful way, for long-term programs and investments, because it feels like the resources for that kind of thinking can get pulled out from under you at any time. That really wears on people. So, in conditions of austerity, I think that there’s some value to saying no and setting boundaries. It’s important to recognize priorities and true urgencies—right now particularly, is a moment when some of these meetings just don't matter. Instead, people need to take care of their families and spend their time focusing on mutual aid, their neighborhoods or whatever the case might be. I believe there has to be a certain amount of trust that the lens that people are bringing into those spaces in their personal lives carries the knowledge that they’ve been working with in scholarly spaces as well. So, it's not that research stops necessarily. We can't always be extracting more from people is all.

As a program administrator, I think there's the constant challenge of really pausing and thinking: what are the limits of what we do that matter and what can be put aside for now and returned to later. For me this year, the things that I have not been willing to sacrifice have been: the conference (which was quite successful, I think, and valuable to put on in terms of providing a space where people could come together) and the weekly meetings that we have with our team. Even though that is not something that is publicly visible, I think the effects of that come through when we are able to return to a normal schedule. The value of sustaining each other in these forms will really come through then.

QS: Yes, thank you for putting on the Graduate Education at Work in the World conference. I attended several panels and found it to be really enriching. In several of the lightning talks that I attended and the keynote itself, I felt like there was a recurring theme of collaborating with external organizations to build projects that students can work on to develop transferable skills. How do you think graduate programs at CUNY might be able to take on some of this work institutionally, so that these collaborative projects with external partners aren’t just one-off endeavors that dissipate over time?

KR: I think those relationships are really difficult to build and maintain. It was great to hear from the folks at the University of Michigan and the Holocaust Museum about how they've not only built but sustained that partnership. There are examples of that work happening at the Graduate Center. There are internships that are made available through the PublicsLab and sometimes through the Career Center, and I know that the directors of those programs are really working to foster longer-term relationships with those organizations, even though right now, an internship is something where the reach is relatively limited. It's an opportunity for one or two people to go into an organization and be in an immersive workplace and then use that to inform the rest of their studies.

What was really inspiring to me about the University of Michigan's approach is that they have been able to make the Holocaust Museum and the other lab spaces that they use an extension of the classroom. They’ve found project-based work that truly serves both institutions, and I think that that takes a lot of time.

We need to work to amplify and run with energy where it exists already instead of trying to spin something up from nothing.

On one hand, a place like CUNY has tons of advantages just by nature of where we're located. And there are so many organizations around the city that do fascinating work and that have a lot to offer students. But the question is, how can those partnerships develop without being a total drain on those other organizations’ resources? A lot of times these kinds of partnerships can recreate the town and gown split, where universities are only going in and learning from these spaces or they’re going in to help with something that the organization can’t do itself. I don't think that either of those approaches is an ideal way to set up a longer-term partnership.

So, I think that the challenge again comes down to resources and long-term planning. We have to know that we will be able to offer not only this year, but next year and the year after that in order to make it worthwhile for the partner to invest. That’s one challenge. I think that time is always a challenge as well. I can see both sides of it: on CUNY’s end, people's time is spread so thin—people are juggling so many obligations; at the same time, many of those obligations are already in some of these organizations that could potentially be in partnership with a space like the Graduate Center, whether it's artists’ collectives or neighborhood organizations or whatever people are passionate about.

Maybe listening to students, again, is part of the way forward for that. We need to work to amplify and run with energy where it exists already instead of trying to spin something up from nothing. That might be a start. The resources are the other need. We can't do it without sufficient resourcing.

QS: What are some of the other themes you found coming through in the Graduate Education at Work in the World conference that resonated with you?

KR: One theme that came up over and over again had to do with burnout and supporting students. I think that burnout is felt at every level of academia, but especially among people who are in more precarious positions, which are often graduate students, adjuncts and part-time workers. Questions were asked about how to support people who are going through those feelings of burnout and are facing challenges around balance and mental health. The other thing is that those feelings are also being experienced by people at other levels of the institution. There's just nowhere that you can draw from to find enough energy to support burnout.

