A Day of Public Humanizing: Susan Smulyan

Editor’s Note: Hi, DayofPHers (you don’t have to call yourselves that)! Robyn, Jim, and I have been reaching out to friends, colleagues, idols, and other acquaintances in the wide world of public humanities to see if anyone wants to write guest posts about their days of public humanizing. If you’d like to tell us about your day (or blog about another topic related to our Day of Public Humanities!), please get in touch! You can email us (dayofPH[at]gmail) or contact us via Twitter (@DayofPH). And don’t forget to talk about your work with us on Tuesday, May 9th, 2017! 🙂

Susan Smulyan

Susan Smulyan is the Director of the John Nicholas Brown Center for Public Humanities and Cultural Heritage and a professor in Brown’s Department of American Studies. Susan was kind enough to share a digital To-Do List with us. Thanks Susan!

A Day of Public Humanizing: Sydney Skybetter

Editor’s Note: Hi, DayofPHers (you don’t have to call yourselves that)! Robyn, Jim, and I have been reaching out to friends, colleagues, idols, and other acquaintances in the wide world of public humanities to see if anyone wants to write guest posts about their days of public humanizing. If you’d like to tell us about your day (or blog about another topic related to our Day of Public Humanities!), please get in touch! You can email us (dayofPH[at]gmail) or contact us via Twitter (@DayofPH). And don’t forget to talk about your work with us on Tuesday, May 9th, 2017! 🙂

Sydney Skybetter is a choreographer. His dances have been performed at many cool places (including the John F. Kennedy Center for The Performing Arts and The Joyce Theater). He is also a consultant and lecturer on everything from dance history to cultural futurism (most recently at Harvard, SXSW Interactive, and TEDx, among other places). He is presently a Public Humanities Fellow and Lecturer at the John Nicholas Brown Center for Public Humanities, where he researches the problematics of human computer interfaces and mixed reality systems. 

Sydney Skybetter (Photo Credit: Safety Third Productions)

8:30am: Arrive in office. Small talk with management team. Give self permission to make and drink four cups of coffee. 

8:40am: Google “Star Trek Season 5 The Game” to find that episode of Star Trek: Next Generation starring Ashley Judd and Wil Wheaton where an alien tries to take over The Enterprise through a Google Glass-looking eyepiece that addicts the crew to an augmented reality video game that makes them open to hypnotic suggestion (?) but then Ashley’s and Will’s heteroromance saves everyone. Consider teaching episode as model of compulsory heterosexuality and speculative technology in seminar. Reject that idea. Decide to teach an entirely new seminar on Star Trek instead. 

9:30am: Get tip from colleague that there’s an episode of The X-Files where a vaguely Amish religious sect- but they’re actually aliens?- uses some sort of megapheromone to inspire intense sexual urges in others. One of the Amish / Aliens is a murderer with the ability to change genders, who uses the megaphermone to attract his / her victims, and then somehow the megapheromone kills them. In Mulder’s words, “Maybe it’s the sex that kills.” 

10:00am: Watch X-Files episode on Hulu, unimaginatively titled “Genderbender.” Consider teaching episode as a heteroparanoid vision of queer affective contagion. In the words of one intended victim of the sex alien, “Hustling in the club scene used to be so simple.” But then these folks without normative genders use pheromone affect power to lure innocent straight folks into queer sex THAT KILLS. Reject that idea. Decide to teach entirely new seminar on The X-Files Instead. 

11:00am: Watch the media *actually* assigned for this week’s seminar, “The Entire History of You” from Season 1 of Black Mirror, where everyone has something called a “grain” implanted in their brain / eyes so they have perfect visual recall and are able to scroll backwards through their visual sensorium, in effect, surveilling their past selves retrospectively. Ponder role of narcissism and self-surveillance. Check with library to see if anyone has written a book yet on narcissisurveillance. Plan discussion of Black Mirror relative to Simone Browne’s “Dark Matters,” theories of surveillance, sousveillance, and race. Unrelated: why is everyone in the future rich and wearing Armani and lounging on mid century modern furniture? Did mid century modern signify the future when Eames was first a thing? Realize the captain’s chair in Star Trek: Next Generation looks like an Eames chair. Make mental note to think more about chairs. Do we have any chair scholars on campus? 

