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Public Engagement in the Humanities

The IJL is an example of what the National Humanities Alliance defines as engaged research: “research initiatives in which higher education faculty and students partner with community members in the creation of knowledge” (Fisher 2018). We follow the principle articulated by Clancy and Adamek that the “university is not the source of knowledge but a resource for accessing knowledge” (Clancy and Adamek 2005).

The “deliverables” that we produce do not generally look like traditional scholarship (peer-reviewed publications), or even some common forms of public engagement (popular writing, exhibits, digital projects), but do fit with the widely accepted idea that engaged scholarship comprises a “continuum of scholarly and creative artifacts including those produced about, for, and with specific publics and communities.” On the “spectrum of public participation,” we operate on the principle of “we will implement what you decide” (International Association for Public Participation, 2014).

If community partners asked us to, we would probably move furniture or boxes. But the power in our collaboration comes from providing our partners with the kind of specialized work that only a team of scholars at an institution of higher education has the time and resources to produce. In this way a publicly engaged “lab” is quite from a student community service project, because it is organized around sustained and highly specialized academic work (Ellison and Eatman, 2008).

Teaching & Learning

The IJL is also an explicitly pedagogical project. We accomplish all of our work through integration with courses, independent study classes, and paid student internships. The fact that the work of faculty members on the project is recognized as part of our teaching load is crucial to the institutional success of our project.

Teaching in the IJL has two primary modes.

Our asylum project is based in a team-taught seminar that borrows heavily from the clinical instruction model in legal education.

Indeed, law students experience it very much as a variant of a clinical or externship experience. But for undergraduate students it is unusual. As teachers of humanities students, we shift question they hear so often -- “What are you going to do with that?” We ask what students can start doing with the skills, approaches, and commitments of the humanities, right now? We start with the desired outcome: written briefs in support of real people’s applications for asylum. These need to include deeply researched, legally relevant, cultural sophisticated, information on current conditions in the countries they have fled. Then we ask, “What are the research, writing, and critical thinking skills that you need to do that?” In order to make this kind of work accessible to students from diverse academic backgrounds, we then ask ourselves, “What work do we need to do as instructors to allow undergraduate students to thrive as full participants in projects with more advanced students and working professionals?”

Other projects, such as the Guides to Defending Yourself in Immigration Court, are examples of “design thinking” and “interdisciplinary problem solving” initiatives being advanced by professional school deans on many university campuses.

The IJL differs from such programs, however, in that it provides ample space for humanities doctoral students to participate in and lead interdisciplinary project teams. This is not about helping to prepare a “plan B” career in public humanities, should the academic job-market not pan out. It is rather about involving them (and training them) to do work that is “intrinsically valuable” and matches students “diverse motivations for entering into graduate programs in the first place” (Bartha and Burgett 2015). Graduate students in the humanities and in professional fields such as education, library science, and design, are often eager to pursue professional paths in which deep and meaningful partnerships with non-academic partners will be central. Many Ph.D. students also look forward to incorporating project-based teaching built around community partnerships in their own future teaching careers. The IJL is able to offer students the opportunity to develop these public scholarship and engaged pedagogy skills through already-established trusting and ethical relationships with communities. [More will be added in Google Doc.]


Bartha, M., and B. Burgett. “Why Public Scholarship Matters for Graduate Education.” Pedagogy Critical Approaches to Teaching Literature Language Composition and Culture 15, no. 1 (January 1, 2015): 31–43.

Clancy, Frank, and Margaret Adamek. “Teaching as Public Scholarship.” In Engaging Campus and Community: The Practice of Public Scholarship in the State and Land-Grant University System, edited by Scott J Peters, Nicholas R Jordan, and Adamek Margaret, 227–66. Kettering Foundation, 2005.

Ellison, Julie, and Timothy K Eatman. “Scholarship in Public: Knowledge Creation and Tenure Policy in the Engaged University.” Syracuse, NY: Imagining America, 2008.

Fisher, Daniel. “A Typology of the Publicly Engaged Humanities.” Humanities for All, 2018.

International Association for Public Participation. “Public Participation Spectrum,” 2014.

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