One thing that resonated with me is that, often, there's so much emotional work that gets connected to that kind of support, and I think that that work is really important. But often emotional work is seen as something that’s quite different from material support. A lot of the emotional work that is being provided right now could be alleviated by supporting students adequately. If we had fair labor practices for students, for adjuncts, then a lot of the challenges that we're seeing now wouldn’t be happening as much. Students would be able to finish their degrees in a time that makes sense for them; they’d be able to accomplish whatever goals that they might have, not only in their academic worlds, but in their personal worlds as well. If people weren't having to scramble to have enough money to make rent and everything else, a lot of other excellent work could get done. Their scarce psychological and emotional reserves wouldn’t be devoted to trying to earn enough money to make a living. So, material resources definitely play a big part.

Project-based work is always something that comes up in these kinds of conversations. What really seems to make the question of public engagement and public humanities click with people is actually doing something that matters to themselves and others. Some of the things that seemed most inspiring to folks was seeing the ways that it's possible to work within an existing curriculum—to maybe take one component of it and think about what the potential impact of it might be.

Additionally, there's always a lot of discussion around advising and mentorship when talking about both questions of public humanities, but also about career pathways. The impetus for a lot of these discussions has been the fact that most people do not go on after a PhD to get a tenured faculty job. And yet that is still the dominant expectation for most people coming in when they start their degree. It's the way that most programs train their students. And this is not new—it’s been happening for decades and it's getting worse. What I've heard in many conversations is that the faculty still sometimes feel at a loss as to how to advise students who want to do something different from what they did. Faculty don't feel prepared to talk to students about what their options are because they haven't experienced those options themselves. I think that that's a legitimate concern. But at the same time, I think faculty are really excellent researchers and very good at learning things. It's not impossible to have a sense of both what you know and what you don't know and how to direct students to appropriate resources for the things that are not within your realm of expertise. So, I think it’s important to help faculty see the value of mentoring clusters—existing resources/networks that have already been developed that they can point their students towards, to help students to feel a little bit less alone. All of that is really important.

Maybe the thing that's most important in all of this is just formalizing conversations about careers. It's often hard for people in academia to talk about the material conditions of our work. And where we do talk about it, it tends to be more on the precarious end of the labor spectrum. But even when we talk about tenure track faculty positions or administrative positions, there's not always a lot of discussion of what that work actually looks like and that we are doing it so that we have a salary and benefits just like everybody else who has a job. More open discussion around material conditions and where to find resources that may not be within one's own area of expertise came up as extremely important.

QS: That leads perfectly into my next question about your recent book, Putting the Humanities PhD to Work. In your book, you talk about how thinking more expansively about non-academic careers is part of the work of the public humanities and how public-facing praxis can set you up for success there. Do you think that’s something that’s become even more relevant than usual in our current moment (living in the midst of a global pandemic)?

KR: Unequivocally yes. I've seen so many students at the Graduate Center doing really deeply engaged work. So many students that I meet here are going to have such an incredible impact in whatever their area of research is, because they have that sense of engagement and why their work matters. They have a sense of commitment to a question or a community or a way of working or a way of thinking. So I do think that a public humanities orientation in one's work can help you develop lots of skills.

I talk about this in the book, but there are so many skills that people develop over the course of getting a PhD—research skills, project management skills, and more. What I think sets people up well, career-wise, from a public humanities orientation is learning how to take those skills they’ve developed and apply them in different ways. They need to develop a way of thinking along the lines of: this is the thing that I learned how to do in the classroom, that's not going to work in this context, but maybe if I tried it this other way, I can have the outcome I want. There's something in that figuring-out process that’s very much like what happens in most workplaces, where you have a set of knowledge, you have some skills, you need to do a thing that doesn't quite match either of those, but you have all of the raw materials to make that thing work.

When you're doing something that is public-facing, there's also a chance that things will go wrong. There's a chance of failure. There's a risk in that. And I think that the desire to produce something that works or that meets a need or that is valued—depending on what the project is—there's something that feels more authentic in wanting to do that really well than writing a seminar paper that might only be read by a faculty member. There's still a desire to do that well, no doubt, but I think that the sense that other people are going to see this really changes your approach.