12:00pm: Lunch. Scribble some notes on a napkin. Why is it that the visual is so privileged in speculative futures? What is the neurological basis of visual stimulus catalyzing memory? In the case of Black Mirror, is the interface for the infinite visual archive not a kind of offboard brain, already arguably accomplished by Google, et al? What would an infinite multi-sensorial archive look like? What if instead of scrolling backwards through televisual time, one could catalogue all the different gut feelings one has ever had? What does it mean to have a “gut” memory?

1:00pm: Read remaining chapters of Dark Matters.

2:30pm: Twitter rathole. No memory or record of proceedings. 

3:00pm: Complete seminar preparations. Write a few sentences juxtaposing a line from Black Mirror– “You can’t hide it. Not completely.”- said in reference the physical tells of amorous intention, to X-Files, Star Trek and that line attributed to Martha Graham, “The body never lies.” Ponder what would happen if Martha Graham had gotten into surveillance tech instead of modern dance. 

4:50pm: Worry about the future. 

5:00pm: Realize that the Black Mirror episode hinges on a marriage broken when surveillance technology unmasks the true paternity of a married couple’s child, and that all the speculative futures I’ve thought about today are set in an incredibly conservative moral universes. Realize I’m not surprised. 

5:05: Pick son up from kindergarten. 

5:06: Feel slightly better about the future.

A Day of Public Humanizing: Emily Esten

Editor’s Note: Hi, DayofPHers (you don’t have to call yourselves that)! Robyn, Inge, and I have been reaching out to friends, colleagues, idols, and other acquaintances in the wide world of public humanities to see if anyone wants to write guest posts about their days of public humanizing. If you’d like to tell us about your day (or blog about another topic related to our Day of Public Humanities!), please get in touch! You can email us (dayofPH[at]gmail) or contact us via Twitter (@DayofPH). And don’t forget to talk about your work with us on Tuesday, May 9th, 2017! 🙂

Emily Esten, graduate student in Public Humanities at the John Nicholas Brown Center for Public Humanities and Cultural Heritage, was kind enough to share an overview of what digital community engagement looks like on Twitter.

To paraphrase that introduction from the old days of Internet: Hi, I’m Emily, and I’m from Twitter.

This is a bit of a cop-out, but I thought I’d share my work in PH not through a to-do list but through a place that represents a passive but important aspect of my engagement in PH. #DayofPH is being advertised on Twitter, and it’s quite fitting why: it’s a place where I’ve curated a professional identity in PH, share my work, and meet other public humans finding ways to bring the insights and ideas to an audience.

esten gif

Just scrolling through my twitterfeed

Personally, I’m interested in digital community engagement and how cultural institutions can make use of new media to further their work. And I found my way to public humanities because I prioritized sharing knowledge in effective ways, at the end of the day. So, I use Twitter to find these intersections – of individuals doing humanities work in and outside the university, community organizers defining their commitments to art and culture, and public initiatives at every level of engagement. And Twitter offers me a way to find practitioners in our broad field, a sense of what’s going on, and new avenues of work.

Some of my lists/lists I subscribe to:

 New Media in Museums by @danamuses: New media gurus working in/for/around cultural institutions like museums, archives, libraries – I pop in here to see what’s new with new media.

 HASTAC Scholars 2016-2018 by @HASTACScholars: The HASTAC Scholars Initiative is a fellowship program by students and for students working at the intersection of technology and the arts. Most of these accounts are scholars are rethinking their place in their respective disciplines, how Twitter fits into our work as researchers, and using a public platform to speak out the culture of academia.

 Digitalhumanities by @dancohen: Dan Cohen, founding director of DPLA and future Northeastern dean of libraries, curates a comprehensive list of scholars in digital humanities and editors of Digital Humanities Now. (With his interest in maximizing access to culture and cultural artifacts, Cohen is a great person to follow anyway.)

 history | humanities by @paige_roberts: Over 900 members sharing history –public AND academic – from a variety of accounts, institutions, and interests.

 arts, museums, libraries by @robertjweisberg: Weisberg, Senior Project Manager at the Met, seeks to connect cultural organizations with organizational culture. His list focuses on cultural workers at museums, artists, and libraries at all lengths of the spectrum, and their engagement with the arts and humanities.

