Queenie Sukhadia

As the Distributaries Writer-in-Residence and someone who cares deeply about creating pathways for exchange and collaboration between those within the university and those outside of it, I have been tirelessly scouting out predecessors—those who have struggled with the questions before me and have put writing out in the world that may serve as a guiding light. In this essay, I have curated a list, which is by no means exhaustive, of texts that have inspired and even complicated my public humanities commitments. While a handful of them have not been written specifically for public humanists, they nevertheless raise questions that are imperative to consider as one takes up this work.

Some of these texts have led me to contemplate the affective postures encouraged in the university and how they need to evolve to enable us to successfully collaborate and communicate with non-university affiliated groups; others have pressured the loose, monolithic and ossified––to the point of being entirely artificial––ways in which I heretofore conceived of the “public”. But one thing all of these texts have convinced me is that it is no longer tenable to conceive of the public humanities as vague commitments and passive desires. The public humanities are less a noun and more a verb: questioning, reflecting, deconstructing, reconstructing, retreating, ceding, and most of all, becoming (a necessarily incomplete process).


  1. Fitzpatrick, Kathleen. Generous Thinking: A Radical Approach to Saving the University. Johns Hopkins University Press, 2019.

This book is essential reading for anyone interested in public scholarship. Through it, Fitzpatrick not only elaborates the histories that have catalyzed the crisis in the humanities that we are witnessing today (in which the relevance of a humanities education to the ‘real world’ has been called into question), but she also outlines how we scholars can shift our affective orientations in ways that can facilitate fruitful, reciprocal relationships between the university and what she calls “off-campus communities”.

Fitzpatrick writes extensively about how the university has taken on a neoliberal slant, visible in the economization of university work—its evaluation in terms of the ‘value’ it adds to the economy, its encouraging of competitive individualism through tenure review processes and the inordinate emphasis it places on individual scholarly production, as well as the privatization of the university’s benefits, and correspondingly, its costs. Having laid out the conditions that have made the university so precarious, Fitzpatrick shifts to teasing out what else is possible instead. She coaxes her scholar-readers into adopting an orientation of ‘generous thinking’ in their work, as opposed to the competitive thinking the university inculcates. Several features that mark ‘generous thinking’ are: an openness to being surprised; developing a listening presence in the world, rather than one that is always primed to speak; thinking with, rather than against, texts and people; cultivating critical humility and opening oneself up to the possibility of being wrong; valuing collaboration, including that of individuals that work and live outside the university, due to the novel perspective they may bring to the table; and being perennially receptive to criticism.

Another interesting feature of Fitzpatrick’s work is her modeling of what public humanities and the “generous thinking” she advocates can look like by making her writing available online in an interactive format. Fitzpatrick has made a draft of this book available here, providing space for readers to comment on her work and think alongside her, in both supportive and critical ways. The margins of this online document are rich with conversation and collaboration, truly exemplifying how writing, often assumed to be solitary and intensely personal, can be enlivened into a public artifact.

  1. Kadi, Joanna. “Stupidity Deconstructed.” Thinking Class: Sketches from a Cultural Worker, South End Press, 1996, pp. 39-57.

In this chapter, Kadi narrates her experiences as a working-class student in the university. I offer this piece as a valuable text for thinking the public humanities for two reasons: first, Kadi mounts a shrewd critique of how the divide between the public (especially a working-class/first-generation one) and the university is manufactured and the mythologies that prop up this binary; second, by steering clear of the abstract, jargon-heavy writing the academy reifies, her chapter functions as a superlative example of how theorization can be undertaken in more ‘accessible’ narrative forms.

Kadi writes about how the university gatekeeps by making certain people feel as if they are too ‘stupid’ to inhabit it. This narrative of ‘stupidity’ is subtly circulated through various mechanisms, such as the constant use of inaccessible language in academic writing, the idea that theorization can only be undertaken in an impersonal vein and not through the lens of lived experience, and the assumption that references to university-specific concepts such as ‘postdocs’ and ‘GREs’ are commonsense for everyone and do not need to be explained. Kadi shows, in this piece, how theorizations celebrated as cutting-edge in the university are often things that communities outside the university already have an intuitive grasp of, considering they form part of their everyday experiences. However, these publics lack the cultural capital needed to make their ideas and thinking visible as academic theory. The raw material of thinking that comes from these communities is used to make scholastic careers, mirroring the ways in ways in which a capitalist factory treats its workers’ labor as a raw material, while keeping discriminatory hierarchies in place that do not locate either group as a vital and irreplaceable part of the production process. Kadi’s piece is therefore also a crucial springboard for a deep reflection on how we conceptualize the public sphere vis-à-vis the university, as we embark on public projects. Can we achieve horizontality between the two, rather than replicating an artificial and violent hierarchy?

The questions Kadi offers in this chapter should function as pit-stops we all make before we engage with the public: “Who defines smart and stupid, and why? Who misuses language and for whose benefit? Who writes theory, and why? Who does the academy serve? Can universities be transformed into places where everyone is welcome and respected?”(44).

