The Mellon Immersive Experience: Exploring the Practice of Engaged Humanities

Last semester, I participated in a daylong Mellon Immersive Experience at the Michigan Humanities Council to assist with the Heritage Grants review process, and to learn more broadly about the organization’s strategies for promoting public humanities work around the state. Having coordinated public scholarship grants and co-curricular initiatives through Arts of Citizenship at the Rackham Graduate School, and having written and taught on place, politics, and power in architecture at the Taubman College, I was excited to explore the practice of engaged humanities in a new environment, as well as contribute to the mission of the state humanities council with skills in project management, program assessment, critical analysis, and public and scholarly communication.

As I leafed through the database of final applications and project summaries in the council’s Lansing-based office, I was immediately taken by their collaborative frameworks and shared commitments to questions of race and space in the context of the region’s founding and immigrant communities. Some of the submissions were pedagogy-based, describing ways to integrate the Black and Latino voices, as well as the Native American experiences into the school curricula. Other proposals were structured around curation and play, highlighting the role of storytelling in addressing urban political landscapes and recent histories. Still other projects were centered on public programming and outreach, seeking to assist immigrant communities, refugees, and other racially visible minorities with housing and health care. All proposals carried a digital media component in formats ranging from oral history archives and podcasts to social media strategies and films.

In coordination with Joseph Cialdella, Heritage Grants Program Manager and U-M American Culture alumnus, I wanted to review projects that were distinct in historical focus and cultural agency. I wanted to examine individual approaches to inclusion and equity. I also wanted to learn about public goods, about the processes of new knowledge production in and with local communities. And I wanted to read about previously unexplored parts of Michigan, about underrepresented cultural identities and place-based histories.

My review selections were consistent with my scholarly focus and public humanities training. Those selections were also geographically diverse. Among them, one project aimed to develop educational materials for the primary and secondary school curricula in three Michigan counties (Emmet, Wayne, and Monroe) by traveling the historic paths of Anishnaabek people (Odawa, Ojibwe and Potawatomi) of the Great Lakes. Another proposal sought to promote intergenerational dialogue around issues of ethnic identity, immigration, and mutual acceptance through digital recordings, narrative interviews, and radio shows involving the Finnish American community in Houghton County in the Upper Peninsula.

All of the projects were remarkable in their own originality. With the aid of the council’s evaluation criteria, I was able to consider their contributions in a comparative context and with reference to underlying values such as critical collaboration, inclusivity, outreach, and viability. The given rubric offered a lens through which to assess the impact of proposed practices in a mutually beneficial light. However, it would have been illuminating to learn how each of those values was communicated to applicants at different stages of grantmaking. The database carried information about whether or not the applicants had submitted draft proposals for feedback. Upon reflection, I wondered if assessment values were integrated into this feedback process to strengthen reciprocity between the humanities council and participating groups.

The overall experience at the Michigan Humanities Council was extremely rewarding. On the one hand, the Heritage Grant applications demonstrated ways in which different publics engage with the humanities and articulate the intersectionality of race, class, and gender with reference to place and power. On the other hand, the administrative process reinforced the importance of humanities advocacy for transformational dialogue among a community of concerned persons who see themselves as equal participants in the project of meaning making across the academic and non-academic spectrum. At the end of the immersive, I was not only able to provide concise summaries on the feasibility of individual proposals for help with final administrative reviews, but also reflect on the connections between skills and knowledge drawn from my public humanities work, doctoral research, and grant writing experience.

My commitment to advancing the life of the humanities with wider constituencies has deepened as a result of this engagement, but I could not have achieved this sense of fulfillment without support from other people. In particular, I want to thank:

Joseph Cialdella for structuring the immersive so beautifully. The pre-assigned readings and lunchtime conversation at Clara’s, both gave me additional insights into how the policies and actions of the Michigan Humanities Council impact public life. Clara’s, a fine dining restaurant and former railroad station, kept alive the question of which heritage, certain groups seek to preserve and with whom.

Shelly Kasprzyck, Executive Director of the Michigan Humanities Council, for taking the time to meet with us and for sharing the story of her own career path in the nonprofit cultural sector.

Zachary Kopin, fellow participant and graduate student in the History Department, for his company at the office and help with transportation on an exceptionally stormy day.

Linda N. Groat, my chair and Professor of Architecture and Women’s Studies, for guiding and supporting my campus-community engagements and related career visions.

Matthew Countryman, mentor and Arts of Citizenship faculty director, for strengthening my academic and public humanities training along radically democratic lines.

Laura N. Schram, Rackham Program Officer, and Deborah Keller-Cohen, Rackham Associate Dean, for coordinating this Mellon-funded program, including the pre-immersive orientation workshop, so brilliantly. A supportive infrastructure for the pedagogy and practice of publicly engaged humanities only works under strong, institutional leadership. Thank you for this opportunity.