#ITweetMuseums, a hashtag by @ITweetMuseums: Mark B. Schlemmer launched the hashtag in 2013 as an non-affiliated, independent initiative to encourage & support all cultural workers to tweet about museums from their personal accounts. I love seeing individuals exploring exhibition and sharing their work on the web!

A Day of Public Humanizing: Lydia Fash

Image from The Paper Bag Princess (Robert Munsch and Michael Martchenko)

Editor’s Note: Hi, DayofPHers (you don’t have to call yourselves that)! Robyn, Inge, and I have been reaching out to friends, colleagues, idols, and other acquaintances in the wide world of public humanities to see if anyone wants to write guest posts about their days of public humanizing. If you’d like to tell us about your day (or blog about another topic related to our Day of Public Humanities!), please get in touch! You can email us (dayofPH[at]gmail) or contact us via Twitter (@DayofPH). And don’t forget to talk about your work with us on Tuesday, May 9th, 2017! 🙂

After I saw Jim McGrath’s posting about a Day of Public Humanities go by on a listserv, I found myself considering which things I regularly do might classify as Public Humanities while commuting on my bike. I curated a public exhibition on Book History at Boston University, and I fashioned a digital version of a Rare Books exhibition at the Boston Public Library. I’ve also done conferences, written anthology essays, contributed to other Digital Humanities projects, and published scholarly articles. These activities classify as public, but what struck me on that bike ride, and what strikes me still, is that the most public impact I have is in teaching. It’s true that I work at a private institution (Simmons College) and my classes are held behind closed doors, yet the contemporary relevance of long-dead authors and the current iterations of age-old questions frame all my lessons. I believe literature teaches us history, empathy, and critical thinking—skills essential to thoughtful engagement as citizens and as humans.

Last Thursday I rode my bike over to the East Somerville Community School (ESCS), a public school with a bilingual Spanish-English program, where my son attends first grade. Somerville, MA, the most densely populated city in New England, is gentrifying quickly, but many strong immigrant and low-income communities remain and send their children to ESCS. As a result, my son’s classroom mixes higher-income, higher-education English-speakers and mostly Latino, often lower-income Spanish-speakers. The kids are mostly oblivious to this divide, though it troubles many of us English-dominant parents who want to connect better with our Spanish-dominant counterparts.

Because first grade had been working on a Fairy Tales and Folk Tales unit, I volunteered to read Robert Munsch’s The Paper Bag Princess (1980), a sort of feminist fairy tale. The teacher said they were working on understanding adjectives too, so before the story, we put together a list of the typical attributes of “good” and “mean” characters in these types of tales. Then, as a quick side project, we came up with a list of adjectives for princesses. This last list was telling—and depressing. All the adjectives were visual descriptors: pink, purple, pretty, long-hair, and the like.

In Munsch’s story, Elizabeth watches a dragon burn her castle and clothes, and carry away her fiancé Prince Ronald. Because there’s nothing else to wear, she dons a paper bag, finds the dragon, outsmarts him, and rescues Ronald. Ronald, when he sees Elizabeth, chastises rather than thanks her: “Elizabeth, you are a mess! You smell like ashes, your hair is all tangled and you are wearing a dirty old paper bag. Come back when you are dressed like a real princess.” Elizabeth doesn’t marry Ronald after all.

Part way through the story, I stopped and asked students if Elizabeth was like the princesses we’d described. Therein followed a debate about whether Elizabeth could be a princess if she wasn’t wearing a nice dress. The class was pretty firmly set on her not being a “real” princess until one boy pointed out that she was still wearing a crown in the illustrations, albeit a bent and tarnished one. Although they gushed about how smart and clever Elizabeth was, and clucked their tongues over Ronald’s rudeness, they still did not seem fully to accept that Elizabeth was a princess. They felt sure that princesses looked pretty first and foremost.

