By Queenie Sukhadia

The central mission of the PublicsLab at the Graduate Center, CUNY, is to work toward transforming doctoral education to be more publicly engaged. The PublicsLab undertakes this work through various channels: by running an Andrew W. Mellon Foundation–funded program for doctoral students called the Mellon Humanities Public Fellowship program; by offering grants and fellowships to students, faculty and doctoral programs; and by sponsoring events and symposia that encourage public scholarship, among others.

A couple of months ago, I had the wonderful opportunity to sit down with Dr. Stacy Hartman, the Director of the PublicsLab, and Dr. Bianca Williams, the Faculty Lead at the PublicsLab, to talk to them about how they understand the public humanities in general and the PublicsLab as a particular node within the rich constellation of sites involved with the public humanities at CUNY. I came away both learning and unlearning how I’ve understood this term and the work being done under its aegis, and the interview below will give you an idea of how these two female scholar-activists conceptualize this field at CUNY.

How do you understand the public humanities and what does using this term specifically make available?

Dr. Stacy Hartman (SH): I have a few thoughts. Traditionally, we’ve thought about the public humanities as a sort of cultural programming of some kind. We had a lot of programming that invoked the spaces of museums, libraries, the Center for the Humanities, and these spaces themselves often had a very particular approach to the public humanities. They encouraged discussion; they encouraged people to engage with ideas in the public sphere. That was the traditional approach to the “public humanities.” I, however, am less inclined these days to talk about the public humanities and more to talk about public scholarship in general. Part of that is because I’m not sure that the word “humanities” necessarily means a lot to many people. That’s partly because much public work exists in interdisciplinary spaces that aren’t necessarily described super well by the term “humanities.”

Bianca Williams (BW): When you asked that question, my thoughts immediately went to where Stacy went. I just generally find that the borders that people try to create around the humanities, the social sciences, and so on, are less useful. I understand why, when we started having broader conversations about public humanities, it was necessary to talk about the humanities as public and to push all of us to think about how this work is useful beyond the academy, for broader audiences. But I actually think in the work that Stacy and I and other folks are doing now, sometimes the use of that frame of the “public humanities” actually works against what we’re trying to create. So, I also find myself talking more about public scholarship, even though that’s not actually the best term either, but I definitely find myself talking more about public scholarship and how it can be useful in a variety of spaces.

How do you see public scholarship fitting with activism and social change? Is it always activist? Can it be something else too?

BW: You know, I was just on a panel for ACLS talking about this. And Khalil Gibran Muhammad was pushing me a little bit. I don’t think that all public scholarship is activism, or even resistant for that matter. I do think there’s some public scholarship that is simply—and when I use that word, I don’t think it’s simple—but rather that it simply translates and communicates a variety of expertise and knowledge to multiple audiences that go beyond the academy.

I do think that a lot of the public scholarship that we focus on at the PublicsLab, and that other folks have thought about more complexly, frame it as “critical” scholarship. So basically something that considers power, that considers the question of how various kinds of dynamics disproportionately affect communities.

As such, I would probably say that most of the public scholarship that both I try to do, and that the colleagues who I engage with perform, is critical in some way, and it may or may not be activist and resistant depending on how people take it up and depending on where you use it.

SH: I would also say that public scholarship is not necessarily always about scholarship for the broadest possible public. Sometimes it means scholarship just for policy makers, for example. It’s really about who is going to take up the scholarship and use it. And I think this is also the difference between thinking about public scholarship and the public humanities. I feel like public humanities often is about reaching a very broad spectrum of people, whereas public scholarship can be far more targeted. So, for example, when working on a question that is of importance to policy makers, how do you make this work available to policy makers? How do you translate the work that you do into work that can make a difference through policy? So it might not be that the work is necessarily intended for a broad audience; it could just be that the work is intended for a non-academic audience, a different type of audience that has its own expertise around a topic.

BW: I just want to add one more thing—at least from my perspective, some of this has changed depending on time and context. The politics, the cost and the risks around some of these things has changed. And so, as I was listening to Stacy, I was just thinking: depending on which program you’re in, which discipline you’re in, which body you’re in, some of these things have different answers. In some spaces, writing a blog, or translating information for a broader audience—just because of who you are or because of how your department considers scholarship—may be a form of resistance, and in other spaces that are more open to that, that just seems like communication. Resistance is really contextual.

