As I’m processing the second week of #HWW19, the main thing that stands out to me is what HWW Principal Investigator Antoinnette Burton calls the holistic approach of Humanities Without Walls. This approach is about understanding people as being situated in a particular context, and against a unique, identity shaping background.
I have never before attended an academia-connected event where our personhood was acknowledged and appreciated to degree that it is here. This calls attention to a strange contradiction that exist in the humanities, in that it often requires us to set ourselves, our humanity, aside. Not only have we been explicitly told that we need not leave ourselves – our worries, frustrations, weaknesses, likes and dislikes, accessibility needs, and so on – at the door, but the entire morning of the first day was spent learning about one another and our connections, without mention of our research projects. Time has been made to call attention to any accessibility needs we have, to establish our pronouns, and there is a repeated reminder to take care of ourselves mentally and physically. These practices contrast sharply with an academic life that generally demands our overextension as a matter of course. HWW does not merely pay lip service to the recognition of its Fellows as full human beings with lives and relationships, but helps us to rediscover these connections, and uncover connections between our own lives and our work that sometimes weren’t quite transparent even to ourselves. Furthermore, after I was accepted as a Fellow to the 2019 Humanities Without Walls Workshop, I quickly learned that they welcomed families of Fellows to Chicago. As a result, many of the Fellows have had their family’s here, whether for short visits, or longer stays. All of this comes out of a recognition of ourselves, not as research machines, but as people with a particular past, in a unique situation.
Another theme that runs through the workshop is that of stories. When, during the afternoon of the first day, we finally did start talking about our research and interest, it was through a personal narrative, and against the background of the work we had been doing that morning. This immediately brought depth and humanity to the projects that everyone described. It was easy to be interested and to understand the importance of the work that the Fellows are involved in when connected to a story. Many of our panelists, rather than (merely) sharing data and research about the work they do and the projects they are involved in, share a narrative about their career development. This generally includes their academic background and work history, but also aspects of their personal life and how these influence one another.
A refreshing upshot of all of this is that things other than the job matter. The popular advice in graduate school is that you go where the job is. That might mean living in places you don’t want to live in. Perhaps somewhere with an unsustainably high cost of living, or far away from family, or perhaps in a different city (or state, or country, or continent) than your partner. But, you don’t have to go where THE job is. Where we live matters. Career diversity education means that finding a job where you want to live becomes a much more attainable goal.