As the Mellon Public Scholars seminar comes to a close, I feel ambivalent about the public humanities. I’m simultaneously more confident in what I can accomplish over the summer and uncertain about what it means to be a scholar outside of a university setting.
Through this seminar, I refined my understanding of how to work collaboratively and develop time-bound projects that aren’t dissertations. I have thought through how to be accountable to people besides my advisors and institutions other than a university. I’ve been able to grasp the significance of my responsibilities as EastSide Art Alliance’s evaluation consultant for a research plan on building demand for contemporary performance among East Oakland’s communities of color. An intersection of my scholarly interests, Mellon Public Scholars’ mission, and EastSide’s existing work, this project presents an opportunity to creatively parse through and synthesize our different stakes. I study racial equity and cultural production in Oakland, and though this project is unrelated to my dissertation, the research questions overlap. The complexity of defining publics has emerged as a central concern in Mellon Public Scholars, and through this project, I’m helping EastSide define their public. I see this fellowship as a professional development opportunity and now have a chance to become adept in arts administration.
As I prepare to adapt my qualitative, interpretive research skills to arts administration, I’ve become concerned about what it means to be a public humanist. Though it’s nice to have a discrete job and not think about public scholarship as an abstraction, I’m wondering if there’s a conflation between public humanities and alt-ac career trajectories. The humanities already take place outside of university settings through arts and cultural organizations. While I’m okay with not spearheading a novel summer project as a public humanist, I worry that I’m applying my hard-earned research skills to fit into jobs that already exist. If alt-ac includes any jobs besides tenure-track positions, then this new form of professionalization revolves around doctoral students being overqualified in terms formal credentials yet perceived to be lacking in job skills. Mellon Public Scholars is a crash course on reconfiguring our existing skills to be legible outside of the academy.
I’m uncertain about what it means to have a public humanities praxis. I have a new set of questions: (How) can public scholarship remedy the precarity of humanists within the neoliberal university? If “public” refers to almost anything outside of the academy, does being a public humanist mean that one is funneled into non-academic jobs? What if a “public humanist” were similar to an “independent scholar,” and what types of non-university institutions can accommodate sustained humanistic inquiry? (How) are we attaching prestige to jobs for which we are overqualified to evade the shame of not wanting to pursue tenure-track positions? These questions, which point to the limits of the neoliberal university, resonate beyond the parameters of Mellon Public Scholars