So, pivoting to thinking about CUNY specifically—What is the role of a public university in doing the work of the public humanities? Do you think that public humanities shifts in any significant way in the climate of austerity in which we are currently operating and, in fact, have been living with for a while?

SH: It’s complicated. Public universities have an obligation to the public that funds them. I do believe that CUNY is the university of the city of New York, so it has an obligation to serve that public, both through its teaching and its research. So that’s one way of thinking about it. The austerity measures, which have affected not just CUNY, but basically all public higher ed in the United States over the past twenty years—I think some of it is frankly because people don’t understand the work that is being done. They see the benefit of teaching, but the university has devalued its teaching. So, the university has devalued the thing that the public most values about us. And so they—the public—see the devaluing of teaching and don’t see the value of research. I think that if you’re going to ask the public to continue to support public higher ed, you have to take teaching very seriously because, as far as most people are concerned, that’s what we’re there for.

And you also have to, I think, expose the type of research that you do to people in a way that gives them some investment in it. I think that’s the hope at least—that this trend toward public scholarship will help rebuild the trust that has been lost between the university and its public.

I do think that there has been a loss of trust in both directions over the past, well, I’d say twenty years, because that’s when tuition really started to climb in places, but really starting much further back.

BW: And now I’m going to contradict myself and say that one of the few places where I do think lifting up the terms “humanities” and “social science” really does matter is at public universities. Especially in cities like New York, where the possibilities of research and having a real impact are not the same as in other spaces because of the university’s relationship with and proximity to the city. The possibilities are really endless if the work is engaging in mutually beneficial ways. And so, I think the humanities and social sciences, but really the humanities in particular, are useful and important because those are the spaces that they’re reaching and, through research, you turn learners into critical observers and participants in their communities a little differently than in the STEM fields. The humanities and social sciences become important because there is an awareness of the relationship between the university and the community and how they can mutually benefit one another.

How does the PublicsLab situate itself vis-à-vis the public humanities in terms of what it does?

SH: I think interdisciplinarity is key. It troubles these social science/humanities boundaries, and I think that’s one of its strengths. I just think that it opens up a lot of creativity; it opens up a lot of dialogue. I think the interdisciplinary space of the PublicsLab is really important.

BW: I second that this interdisciplinary/multidisciplinary space is very much a gift of the PublicsLab for everyone involved—for students, for faculty, for staff. Being able to have a space that is committed to learning and knowledge making with folks who are centered in a variety of frameworks has been really useful. I think some of it is intentional on Stacy’s and my part, but it’s also by chance that it has become this kind of space of—maybe refuge is too strong a word, but where people who feel like outsiders or somewhat alienated or marginalized have found each other and connected within this multidisciplinary/interdisciplinary space; here, there are people who want to trouble what has traditionally defined higher ed and do it differently. I don’t know that all places that are committed to doing public humanities and public scholarship have that element in them. I think that’s part of our commitment.

The last thing I’ll say is centered on emotional wellness. The PublicsLab is a space where we’re very committed to trying to make higher ed something that’s healthier, healthier and more joyful. I think that’s what both draws people to and keeps them in this space.

SH: I would also like to mention Bianca’s thing: she’s always saying, “Dream big, dream big, dream big!” This is not really a thing that people get told by their advisors. In fact, they always say “Go narrow, narrow, narrow.” So, you know, it’s a counterbalance, to being told you have to narrow, narrow, narrow. It’s like, well, actually, you know, think much bigger. And I like to think that that’s freeing for people: to have one space where they don’t have to narrow, narrow, narrow.

BW: That’s where innovation lies, really.

What are the skills and values those within the university need to cultivate in order to do effective public-facing work?

BW: There needs to be an awareness and a valuing, an affirmation, of the whole selves that people bring to their research—who they are when they leave the university and live in their communities, and the connections that they have with the folks who may not have access to the university. There really needs to be an affirmation of the whole self, of all of the kinds of politics and beliefs and passions and gifts we bring to our training and to our research. We need to avoid separating that out and perpetuating this myth of objectivity, neutrality and intellect that is somehow “rational” and not about a person’s being. A whole self is really important to me.

Also vulnerability. In doing research—literary, humanistic and social science experiments—and writing, we often fail miserably. We need to talk openly about failing and mistakes as part of the training. Also talking about our wins and failures with engaging communities—the various failures and successes that happen when we’re trying to communicate expertise across multiple publics or work alongside with and learn from multiple publics.