The other thing that I think is really valuable about a lot of public humanities work is that it's not usually done by a single person. That too is something that is much more reflective of most other workplaces—you might be wanting to do one particular project, but you don't know how to do this technical piece of it, and so you work with someone who has that technical piece. Again, that process of figuring out what you can do, where you need support and how to build a team that can help you to reach the goal that you have requires learning how to work together, learning how to credit everybody's contributions. All of that happens in workplaces all the time. So I think that it sets people up well for success. Public humanities work can also put someone's name out there in a different way and help someone meet people, which I think is really important.

Yes, I do think it's more important now than ever. One thing that I've been speaking about a lot is being in New York City over the time that Covid-19 has been really active here. It has shed light on so many things that we've already known in many ways, and yet that were not necessarily visible to everyone in the same light. I think about those early months here, like March and April 2020 when the pandemic was first getting so bad in New York. I think a lot of people here experienced it as quite a traumatic time. We were still trying to understand so much about this virus, and yet, at the same time, we were already seeing really clear patterns emerge, such as it was hitting harder in communities that were poor and that were largely Black, Brown, or immigrant communities. I remember seeing speculation about why that could be—whether it’s just that some people are more susceptible to this virus. And in that moment, the kind of critique that we needed—that people like Alondra Nelson (now a cabinet appointee in the Biden administration, once the President of the Social Science Research Center)—were able to make is that this isn’t happening in a vacuum. This is connected to housing inequality that has been in place for decades, centuries even; this is connected to educational inequality; this is connected to healthcare inequality. Here are all of the foundations that we, as a nation, and we, as a city, have laid that have made it so that the effects of the pandemic are concentrated in an already vulnerable community. That, to me, is public humanities work, whether it's humanities or social sciences. That impulse to not only look at what is happening in the moment, but to understand the broader context in which something is happening and the stakes of it, matter a lot.

This is also a moment when people are really struggling. On the one hand, there are a lot of significant material needs; alongside those, I think that this has been a period of profound isolation for a lot of people. It has been a period of intense anxiety for many. And in these moments, we rely on cultural products that make up our identity. This is a moment when we need our artists. Artistic work is also deeply connected to what I see as the public humanities, and I think it's something that people really thirst for in moments of difficulty.

QS: Absolutely. I also wanted to ask you about the term ‘alt-ac’ as it’s used to think about careers outside the academy. What do you make of this term? Do you think it’s helpful for thinking expansively about careers outside the academy?

KR: This term is so funny; I talk about it in the book as well. I think this term was really useful for a time, but now it can fade away. Bethany Nowviskie, a mentor of mine, and Jason Rhody, who is a friend and colleague, coined this term on Twitter in a joking way, thinking back to old usenet forums. This term was a really helpful way of describing alternative careers then because there was a need to break away from the binary of academic and non-academic (which I don’t think serves people well). And there was this whole nebulous space of professional work that was quite scholarly and intellectual in nature, but didn’t consist of faculty positions. Alt-ac was a useful way of describing that.

What I’ve been trying to move towards when I talk about careers broadly is to emphasize the plural...

But alt-ac isn’t an aesthetically pleasing term. So, part of it is just that it doesn’t feel good to say—it’s not a pretty word. But the bigger problem is that anything that challenges the binary just becomes part of the binary over time, as it becomes more absorbed into the conversation. Now people don’t talk as much about academic and non-academic, but they talk about academic and alt-ac in the same way. And I don’t think that that’s particularly helpful either.

What I’ve been trying to move towards when I talk about careers broadly is to emphasize the plural, whether I’m talking about faculty careers or careers in business or nonprofits or whatever else. I think back to when I was a graduate student and how influential it was for me in that moment to hear someone say: it’s not just these two options, there’s actually an entire array of options, of which faculty careers are very small and very particular sites. So, I think talking about careers in a plural form is helpful.

In some ways, it also helps graduate students see that the faculty job market is honestly very strange compared to almost every other job application system and timeline. Faculty job searches tend to happen in a set way, at a set time, with a known set of materials, and that doesn’t map on to almost any other job search process. Rather than seeing the faculty job search as dominant and everything else as strange, I have been finding it reassuring to instead normalize everything else and let the faculty one stand out as being really quite odd. And then you also have to get all these letters from people before you even know if you’re a finalist—the amount of labor that it takes to put yourself out there for these positions is monumental.

