Author Archive for Stephanie Maroney

Locating Myself in the Debates

I really appreciate how the Public Scholars seminar has forefronted questions about what it means to work with/for various publics and the kinds of problematics that emerge at different scales of engagement. For me during this quarter, the class has also coincided with several conversations about bioethics in science and medicine. Early on in the quarter I felt afloat in a sea of questions, perspectives, and criticisms about 1) the role of the university and humanities PhDs at work in the world and 2) the relationship between science and society. These experiences together have sharpened, or crystallized, into a more clear understanding of where I locate myself in these debates.

Undertaking public-facing scholarship or publicly-engaged work forced me to take an ideological stand. Rather than rolling around perspectives and scenarios in my head, I can state more clearly that 1) debates about the working lives of humanities PhDs are always also debates about what the university is for and who it serves, and 2) debates about the social impact of scientific knowledge must begin with justice, and not just an ‘ethics checklist.’

[Moreover, these conversations cannot happen only in 1) the university, or 2) scientific meetings. If we are serious about engaging publics, then they should be present in these messy beginnings where we get to set the stakes, the limits, and the purpose of our research. … this is a bigger issue than I feel prepared to address at the moment – but it’s been great to have the Public Scholars seminar as a place to check in with each other as we figure out the contours of our summer projects in conversation with each of our community partners.]

I feel prepared to start working with the Center for Genetics and Society this summer – I know more where I stand, what’s important to me, and how CGS fits into those values. I appreciate that CGS is focused on justice and equity regarding new biotechnologies and I look forward to learning more about how to do work in the public interest on this topic. I bring a slew of skills as a humanities PhD, but now I feel more confident in how I fit into these complex issues about the university, the public, and science.

 

Summer’s not long enough

I had not secured a community partner before embarking on the Mellon Public Scholars program, so I put a lot of thought into selecting and making connections with the Center for Genetics and Society in just a few weeks. After much research and several conversations, I’m now thrilled to have a diverse and robust list of projects to support and develop over the summer at CGS. Unfortunately, the ‘summer’ is only two months at half-time.

On the one hand, I appreciate the structured time frame offered by the Public Scholars program (as it stands, I’m still a graduate student and summer is also for doing research, catching up on reading, writing, attending conferences/presenting papers, and revising drafts!). But, on the other, I’m so excited to work at CGS, I hope that my participation can continue in some capacity beyond August.

CGS and I determined that I will work on projects that both compliment my existing skill set and provide new research opportunities to develop my familiarity with emerging biotechnologies. The first grouping of work is around the CGS website redesign, which has over 10,000 pages of unique content to be reviewed and revised. I have experience with two massive website redesign projects, so will be able to consult on the process and update content as necessary. The second grouping of work is to research and develop a strategic workplan on CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing technology; assist with ongoing collaborative projects, including the Surrogacy360 web portal with Our Bodies Ourselves; and support the newly-hired Project Director in Race, Genetics, and Society in conceptualizing their project.

While I’m apprehensive about the short-term nature of my work with CGS, it is only on account of my wanting to be more involved as opposed to the ethical questions raised by “helicopter research.” Part of the danger of such a short time frame and working with new partners for whom you do not have a history of interaction is that the scholar might do more harm than help by taking up precious time, resources, and administrative attention in an organization – or deeply disrupting the social/material lives of the communities the scholar is working with by dropping in/out for two months of research (not including the particular kind of violence that occurs when that mere two months of research ends up becoming ‘formalized knowledge’ about that community via a published academic article).

Because CGS has an existing volunteer program (familiarity with training and managing newbies) and because most of the work is shared across several people (there are others to continue the work I start), I believe that my presence will be more helpful than harmful. Moreover, this summer will start my long engagement in public interest research around biotechnologies, and has already created promising relationships between myself and a range of actors involved in social justice and bioethics.

Why I Am Here: Thinking and Practicing the Public Humanities

I applied to be a Mellon Public Scholar in the hope that the program would provide an institutional space, a cohort, and the financial resources to both think and practice the public humanities.

My interest in the public humanities developed from my experiences as an interdisciplinary humanist in a Cultural Studies PhD program with its own genealogies of publicly-engaged scholarship, and my awareness of the changing nature of doctoral work as a result of a restricted tenure-track job market, the increasing corporatization of the university, and what feels like a glut of possibilities for careers outside of academia.

Combahee River CollectiveThinking about audiences and publics outside the university has always been part of my academic training, especially in Women and Gender Studies where “activist/academic” is a common, but contentious, title under which feminist scholars articulate their commitment to rigorous scholarship and social justice (often at the expense of university promotion and merit systems). I’ve been similarly inspired and shaped by this work in ethnic, queer, and disability studies programs. Educated in this vein of publicly engaged scholarship, I believe investment in and institutionalization of the public humanities in the age of the corporate university deserves some careful thinking through.

Personally, my desire to be a part of this program is also motivated by an existential reflection on the question, “What is my place in the world?” This question emerges from a tension at the heart of my experience as an almost-PhD—balancing pride in myself for pursuing what felt like an impossible dream as a first-generation college student with a deep sense of responsibility to do work in the world that is not just self-satisfying.

narcissusBeing a PhD student in the humanities sometimes feels like an exhaustive, narcissistic examination of oneself—my research, my reading of the text, my dissertation writing, my work in relation to the discipline, my project’s grant-worthiness, my contribution to the field of study—and much time is spent internalizing this investment in our potentiality as scholars.

Part of my excitement about the public humanities is the explicit task of connecting oneself to the world, of being put in the service of others, and doing the difficult and critical work of making connections, translations, and creating new knowledge out of collaboration. However, it is also my hope that this way of working and thinking circles back to the “academic humanities” and transforms the way we teach and fund future humanities PhDs, especially those students who actively seek connection and service with non-academic publics.

Stephanie Maroney