Author Archive for gracekuipers

Into the Field

I’m actually going out this weekend into the “field” this weekend, which is, for me, both proverbial and literal. The site, where I will be both working and living, is a grassy clearing in a state forest in Sonoma county. As I anticipate this trip, I’ve been thinking about the tensile relationship between the twin virtues of expectations and flexibility. Both, it seems, are necessary for any project in the field.

On the one hand, independently designed projects can be nebulous and difficult to contain without a clear set of goalposts and expectations. I’ve been a grantee for other independent projects in younger years where I’ve learned the importance of making clear to other people exactly what you need from them, lest the project fall apart because of someone else’s inability to hold up their end of the bargain. Similarly, for a self-designed project, maintaining focus can be difficult, and so I place a high value on a clearly defined set of goals from the beginning.

Still, though, every project in the field relies on the independent variable of other human beings, and a project with too many rigid expectations is also a project that is likely to be defined by its own failure. Flexibility is key. Let’s say permission to use a specific interview falls through: is there something else we can use? Or another person doesn’t deliver the research they had promised: is there time to do it ourselves? Can that be a valuable of our time?

Anyways, my point is that what I’m bringing with me is a careful assemblage of expectations, informed by months of research, writing, and thinking, enmeshed with my understanding that nothing in the field is promised. Responsibly navigating both is what, I think, can make a great project.

The Nebulous Boundaries of a Summer Checklist

This week I have been thinking about the challenges of undertaking a public humanities project for a summer and what I can realistically accomplish. While we’re all here because we believe in the importance of public scholarship, public scholarship and particularly public humanities projects can suffer from being broad, ambitious, and, at times, nebulous in scope. For this reason, I think that these kinds of projects benefit from specificity more so than other academic projects, like writing an academic article.

Partly, this relies on setting concrete goals. I have tried to be realistic with myself about what I can do for 20 hours a week, for just two months this summer. This involves a sort of check-list, which can itself be quite a bit of work. Between research, meetings, developing skills, organization, and the actual creation of material, there’s a lot to do. Helpful for this is a kind of day-by-day planning method, which needs to be flexible: I know that my goals, areas of interest, and priorities will change as I become more and more familiar with my project.

Something that makes this difficult is the ambitious aim of something like “public humanities.” While I would love to imagine that I could create a hit podcast and affiliated website that could revolutionize the way that the public thinks about art, labor, and craft and furthermore instills a sense of urgency and importance about art, I think a more helpful stance is that I will create something for a non-academic audience that is dynamic and compelling. Still, the ambition is important: as long as I have these aims, I can lay the groundwork for a project I could continue, or something that someone else could continue.

Finally, the accumulation of skills, like website design and podcast editing, is something that will stay with me beyond this seminar. I guess my point in saying all of this is that I may need to be humble about what I can do over a summer, but this time limit is itself as porous as the ambitions of the public humanities in general.

Why am I here?

I’m from an academic family. I know how to handle academics, talk to them, and understand what they’re saying, most of the time. But I have to admit, since starting to take graduate-level humanities courses, a lot of language has felt needlessly opaque, like an insider’s club of alienating discourses. Especially at a time when programs are under fire, I think this contributes to the harmful notion that the humanities are significant only within the confines of the university. 

A lot of the readings we’ve done for this class have centered around the ways in which the university is unwelcoming to a lot of people. I think that this takes shape in a lot of ways, but rewarding privileged and aloof  language for an audience of jstor subscribers certainly doesn’t attract a lot of diversity. I would wager most humanities students have had the sensation of sitting in a classroom, feeling as though they speak an entirely different language from someone else. This isn’t to say that we should do away with complex ideas, but rather that we be more aware of our audience when we communicate them. This scholarship can and should happen outside of the university. 

Art history really faces this problem. So many people have confessed to me that they don’t know what to make of “art”, and that they feel as if they’re going to be swatted away from museums. It also tends to feel like an indulgence created by the urban elite for the urban elite. I’m a part of this Mellon Public Humanities seminar for a lot of reasons but this, I think, is the main reason I’m here. The idea of making available and clear the rich story of a rural pottery workshop in a way that isn’t meant for an academic journal, but rather for the community that has lived nearby can help, I think, assert the value of art historical scholarship outside of the university.

Limning the Space of the University

A lot of the points made in the readings for this week about the neoliberal college campus (especially in the Sudbury introduction) were interestingly echoed acutely in a meeting I was at after reading them. UC Berkeley is, like many public campuses, facing a budget deficit of $150 million and the response is disproportionately affecting humanities, rather than the other “products” that the student-consumers are receiving. We are trying to organize as graduate students to resist against the budget cuts that hit education, but it also intersects with our own scholarship: for instance, teaching assistantships are almost eliminated for our department, Art History, where there is a new requirement that only courses of over 50+ students will be granted teaching assistants. Of course, non-western art history courses rarely ever attract such student enrollment, but they do attract more diverse students than the art history courses about Europe and the United States. It also recalled other points about “radical pedagogy” that was brought up in some of the introductions: teaching itself can be a form of activism, but it seems that this model for universities that treats students like consumers and universities like a business threatens that possibility.


One of the main points that surfaced throughout all of these readings and indeed, seems to be a main point of thought surrounding public scholarship, was that the University itself, and the space of the campus is an axis along which activist-scholarship defines itself, whether or not it choses to be a part of it. There seemed to be ambivalent relationships to the institution of the university and its limitations, potentials, and responsibilities.
What I had a hard time discerning, although it seemed to be a central question of all of these readings, is where activism leaves dialogue and shades into “action,” whatever that means. It’s maybe the fact that they were all introductions, which tend to provide space for questions rather than answers, but even the works they were introducing seemed to differ from traditional scholarship only in urgency: what humanities project in 2017 doesn’t revolve around questions of race, class, gender, or identity? Of course, the mode of speaking about and describing something is problematic, but it can, as we have seen, also be a form of activism in itself.