A Day of Public Humanizing: Robyn Schroeder

My work as a public humanist has a lot of moving parts. I use Google Calendar (and Tiny Calendar on my phone) to keep me on schedule, and the app Wunderlist to manage my unscheduled time. In it, I attempt to rein in my wide array of “work”:  projects, teaching, admin work, advocacy and volunteer work, and then again groceries, bills, medical and travel miscellanae, and tasks that follow from my hobbies, including reading and knitting. Each evening, I try to open both my calendar and my various lists, and then migrate a set of ambitious-but-accomplishable tasks into the next day’s “Today” list.

Untitled design

The pictured list is for what was, at the time I took the screenshot, “Today”—Tuesday, March 7th—a day when my undergraduate seminar met in the afternoon (and my colleague Jess Smith, Director of Public Programs for the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, facilitated a Ray Williams-inspired program for my students); when I facilitated a workshop in our “finding a job” series in the evening, in which second year students named for each other their “public humanities superpowers”; and when over the course of the day I had several meetings, including a weekly staff meeting, a phone call with a prospective student, and meetings with colleagues from Brown’s Swearer Center and CareerLAB. Those six hours of scheduled engagements constituted much of my work over the course of my ten hours on campus that day, but as you can see they are largely invisible on my actual “to do” list. I tend to actively list only what I am worried I might otherwise forget or neglect to do. 

My list, then, is for “unscheduled” time. Pockets of flexible time tend to feel like moments of coming up for air in a day of doing the front crawl, but nonetheless the word “flexible” itself is misleading. In fact, come to think of it, there are a lot of pressures on flexible time that are also invisible on any given day’s list. For me, as I suspect for the vast majority of university-based public-oriented professionals, most of those pressures have to do with two factors: email and students. Serving as the primary advisor in a project-intensive graduate program creates particular challenges on the advising front, as the advice just as often involves resource acquisition or activating networks as it does clarifying key concepts or locating relevant texts. There’s also a spatial component; my colleague Steve Lubar and I have our offices up on same floor as our wonderful graduate student advisees; with open door policies, we see a steady stream of them, in and out of office hours and advising meetings.

And then there’s email. Mine gets continually processed through the lens of my work on the Center for Public Humanities’ weekly newsletter, which contains in-house, on-campus, and local events centered on humanities and social justice, as well as professional development and learning opportunities and new relevant reads in the field from around the English-speaking world. That content comes from all over my life–colleagues and former colleagues, listservs and professional associations, friends, alumni, and current students–and is one reason why work-life boundaries are so hard for me to draw. (I can never quite tell anymore if I’m going to cultural events for work or pleasure!)

Since the question driving this website is “what does work in the public humanities look like in concrete terms?” I’ll note that, the newsletter aside, the most “public”-oriented parts of my job Work With Pancakeas a public humanist involve teaching and advising students working on public projects, either through my classes or on their own. This is a far cry from my years as a museum educator, when I was almost constantly in contact with people whom I thought of as members of the “public” precisely because I didn’t know them personally–but also a tremendously much more engaged time than my years of dissertating, when I sometimes went days without seeing anyone but my husband, my dog Pancake (pictured right, working hard at my home desk), and the baristas at Seven Stars Bakery & Cafe in Rumford Center. I didn’t have the above systems in place then, but then again, in those days my tasks weren’t so multiple that I quite needed them yet.

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