  1. Pulido, Laura. "FAQs: Frequently (Un)Asked Questions about Being a Scholar Activist." Engaging Contradictions: Theory, Politics, and Methods of Activist Scholarship, edited by Charles R. Hale, University of California Press, 2008, 341-365.

In this article, written in the form of an open letter, Pulido draws on her own experience to answer several questions that scholars, looking to embark on/integrate activist work into their scholarly practice, might have.

While Pulido’s explications themselves are essential reading for the considerations they lay out for public humanists, it is simultaneously important to note the two implicit principles that anchor this piece. The first foundational principle driving Pulido’s open letter is that theorizing itself does not do the work of activism––it can function as the stimulus for activism, but activism demands more/different kinds of work. She invokes Ruth Wilson Gilmore to urge us to consider how oppositional work is “talk-plus-walk.” Second, to successfully walk the path of scholar-activism and balance both activities, one needs to attend to practical concerns—personal and institutional—and accordingly, make intentional decisions. Activism and scholarship cannot be meaningfully braided together without engaging in this pragmatic self-reflection, in the context of one’s relation to the university.

The questions Pulido asks novice scholar-activists to consider in this piece are the following:

How does your department or university respond to your political work?

How does one combine scholarship and activism?

What kind of scholar-activist should I be?

As a scholar-activist, how should I approach community work?

I want to be useful to the “community”. What kind of work should I do?

What kinds of ethical problems might I encounter as a scholar-activist?

  1. Christian, Barbara. “The Race for Theory.” Feminist Studies, vol. 14, no. 1, Spring 1988, pp. 67-79.

Christian writes this article as a black feminist literary scholar. I find her work to be particularly generative for the public humanities due to the relationship she elaborates between herself as a scholar and the writers whose narrative work she engages with (and who can therefore be conceived of as a public). Through her astute critique of theorizing and how it is performed in the academy, Christian is able to showcase what the alternative can look like—how one, as a scholar, can cultivate a more horizontal and respectful relationship between oneself and the publics one is working with/for.

First, Christian embarks on a radical critique of how literary scholarship is often undertaken in the university—scholars write in lexicons that occlude, rather than clarify; they appropriate writers’ narratives and develop broad, overreaching theories that corral these diverse works together and erase their nuances; they work to effectively displace the writer and center the critic.

Christian, in this piece, attempts to move away from this troubling mode of scholarship and theorizing. She hands the mic back to the authors she writes about—the ‘public’ she works with—by discussing how theorization is not her domain, exclusively, as a scholar. In fact, these writers have always been theorizing, just through narration—a form distinct from that of hegemonic Western abstraction. “How else have we managed to survive with such spiritedness the assault on our bodies, social institutions, countries, our very humanity," she asks us to consider. Black women writers, her ‘publics,' have always been theorizing in narrative form to enable their readers to make sense of their lives and material circumstances. In some ways, they have already been doing the work of the public humanities before we defined it as such.

Christian seems to suggest that, as scholars, if we wish to engage with our publics as equals, as collaborators, we have to redefine our work as that of spotlighting theirs, rather than edging them out of the frame through arcane terminology; we have to abandon our overarching, generalized theories in favor of attending to the minor intricacies and complexities of their work; we have to respond to them, promote them and decenter ourselves. This is a stance of respect, one that is imperative to cultivate before sinking into the public humanities.

  1. Hartman, Saidiya. Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2007.

In this book, Hartman theorizes about slavery and how ‘history’ is never fully past but percolates into and animates the present. She writes about how slave and stranger are proximal because of how slavery came to mean a loss of kin. She thinks deeply about how to reconstruct and remember the lives of those who were never represented in the pages of history. I mention this text here not because of the rich theorizing work it does, but as a sample of what public humanities can look like even when a public is not physically engaged, when a public is implicitly addressed. Hartman’s text is a powerful exemplar of what public scholarship, in textual form, can look like.

Hartman’s style of writing is one of the key factors that motivate me to conceive of it as an instance of public scholarship. Her writing is crisp, evocative, sensual—almost novelistic one might say. Even as it unfolds narratively, Hartman’s text cannot be indicted for a lack of scholarly rigor. She eschews the classic footnote that gestures to detailed research, but her thorough engagement with her interlocutors is nevertheless indicated in the references she pegs to particular italicized phrases at the end of the book.

Additionally, I would like to invite a reflection on how Hartman positions herself vis-à-vis her text. By refracting the text through her personal experiences—of traveling to Ghana and being called a stranger, of her grandfather telling a young Hartman about her family history or encountering her great-great grandmother in the archives in a Yale library—she situates herself multiply. Combining her life experience and personal history with archival research and historical evidence, Hartman emerges as both a researcher/scholar and a person, whose life exceeds and precedes the narrow boundaries of academic methods and modes of thinking, living, and writing.


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...