Eventually, I asked students to close their eyes and picture someone challenging a dragon. Then I asked if it were a boy or a girl they’d imagined. They all reported picturing a boy, although we’d just read a story about Elizabeth outsmarting a dragon. The lesson ended with everyone sitting quietly and considering why we might think only of what a princess looked like and why we might assume the person fighting the dragon would have to be a boy.

It was a first grade story-time, not a gender studies class, and yet I hope that the lesson reinforced (or, perhaps for some, introduced) the idea that girls and women have more capabilities than just appearing attractive. I hope that the moment of quiet thinking snowballs into more sophisticated interrogations about social equity in our city, commonwealth, and country.

I think the ideas presented in my Simmons courses have meaningful public consequences too. All term long, students have been commenting on how current events are replaying the early American texts we have been reading. Again and again, we find ourselves discussing how an essay, story, or poem is investigating the concept of “America” and the question of who can claim that label. Introducing these types of ideas, showing students other narratives, and generally cultivating empathy through the sharing of someone else’s story seems one of the most profoundly public acts we can take on as humanists. I’ve now visited my son’s first grade class multiple times. I started going for my son, but now I am also doing it for the students who may never have access to a course like the ones I teach at Simmons—the students who are excluded from narrow definitions of “American” crafted by the xenophobic, the misogynistic, the powerful, or the convergence of all three. As I left last Thursday, a young Latina girl asked when I would come again. The answer is soon. I hope in the meantime she acts like Elizabeth, the paper bag princess.

Lydia Fash is a lecturer of English at Simmons College.

A Day of Public Humanizing: Maria Paula Garcia Mosquera

Editor’s Note: Hi, DayofPHers (you don’t have to call yourselves that)! We have been reaching out to friends, colleagues, idols, and other acquaintances in the wide world of public humanities to see if anyone wants to write guest posts about their days of public humanizing. If you’d like to tell us about your day (or blog about another topic related to our Day of Public Humanities!), please get in touch! You can email us (dayofPH[at]gmail) or contact us via Twitter (@DayofPH). And don’t forget to talk about your work with us on Tuesday, May 9th, 2017! 🙂

Thank you Maria Paula Garcia Mosquera for sharing your thoughts on planning as a public humanist. Maria Paula is a first year student in the Public Humanities master’s program at Brown.

Coming back to university made me realize that I now plan my work just as an individual practice instead of a collective negotiation, as I used to do when I was working. As part of my jobs in the public cultural sector in Colombia and Boston, I had to discuss with a lot of people to determine the best methods to keep track on our agreements and shared tasks. Those methods were a mixture of analog and digital tools, depending on the project partners, who was leading the implementation of the project, and the size of the project or the time I had to do it.


December 6, 2016. “Una Menos”

From that experience, I started to organize my own work developing three parallel strategies: 1) On a board or a visible sheet of paper on my desk, I wrote down all the general tasks to finish in the month; 2) I used my notebook for the details of each general task that I had written on my board; 3) I scheduled in my Google Calendar each assignment that I had to accomplish each week. This methodology made me part of two groups of people: the ones who love to cross out things they finished and the ones who set their desks as an office supplies store.

These days, I have found the first strategy a very effective method for my student life. I have a big whiteboard in my little studio space where my husband and I write down ideas, tasks and schedules with our 8 erasable markers. Each day, just before I make breakfast, I have a “friendly” reminder of how I have advanced—or not—in my work.

Our whiteboard is also the place where #elgatodelosfinales was born. He cheers us up while we are trying to wrap up the semester. Although, he is not just there to look at us. He is also suffering the effects of this stressful time of the academic year.

Photo 1

April 29, 2017. Screenshot of my whiteboard, with #elgatodelosfinales in the upper right corner

At this moment, #elgatodelosfinales is announcing the end of my first year. And because I just have one year more at Brown, I want to share with you one part of my 2017-2018 to-do Public Humanities list:

  • Learn Omeka
  • Travel to Quibdó and visit the Manuel Mosquera Garcés plaza
  • Finish the prototype of the “Digital Archive of Manuel Mosquera Garcés”
  • Participate at a conference with my personal project
  • Start my blog about digital cultural heritage projects in Colombia

Let’s see how many of these I will crossed out during next year!

