Queenie Sukhadia

As George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Tony McDade’s murders, among many others, at the hands of the police, ignited a raging blaze across the United States, I saw people choosing to engage with racial oppression in diverse ways. On one hand, thousands took to the streets to chant “Black Lives Matter," the masks covering their mouths unable to muffle the force of their voices; on the other, a number of allies chose quieter modes of participation. Fingers delicately touched upon the spines of books—Ibram X. Kendi’s How to Be an Antiracist and Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, among others—to understand how this taxonomy of human difference produces unequal life opportunities and to unpack how we get recruited, often unconsciously, to do the dirty work of perpetuating these systems of violence. In this climate, resources such as the #BlackLivesMatter syllabus and compiled reading lists have taken on renewed urgency, offering a virtual library for people to gather in and educate themselves, in service of more just futures.

I close my eyes and try to visualize an alternate world: one where these books not been written and where reading lists have not been painstakingly curated and disseminated by those that work with them for a living, where the concept of institutional racism is much less widely understood outside academia or those who experience it directly. I imagine how many more white (or non-Black) people would continue to go about their daily lives idly believing that George Floyd's death was warranted because they imagine that he was engaging in a criminal act, or that Black people are not being killed by the police every day, or that his being black had nothing to do with his death.

While this scene I paint embeds several assumptions I will later flag as damaging, it encodes for me the urgency of thinking and doing the public humanities––“the work of moving humanistic knowledges among people,” as Robyn Schroeder defines it. As a graduate student in an English doctoral program, I have repeatedly asked myself what purpose the university serves, broadly speaking, and then, more particularly, what the work of humanities research and scholarship is. What is it that I would like to do with my training in humanistic methods of inquiry? And every single time, I inevitably circle back to wanting to contribute my expertise to bringing about positive social change, to improving the material conditions of others in whatever way I am able. Undertaking ‘scholarship for scholarship’s sake,' while knowing that the work I do as a human rights researcher can contribute to building more equitable structures in society, feels like a shirking of responsibility. Several scholars have written about the litany of factors that call for an urgent pivoting toward public research and engaged scholarship—the circulation of fake news and a vacuum of expertise in the public sphere, questions about the relevance of a humanities education and a corresponding decline in funding for the arts and the humanities, the digital revolution leading to public opinion crystallizing around information shared on social media platforms, a precarious academic job market, and so on—but the one I find most compelling is that of a fundamental responsibility to promote social good by sharing our knowledge and skills with those who could potentially benefit from them. Further, considering how knowledge continually flows bi-directionally between the university and the ‘public’ (already an artificial binary, but helpful here in order to point to their mutual imbrication), explicitly thinking the humanities and the public together seems less like a choice and more like an injunction levied on each one of us.

The work of the public humanities demands intentionality. Moves such as making extant academic scholarship, written for fellow scholars, available in the public domain falls within a broad definition of the public humanities; however, it only pays lip service to the ethos of the movement at best. The inadequacy of these attempts at making humanities research public can be chalked up to their retrofitting quality: they imagine, conceive and execute a project for scholarly audiences and then add the public in as an afterthought. This makes research public, but it falls short of taking the public into account in any meaningful way. A deep public humanities commitment commands a radical re-haul—of our imaginations, implementation, and the systems that delimit and shape the work we do in the university.

Undertaking the work of translating academic research for the public requires constant vigilance, lest our well-oiled ivory-tower muscles take over. We must carefully attend to and incorporate the public into every aspect of the research and writing process. This begins with asking the all-important question of who our audience is. As Will Fenton astutely notes, an amorphous public refers simultaneously to everyone and no one. Specifying an audience also informs the decision of which platform is best suited to the needs of a particular project: an opinion piece in the New York Times? A podcast? YouTube? Public humanities work also requires a reevaluation of microelements that have become well-trained reflexes at this point, such as our writing styles. It is no longer tenable to write in thick, unwieldy jargon that only a few specialists in the field are familiar with; we must strike a delicate balance between more accessible lexicons and preserving the nuances of our ideas. Public-facing work also asks us to be self-reflexive; it asks us to acknowledge our limitations. Questions about our existing skillsets and the possibility of having to learn new skills to augment our public engagement efforts are imperative.

Making public engagement sustainable is not simply a matter of individual change. It requires systemic transformation. The university—including the many figures that carry out its functions, from provosts and deans to professors on students’ dissertation committees—rewards and, therefore, encourages certain kinds of work, simultaneously marking others as ‘unimportant’ and ‘unvaluable.' To truly support public humanities projects, it is important for the university to hold public-facing work, from digital dissertations to op-eds and podcasts, on par with scholarly work. This involves not simply a gestural commitment but the formal instating of procedures that recognize diverse forms of research and writing, along with a re-imagining of promotion and tenure review processes.

Besides personal and institutional change, the public humanities also ask us to reflect deeply on how we imagine the public. Contrary to the binaristic view I offered earlier, I urge us now to consider how the public and the university are not distinct spheres; in fact, the public is already part of the university. The oft-cited image of the academy as an ivory tower—disconnected and self-contained—is a carefully preserved fiction. We, those that inhabit the university as graduate students and professors, have lives beyond these academic identities, outside the university. When we teach, we interface with students who bring complex perspectives from outside the classroom into it, and then move back into the world outside. To do our research, we draw on the ‘public’ world and think about the complex histories and politics that frame it. Public activity is the engine that drives, motivates and informs our production of academic knowledge. How then, in the context of the constant traffic between the university and the ‘public,’ can we claim a rigid divide between the two? Surviving and moving past this fiction is a productive step that must be undertaken before we can do any meaningful public-facing work.

Last but not least, engaging in a radical rethinking of how we imagine the public vis-à-vis the university is crucial for steering away from what Robert Gibbs calls a ‘quasi-missionary outreach model’ that is also hierarchical. Such a model fixes the public audience we seek to engage in a position of ignorance and lack, unilaterally benefiting from our knowledge-sharing largesse. While this model is seductive, we need to intentionally step away from it toward one that centers reciprocity and exchange, one that holds the ‘public’ (as amorphous as this term is) as equal stakeholders, contributors and collaborators. Lived experience is sometimes richer than abstract theory, and these perspectives should not be dismissed as worthless because they do not come from parallel-y credentialed peers. I shall elaborate this perspective further in future posts.

Embracing a public humanities stance means opening oneself up to bidirectional engagements between the university and the public. It means being receptive to a range of interactions, expected and unexpected—teaching, listening, discussing, collaborating, even being challenged. Committing oneself to the public humanities is not simply a stance of strength and superiority; it is equally one of becoming vulnerable.

Editor's note: This essay is part of an evolving publishing neighborhood at CUNY that amplifies work in the public humanities. Please stay tuned for news from the Center for the Humanities and PublicsLab at The Graduate Center, CUNY.

References:

Gibbs, Robert. “Meeting Our Publics: A Search for the Right Questions in Public Humanities.” University of Toronto Quarterly, vol. 85, no. 4, 2016, pp. 1-5.

Contributors

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...

Media