Director's Letter

2022–23 Director's Q&A

“A Kaleidoscope of Untold Possibilities”: Public Humanities, Un/Doing, and Interdisciplinary Collaboration

HRI Director Antoinette Burton reflects on the past year and the “urgent, challenging, and exhilarating” work ahead.

Headshot of Antoinette Burton

The fellowship theme for 2022–23 is “Un/Doing.” What are some ways the theme will play out in the activities and research happening this year?

Yes to “Un/Doing”! This theme was generated by faculty in the Ethnic and Gender and Women’s Studies units—part of our attempt at HRI to have our intellectual and programming work driven by a variety of voices and perspectives (as we did with “The Global and its Worlds” theme in 2020–21).

This coming year’s Campus Fellows are doing work that asks bold questions about what warrants dismantling and how our spaces and practices as scholars in the world contribute to that project, and in solidarity with whom. What I love about this group is that the projects that have been proposed by both faculty and graduate fellows take up the “Un/Doing” call as research questions and as part of their vocation as scholars deeply engaged in the world.

I’m excited by the range of speakers and events we’re curating, which will bring these questions alive for academic and community audiences alike. Keep your eyes peeled for an exciting slate of events, such as the talk by Tarren Andrews that will bring Indigenous Studies and Medieval Studies into conversation—with special thanks to Jenny Davis (American Indian Studies) and Mimi Nguyen (Gender and Women’s Studies) for taking the lead on the Un/Doing programming this year.

The new Mellon-funded Interseminars Initiative launched this year. What is unique about Interseminars and how does it fit into the broader interdisciplinary ecosystem facilitated through HRI?

And huzzah to the Interseminars faculty and students! They have emerged from their 2022 week-long summer intensive with so many fabulous ideas about how to manifest their commitments to “Imagining Otherwise: Speculation in the Americas.” This experiment in collaborative, interdisciplinary graduate teaching and learning is using speculative practice as both theme and method, exploring how to bring approaches grounded in imaginative longings and desires to contest the way things are to bear on real possibilities for seeing and doing “otherwise.”

Of course, all visionary humanities and arts projects are ultimately speculative and non-linear in their unfolding as well. But this group—led by David Cisneros (Communication), Patrick Hammie and Jorge Lucero (both Art and Design)—is living in and with speculation in new and uncharted ways. Not least, they are modeling a form of faculty-student partnerships at the intersection of research and pedagogy that we rarely see in higher education. I’m so excited to see and hear and talk with them about what they do this year. We remain grateful to the Mellon Foundation for their support of Interseminars—and I am especially thankful for the hardworking, dedicated team of HRI staff members who are the backbone of this multi-form endeavor.

You often speak about the value of public humanities in connecting academic work to the communities we live in. How did you see the public humanities reflected in last year’s efforts and what prospects excite you for the coming year?

Yes, I do! To be honest, thinking through what public humanities can and should mean at a public research university like Illinois is the most urgent, the most challenging, and the most exhilarating set of questions HRI is working on right now. Everywhere we turn, faculty and students express their desire to figure out how to relate their research, teaching, and learning to meet the exigencies of the present. There is no one-size-fits-all answer to these pressing questions—and there should not be. The humanities and related fields are complex assemblages, often interdisciplinary and always brimming with possibilities seen and unseen when it comes to their relationship to the contemporary world. I think of HRI as a space for pluralizing opportunities for colleagues to explore how what they aspire to do works with and for a variety of publics—and to experience how such work can change how they do what they do in the process.

The Odyssey Project, funded in part by the Mellon Foundation, is our signature public humanities project, and we continue to be proud of the Champaign-Urbana adult learners who thrive there, against many odds. Humanities Without Walls, also funded by Mellon, is recruiting research projects that embed “reciprocity and redistribution” (R&R) vertically and horizontally, with some stunning community-based outcomes as a result (see page 10). Thanks to the generosity of HRI donors and the good will of campus partners like We CU and the Graduate College, we are offering internships and courses grounded in that “R&R” orientation to students at all stages of their careers in the humanities. While this is not an exhaustive list, and while more plans are afoot, I hope it suggests that the public humanities is a kaleidoscope of untold possibilities at HRI.

These are admittedly dark times for the planet. If there is joy to be found, it is surely in supporting the energies of those determined to reimagine—by undoing, and by all means necessary—what we think the humanities ought to be not just in the here and now, but for those who come after us as well. If you have ideas about what the future of public humanities at Illinois needs to look like, let’s have coffee and work together to make it happen.