Introducing the UC Davis Mellon Public Scholars Program

Blog Home    |     03.04.2016 by     |    

Rachel Reeves

Across the country, humanities institutes are offering graduate students an opportunity to speak to the relationship between universities and their communities through public scholarship. Now’s the time for UC Davis to join the conversation.

We at the UC Davis Humanities Institute are excited to be launching the Mellon Public Scholars Program to address two related goals: to support community-engaged scholarship on campus and broaden the training and career opportunities for our PhD students.

UC Davis has a long history of addressing critical problems in our society. It was, in fact, after we had received the Community Engagement Classification from the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of teaching that it became clear that we in the humanities and social sciences needed to reinforce the infrastructure to support such work, including graduate training. Meanwhile, for push and pull reasons, our PhD students think more and more broadly about their career trajectories and subsequently seek out diverse career experiences.

We had many models to draw from in developing the Public Scholars program. Since 2005, University of Wisconsin – Madison’s Public Humanities Exchange (HEX) has supported a select number of graduate student projects “outside the boundaries of academia.” HEX supports an hour per week of direct engagement with the community partner and a monthly workshop in which students share the excitement and tensions that arise in the course of their projects. The Obermann Institute for Advanced Study at the University of Iowa offers graduate students one- and three-week seminars on public engagement, during which students discuss theories of engaged scholarship and create a cohort of like-minded colleagues and mentors. At the end of these seminars, students present early plans for engaged projects. Brown University offers a master’s degree in public humanities that they have made available to their American Studies PhD students. Their curriculum includes courses in the theory of public humanities as well as hands-on learning opportunities.

All of these programs have in common a thoughtful combination of classroom and experiential learning to fulfill both needs: to strengthen and support public humanities or community-engaged research and diversify the career opportunities of our graduate students.

The Davis Humanities Institute’s Public Scholars Program draws on each of these successful models and adapts them to our unique strengths and needs. Our faculty-led seminar in spring introduces ten selected fellows to the intellectual and practical aspects of public scholarship. This seminar will include a number of guest speakers who demonstrate public humanities at work. With the guidance of the seminar leaders, their peers, and faculty mentors who receive research funds for their help, the fellows develop a collaborative project with a community partner. The Humanities Institute then supports the student for two months of intensive work experience with their community partner carrying out their project over the summer.

By combining an intensive seminar, training and planning period with a meaningful internship experience, our program offers students the theory, demonstration, and application of public scholarship. By including one-on-one faculty mentorship in to the programs design, we can create interdisciplinary research connections for students’ beyond their department and build on the engaged scholarship already happening at UC Davis. Our two-credit springtime seminar and summer project were designed to provide valuable exposure and work experience that can be integrated into the way we are already training graduate students in the humanities.

The very infrastructure of the program speaks to the needs of early-career humanities scholars – they hired me as their program manager as I was finishing my PhD in history, putting real trust and funding behind the claims that skills developed during a graduate program are valuable. The seminar leaders, staff, guest speakers, faculty mentors, community partners, and fellow public scholars themselves make up the beginnings of a powerful professional network upon which students can draw long after their fellowship is complete. On a larger scale, such relationships strengthen the university’s ties to our community and enhance the public profile of the humanities.

The overwhelming enthusiasm that has greeted this program demonstrates the demand for innovative graduate education that combines a commitment to rigorous scholarship with professional development for doctoral students. UC Davis graduate students filled our information sessions beyond capacity, dozens personally approached our Associate Director Molly McCarthy and myself for more information, and over sixty applied for the ten positions.

UC Davis faculty have offered their encouragement, insights, reading lists, community connections, and service on the program’s advisory board and selection committee. Community organizations have leapt at the opportunity to partner with humanities doctoral student researchers, including Yolo County Food Bank, the Stewards of the Coast and Redwoods, the California Energy Commission, Academics Without Borders USA, and the Sierra Health Foundation. Their enthusiasm signals the wealth of opportunity for humanities graduate students as close as we are to both Sacramento and the Bay Area.

But the UC Davis Public Scholars Program will also have an impact on graduate students across the UC system thanks to a grant sponsored by the UC Humanities Research Institute. In addition to the ten Public Scholars selected from UC Davis, the program will be joined by eight students from every other UC campus, except UCSF, who were selected by their humanities centers and institutes. After participating in the spring seminar, these other UC students will work with community organizations in their own areas.

This is a dynamic and developing program, and we welcome your feedback. Watch this space for further discussion about the promise and possibilities of public scholarship.