A Day of Public Humanizing: Inge Zwart

Inge's To Do List

I have the biggest imposter syndrome when it comes down to listing my life. After trying and failing to consistently use Google calendar and Wunderlist, I tried one of my favorite tactics when it comes down to organizing: copy what others do! My good friend and on-top-of-it classmate Maggie has an ingenious system of sticky notes in her agenda. You can color code them in correspondence with items on your calendar, move them to the next week when you have not finished the work, and – best of all – actually cross out what you have done. I like it for all those reasons and definitely enjoy the moments when it helps me think straight. I still have to figure out how to stick with this, though. If I had shown you a picture of my last week’s to-do lists, it would have been a picture of an empty page in my notebook, so I welcome any advice on other methods.

In terms of content, I categorize the notes into class related, work related, internship related, life related, job-search and student council related work. Is that all public humanities? – I don’t think so. Some of my work and classes are: I write and think about collective memories, I intern with the humanities council and work on this #DayofPH project. Still, much of the actual labor is more private than public, as I go to classes and work behind a computer most of the time. In those moments, I find it difficult to understand my work as public humanities. But what defines public humanities labor? Is it the content of the job? The mechanics of it? Is it the to-do list or job qualification? I know that when I collaborate with smart and creative people, brainstorm projects and see them, slowly but surely, come to fruition, I feel most like a public humanist. Those are also the moments I feel most relevant. And it is exactly that work “to do” that is hard to capture on a sticky note.  

A Day of Public Humanizing: Jim McGrath

I got super invested in to-do lists towards the end of graduate school. Given that I was doing so much unpaid labor (on top of the labor I was actually paid for), it became important for me to document the amount of time everything took. This way I could block out time to work and time to not work (I refuse to believe academics must sacrifice their social lives and be on the clock all the time, especially given how little students and early scholars are paid). I also like the digital to-do list because it’s easy to access and read when I’m trying to figure out what’s taking up too much of my time and what I need to get moving on. I use Trello to keep track of daily, weekly, and monthly to-do lists. I generally sketch out a rough draft of monthly, big-picture tasks, then update weekly lists (usually on late Fridays before checking out for the weekend), and then update more detailed sets of daily tasks at the start of each day (I’m also all about my Google Calendar). I’m particularly fond of the checklist feature, because you get a fun little progress bar that makes you feel better when you check something off your list. Well, it makes me feel better, at least.

Jim's To Do List

The checklist above, from Thursday, March 9th, documents a particularly busy day. I’m juggling a few different projects this semester, so there’s a wide range of things on my various plates here. In addition to #DayofPH, I’ve got a few other collaborative projects: I’m helping the Modernist Journals Project and the Brown University Library with a revised ingest system for new MJP materials (which “live” in the library’s digital repository), I’m revising web content for Hacking Heritage, an “unconference” that the Center hosted later that week, and I’m co-authoring an article on Our Marathon: The Boston Bombing Digital Archive (a project I co-directed at Northeastern University as a grad student), so you see tasks related to that ongoing work. I also helped migrate some old Center-supported student digital projects from one digital space to another: that was a bit of a one-off project, but that work is tied to my general interest in improving the Center’s approach to archiving and preserving its digital materials in an accessible manner. I’m ALSO teaching a course on Digital Storytelling this semester: in addition to our class session that day (which thankfully featured a guest lecturer on data visualizations, so there wasn’t as much prep), I also helped one of the students in the class with a presentation she had drafted. The items with question marks next to them refer to public events I had planned to attend that week: unfortunately, I was too busy to attend either of them, but I like to dream about having time to do all of the things, I guess. The last item on my list is the name of my favorite bar in Boston, a place you can frequently find me on Thursdays. Unfortunately, I did not make it there either, but I did end up going somewhere else to get beautiful buffalo wings.   

Anyway, sometimes people want to know what it is a postdoc in Digital Public Humanities does all day, so this list is part of the answer. Unlike other postdocs, where the person is generally expected to just write and write and write some more for publication, my position offers up lots of collaborative possibilities. This means lots of meetings and juggling various things, but I prefer this kind of work to more traditional roles performed by postdocs. Things don’t always run smoothly, but this day was busy but not particularly terrible. The buffalo wings were pretty good too.

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.