Public Scholars Launch Event

On Monday, March 7th, the UC Davis Humanities Institute launched the Mellon Public Scholars program with a vibrant roundtable discussion titled the “Humanities Engaged” on the work of the public humanities and a keynote address by Sara Guyer, Professor of English and Director of the Center for the Humanities at University of Wisconsin-Madison.


Roundtable panelists

View the Launch Videos

The day was filled with valuable advice, careful cautioning, and attentiveness to the particular problems of both community-engaged research and public humanities work. The roundtable and keynote stressed that publicly-engaged humanists must be attentive to the “ripples” of their work, to the “Questions That Won’t Go Away” (QTWGAs) in their community engagement, and to the “learning in failure” that is part of the process of building long-term and meaningful relationships with a range of publics.

The Problems of Making Publics and Measuring Engagement


Chet Hewitt

The panel discussion, moderated by UC Davis Professor of English John Marx, featured Julie Fry (CEO & President, California Humanities), Chet Hewitt (CEO, Sierra Health Foundation), Natalia Deeb-Sossa (Associate Professor, Chicana/o Studies, UC Davis), Jonathan London (Director, Center for Regional Change, UC Davis), and Brett Snyder (Assistant Professor, Design, UC Davis) in conversation about the content, outcomes, and failures of publicly-engaged work.

Marx challenged the panelists to articulate what constitutes a “public” and how that changes the different scales of engagement. Hewitt explained that the Sierra Health Foundation interacts with a range of publics in working towards the goal of equitable care.

“Thinking about the public good through scholarship is complex, and we should be challenged to think through the public, not as a singular entity,” Hewitt said.


Julie Fry


Natalia Deeb-Sossa

Natalia Deeb-Sossa situated her response by drawing examples from her community-based participatory research project with farmworkers in Knights Landing, CA. “The purpose of my research is guided by the intent, and the intent is based on who I am, on my desire to give voice to the voiceless and marginalized,” Deeb-Sossa explained. For her, the public was a real community of people with whom she has fostered a long-term, multi-faceted, and deeply personal commitment.

Questions about metrics and outcomes rose to the forefront as panelists discussed the impact of their work, but all were careful to explain that publicly-engaged work cannot be assessed only in quantitative terms; rather, “the public humanities is a long-term engagement that is very hard to measure,” Julie Fry said. “It is about changing how we think about the world and relate to one another. How do we know when we get there?”

Jonathan London

Drawing from the example of his Healthy Youth/Healthy Regions Initiative, Jonathan London described an “ecosystem of outcomes” involving multiple groups across youths, policymakers, and philanthropists who all have different needs for the project. London encouraged the Public Scholars in the audience to be attentive to “the ripples” that result from their work with organizations and communities as a way to think about outcomes and impacts.

Scholars in attendance were encouraged to “tap into” existing projects rather than feel that every engagement must start at the beginning with every community. Because, London advised, “community engagement never ends and doesn’t start with you alone.”

Success is measured in how you “made progress toward understanding complexity,” Chet Hewitt added. “You’re smarter, better informed, and you leave possibility for those who come after you.”

The Humanities of Tomorrow and Today

In her keynote address, Sara Guyer related the “ripples” to what she calls the “multiplyer effects” of public humanities work to reach outside the zones we originally think of as “engaged research” locales, including the university itself.

Guyer and Biale (2)

Sara Guyer, with David Biale

The “Humanities of Tomorrow,” Guyer said, “relies upon us giving up the distinction between the academic and the public humanities.” The humanities are already engaged, as has always been happening in fields like ethnic studies, women and gender studies, and queer studies.

Drawing examples from the Public Humanities Exchange program at University of Wisconsin-Madison, Guyer offered lessons and charges for public humanities work.  In the “Humanities of Today,” Guyer discussed how publicly-engaged work experience for humanities PhDs is excellent training for careers outside and inside academia.

“When our fellows go on to get academic jobs, they are trained to communicate how a degree in the humanities fits into our culture. They’ve become the best conduit between the world that exists within and outside the university,” Guyer said.

The charge for public humanities is to continue to find more opportunities and strategies for building alliances with communities, publics, and organizations beyond singular projects. And in so doing, Guyer warns, we must stay rigorous. Rigorous research is arguably more important for non-academic track graduate students, because their work will have greater exposure in communicating the value of the humanities.

“Have rigorous expectations of the organization with which you work, and rigorous expectations of yourself,” Guyer offered to the scholars in attendance, lest we public humanists slip into the role of mere “storyteller” or “translator,” uncritical of how language, knowledge, and power shape the work we do.

Mellon Public Scholars at Davis and the UC System


Chelsea Escalante

Barua and McCullough

Trisha Barua

In addition to the UC Davis Public Scholars, the launch event welcomed five scholars from other UCs, including Maggie Bell, UC Santa Barbara (History of Art and Architecture), Michelle Brewster, UC Irvine (History), Yessica Garcia, UC San Diego (Ethnic Studies), Savannah Kilner, UCLA (Gender Studies), and Emma Silverman, UC Berkeley (History of Art). A 2015-16 Humanities Center Collaboration grant from the UC Humanities Research Institute made it possible for eight fellows from every other UC (except UCSF) to work with community organizations in their own areas over the summer and participate in the spring 2016 Public Scholars seminar.


Cinthya Ammerman & Maggie Bell

UCSD and UCI scholars

Yessica Garcia & Michelle Brewster

The spring 2016 course will be co-taught by John Marx and DHI Associate Director Molly McCarthy. Rachel Reeves, Public Scholars Program Manager, explained that the course syllabus will be devoted to exploring the intellectual questions and foundations of public scholarship and developing skills necessary to carry out work in the summer.

The skills and demonstration portion of the course includes guest speakers with a range of expertise in and outside the university. For example, Jonathan London will demonstrate “power mapping,” and Shelly Gilbride, Programs Officer at the California Arts Council, will discuss expertise and transferable skills for humanities PhDs.

Get more background and up-to-date information on the 2016 scholars’ projects at our Projects Blog.


Simon Abramowitsch

Hodges and Sedell

Jen Sedell & Lily Hodges



– Stephanie Maroney, DHI Graduate Student Researcher and doctoral candidate in Cultural Studies