SH: I also think there needs to be a lot of focus on different types of communication. Graduate school trains you in a very particular type of communication, and it’s not an accessible, publicly oriented version of communication. So, ideally, if I were queen for a day, it would not be the case that people have to do this on top of their scholarly writing. I actually think that we should all be writing differently and figuring out ways to write that are both scholarly and accessible at the same time. I think that it’s possible—not everyone agrees with me, but I think it is. I would argue that communication skills in several different forms are essential­—whether that means writing, audiovisual forms of communication, social media, whatever. Communication is really key. But not in a superficial way; the communication method and content should inform each other. Communication skills that allow you to reach the people you want to reach are important, I think. A lot of the time I encounter people who really want their research to reach policy makers, for example, but it’s not communicated in a way that works for policy makers, which kind of defeats the purpose.

What are the most pressing changes doctoral curricula need to implement to help their students do more public-facing work?

BW: Some of the things that we’ve discussed with some of the programs and that we’ve tried in the PublicsLab are things like bringing practitioners in who have PhDs so that we can really benefit from not only their doctoral education training, but also the ways that they’ve applied that training in a variety of spaces. They can really teach how that knowledge works and give us a variety of different lenses and frameworks. So bringing practitioners in, but not just bringing them in on an alumni panel that’s an addition to the training or highlighting them in some supplemental way; rather, bringing them in to core theory courses and classrooms where they can contribute their expertise in the theoretical sparring that’s happening in the classroom.

Another thing is deeply reconsidering or creatively reimagining the milestones that we have laid out for doctoral education, be it comprehensive exam bibliographies or even the exam itself, for example. We need to find a variety of ways for people to communicate what they’ve learned so far. And then, of course, going into the hot spot, the dissertation itself, and reimagining that. Is a 300-page dissertation really going to allow us to understand what the student has learned throughout their training and also how they imagine themselves to be public scholars? These milestones are the best exercise we can give our students, and if that’s the best exercise that we can give, then I think there’s some deep interrogation that programs have to do around questions of cannon—who’s being thought of as the epitome of the discipline? Who are the folks who were and are still actively excluded from representing the said discipline’s greatest contributions to thinking?

I think that sometimes when we talk to faculty, in particular, they imagine that the public humanities, public scholarship and public social sciences are about how things happen out in the world—as a practitioner or application conversation—and that these above things are conversations about curriculum, they’re in-house. There’s an assumption that these two never meet when, in fact, these two things are deeply interwoven. The world we had imagined where there was some traditional way of becoming a professor that looked just like this doesn’t exist anymore, so we need to be more creative.

SH: I would say something similar to what Bianca just said. Where can programs just give folks some latitude? Sometimes it’s already in the governance documents. This is what was really interesting, in fact. Some of the people who have curriculum grants right now have found this—that there was more latitude in the governance documents than anyone had really realized because of all these departmental norms. So, when someone wants to try and do something different or unusual in either their dissertation or their exams, I always say, “Read what’s actually written down in the governance documents because that’s harder to change.” I think it’s easier if the governance document has latitude in it. Then you can go to the chair of your department or your advisor and say look, governance documents or the handbook don’t preclude me from doing this, and I would like to try it.

I think departments could loosen up some of the regulations and norms around some of this stuff. And then just, you know, support people when they want to take a risk. This is the minimum of what I would really like to see, because it still puts the onus on the student to take the risk and do the work. But if you have someone who wants to do an all-public dissertation or who wants to have podcasts or a documentary film or an exhibit as part of their dissertation—not on top of it, but actually as part of it—then there should be latitude for that, you know? All of those things seem totally reasonable to me. All of those things are knowledge production. For me, part of this is acknowledging the fact that knowledge production happens in all kinds of places and looks like all kinds of different things, and the university does not have a monopoly on knowledge production.

Personally, I feel like in disciplines like English or comparative literature, for example, where folks are working with texts, people tend to feel more constricted in terms of imagining how the work they do could be more publicly engaged. What advice would you have for people working in these disciplines? How can they make their scholarship more public facing?

SH: Coming from a literary discipline, I can say that we work with texts, but we also work with themes and big questions. Dissertation topics and literary fields can get very, very esoteric, but usually there’s some sort of question that’s driving the scholarship. You’re interested in a set of driving questions. So, for me, the question is: What are those bigger questions behind the texts that you choose to study? When you’re thinking about your work publicly, you’re probably going to think about those questions and not necessarily about the texts themselves, unless the texts happen to be a broader interest of the public for some reason.