QS: The last thing I wanted to talk to you about was the Futures Initiative itself. Can you tell us a little bit about what it does and how it fits into the public humanities ecosystem at the Graduate Center?

KR: My work with the Futures Initiative is definitely something that has influenced how I think about the question of who the public is. I think that’s because we're not specifically a public humanities or public scholarship space. I tend to think of the Futures Initiative as an incubator, or as one of our Graduate Fellows described it, as a think-and-do tank. We're small—a group of three to four staff members and seven to eight Graduate Fellows, depending on the year. Our goal is to develop programs that help people think about the structures of higher education in a different way.

I think of our work as being almost architectural in nature—we're thinking not so much about content, but rather—how do these systems and structures in academia work together? What are the things that have become so naturalized in an academic space, but we don't see them anywhere else anymore? And also, how can we maybe challenge those into becoming something a bit different? So, we have a lot of freedom to try new things, which has been great. We put on a lot of public programming—or at least in normal years, we do. We try to think about the entire sequence of higher education—at least in the CUNY system, from community colleges through senior colleges, graduate education and then career pathways, whether that's in the academy or elsewhere. We think a lot about how all of those systems fit together.

I think of our work as being almost architectural in nature—we're thinking not so much about content, but rather—how do these systems and structures in academia work together?

Even though we're located at the Graduate Center, we have programming that works with community college students, undergraduate students and faculty members as well. A big part of what we emphasize is collaborative learning and peer mentorship. One of the things that we're trying to work against is the sense of alienation and isolation in the academy that I think is born of a sense of competition and scarcity. We try to build community, both in small and large ways, so that people have more spaces to turn to, to work with people as co-thinkers. To that end, we have a series of team-taught courses—we offer different courses each year that bring together one faculty member from the Graduate Center and one faculty member from another CUNY college to teach an interdisciplinary course that has some focus on equity, regardless of the disciplinary content. Bringing two people together encourages both faculty members to think differently and more critically about their own pedagogical instincts, to learn from someone else and see how someone else is doing something with the same set of materials. It also enables them to have someone to talk through challenges with. This helps make the profession a little bit more collaborative.

We also have an undergraduate peer mentorship program that tries to do something similar for undergraduate students across CUNY. They become part of a cohort of anywhere between 20 to 35 people, from usually a dozen of the CUNY schools, and they talk together about the kinds of skills that they already possess and the kinds of educational trajectories that they've had. A lot of times they talk about their successes or challenges. And by talking about these things together, what often happens over the course of a meeting is that the students realize that things they've been seeing as deficits are actually strengths, and that the things that they’ve learned and experienced puts them in a position of having an incredible understanding of how these different pieces fit together and how they can reach their own goals.

As such, I think it would be fitting to say that our work is quite CUNY-focused most of the time. Our events are often public, but we really are thinking about which spaces within CUNY can be redesigned and re-imagined. The second layer of that is that we see the work of CUNY as being very much embedded in the city. And so even though bringing together this group of peer mentors or these faculty pairs isn't what I would consider to be public engagement most of the time, we anticipate that that work will have an effect on the fabric of the city.

Sometimes, I should add, there's a more direct connection to the city as well, especially in the courses that are offered. We had one course that was offered perhaps a year or a year and a half ago, on gentrification around New York City. As part of the course, the faculty members conducted a number of walking tours through neighborhoods like Sunset Park, Flushing, and so on. And at those walking tours, there were not only students, but also community organizers and journalists, and all these people had very different investments in these city spaces. I thought that that was a wonderful example of how the specialized scholarly knowledge and the deep expertise that the faculty members had was resonant with not only the students in the class, but also people who were stakeholders in the community in a myriad different ways.


Headshot of a woman with short wavy hair and fair skin, wearing glasses and earrings, with a soft smile and warm eyes.

Katina L. Rogers

Katina L. Rogers is the author of Putting the Humanities PhD to Work: Thriving in and beyond the Classroom (Duke University Press, 2020). With over a decade of experience as a researcher, administrator, and educator, Dr. Rogers consults with colleges...

Queenie Sukhadia

Writer in Residence
Queenie Sukhadia is a student in the English PhD program. Her research is focused on the act of secondary witness—how we receive the narratives of those testifying to atrocities—in global human rights literature. Through her scholarship, she explores...