So that’s what I would encourage people to do: think about the philosophical, historical, cultural questions that drive their work, and then think about how they can make connections between those questions and what is happening in people’s lives now.

I’ll just add that I think one way of finding those things that Stacy mentioned is to go back to yourself. What were the things that you were reading or observing or listening to, that stuck out to you in middle school and high school that even got you to consider the disciplinary field that you’re thinking about working in?

Go back to those passions and exciting questions—whatever those things are that made you even consider going to graduate school to study it—and find the cultural, philosophical, and political questions and answers that connect to that thing.

And people sometimes don’t do that because we’ve created this idea that if you’re deeply connected to your work or passionate about it, or emotional about it, or find joy in it, that that somehow makes it less intellectual. And so you see people really trying to disconnect themselves. We’ve denigrated what we call “me-search,” like centering yourself to help you find those research questions that you’re passionate about and want to answer.

Last but not least: What are your thoughts on the language of inside/outside that’s sometimes used when thinking of the public vis-à-vis the university? Is it helpful? How do we define both the public and those in the university in a way that is not reductive but also doesn’t result in an unhelpful collapse?

SH: I’ve been taking a marketing course lately. Marketers think about audience. They’re not trying to reach everybody. You want to do the same. You really want to think about who the public is and who is interested in your work. Sometimes when I would talk about jobs outside the academy, I would say pick all of the low-hanging fruit first. Start with the people who are going to have a natural inclination to be interested in what you’re doing and then move out from there. So, apply that here. If you were to go on Meetup, for example, are there people who would be interested in getting together to talk about things that are related to what you’re interested in? Do some market research—as marketers would call it—to figure out who is interested in the type of work that you’re doing and what you want to happen with that work.

I keep bringing up policy makers because I think they’re a very specific audience and I think a lot of people who do certain types of social science or scientific research feel like policy makers should be interested in what they’re doing. And sometimes they are, but sometimes they’re not. I mean, they have a lot of stuff to do besides sit around and read through academic journals day after day after day. So, how do you reach a particular audience you want to reach?

Also, in order to reach that audience, you have to first identify that audience. You have to spend some time thinking about that audience; you have to connect with that audience. As Bianca has said many times before, being an academic is more similar to being an entrepreneur than we realize. And I think part of it is thinking: “Who’s going to read my work? Who’s going to care about my work?” I think it’s very similar when you’re thinking about the public.

BW: This is a tough one for me because I get stuck. For one, I’ve learned so much from Stacy about how to trouble these terms and I think that’s not only because of what she does but her different experiences in these different knowledge-making spaces.

I think I also get stuck around this because the university is my public. The university is the site where I do my activism. And, so, I have an insular critical lens on it. Not that I don’t think that what’s happening outside is important, but I also recognize, as someone who oftentimes felt alienated and marginalized in the academy, that I was the outside that was already inside. My body was the crossing of these borders, and so it’s hard for me to find the language and articulate that experience of being like, “Yes, who I am and who I was besides being a scholar and a researcher has always been present.”

I started organizing outside of the academy because I knew that there were different costs and different types of organizing happening that weren’t happening inside higher ed. And one of the gifts of that was that the organizing I did outside with BLM made me come back to the academy and figure out what I was missing here.

I think that sometimes what we miss in these conversations around inside/outside is: Who is the best person to answer the question that you have? Sometimes it’s a person who is in X discipline, sometimes it’s a person who has a PhD, and sometimes it’s a person who is an expert in the everyday and their particular workspace that’s not in higher ed. I think sometimes we get stuck in labels in higher ed. We think that this person has this label so they must have access to this language or this knowledge. Whereas, instead, if your research question is X and you think about who the best people are to answer that question, that question will take you to a variety of spaces and it will break down that inside/outside binary idea of which experts there are in the world. Ask who’s the best person to answer the questions that you have? Who are the best people to guide you toward a career or the work you want to do in the world? And those people are in a variety of spaces that completely destroy the inside/outside binary.


Bianca Williams

Bianca C. Williams (she/her) is an Associate Professor of Anthropology and Faculty Lead of the PublicsLab at CUNY Graduate Center. She is an ethnographer of race, gender, and emotion in higher education and organizing communities, with a focus on Bla...

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...

Stacy Hartman

Stacy Hartman is the director of the PublicsLab at The Graduate Center, City University of New York. At the PublicsLab, she manages the Mellon Humanities Public Fellowship program, which trains early career graduate students in the humanities in the ...