Public humanities fellows add depth to local organizations

June 16th 2014
Arts & Humanities, Giving, Students
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As a historian, Anna Zeide knew that children's voices from the past were scarce.

But Zeide, a Ph.D. student in the history of science, technology and medicine, had never thought much about whether the same might hold true for kids today, until she joined the Madison Children's Museum last year as one of the University of Wisconsin-Madison's first public humanities fellows.

During her yearlong fellowship, Zeide (M.A.'08, History of Science; Ph.D.'14, History of Science, Technology and Medicine) helped evaluate existing exhibits and plan new projects. Along the way, she heard about how staff had struggled to design programming for the on-site, 1830s-era log cabin.

"It's just so difficult to find historical documents that reflect what kids were doing, let alone their point of view," Zeide explains.

That got Zeide thinking about kids today. She wondered whether future generations would have as much difficulty imagining what childhood looked like, sounded like, felt like in Madison, circa 2014.

"Even now, with all the media and documentation, I feel kids' voices are marginalized," she says.

Zeide decided to create a digital slice of daily life, inviting children and parents from around Madison to post photos, short narrative blurbs, and video about "daily minutia, even what they had for lunch," for 24 hours on May 7. The result was #Dayinakidslife, a real-time, crowd-sourced narrative, inspired by similar efforts such as #UWRightNow.

"I thought of this project as creating historical records for the future," says Zeide.

Zeide was one of five UW-Madison graduate students who received public humanities fellowships through an experimental program, "Engaging the Humanities," launched by the UW-Madison Center for the Humanities in 2013-2014. Two Ph.D. candidates, Heather DuBois Bourenane (African Languages and Literature) and Gabriella Ekman (English Literary Studies), were assigned to the Great World Texts program, while Stephanie Youngblood (Ph.D.'14, English) and Kelly Hiser (Historical Musicology) were paired with Wisconsin Public Radio and the Madison Public Library, respectively. The fellowships were funded by a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

The graduate students contributed their knowledge and deep training as researchers and writers to public programming efforts, while gaining professional experience outside the university.

"What a scholar can see, or imagine, goes beyond conventional, feel-good ideas or the same old arguments."
—Sara Guyer, director, UW-Madison Center for the Humanities

This new career training model for graduate students in the humanities is seen as increasingly important, since the brutal job market for Ph.D.s means they won't necessarily become professors.

"Historically, advanced graduate training in the humanities has been a one-way street," says Sara Guyer, director of the UW-Madison Center for the Humanities. "It sends you right to a job in academia — or you are more or less invisible. We are changing that model."

The new public humanities fellowship program showed what a highly-trained thinker can bring to a large cultural organization.

"We'll absolutely continue it next year," says Brenda Baker, Exhibits Director at the Madison Children's Museum and Zeide's supervisor. "As a scholar, Anna brought a high caliber of work to major projects that helped move the museum forward."

Guyer says that was the whole idea.

"What a scholar can see, or imagine, goes beyond conventional, feel-good ideas or the same old arguments," says Guyer. "There is something very special about Ph.D. training — it raises the level of awareness and criticality. The public gets access to another kind of thinking."

The public humanities fellowship changed Zeide's view of her own strengths and abilities.

"This has really empowered me to think of myself as someone who could get a job outside of academia," says Zeide. "My background and interests are pretty wide-ranging outside my field of study, but I felt I was not ideally qualified for any one position. Conversations with Brenda about what she sees as valuable about my work have really encouraged me."

At the Madison Public Library, Hiser helped manage the creation of the Yahara Music Library, a collection of musical works from local artists that library patrons can stream for free. Other libraries around the country have taken note, asking for guidance on how to create their own locally-sourced music archive. Hiser's supervisor there, Digital Services and Marketing Manager Tana Elias, credits Hiser for keeping the complex project on track and bringing an "ability to think of it in broader and more theoretical terms."

At Wisconsin Public Radio, Youngblood produced hourlong segments for the wide-ranging show To the Best of Our Knowledge, researching guests, drafting interviews, editing music, and more. One interview she produced (with True Detective creator Nic Pizzolatto) even went viral in the Huffington Post, Variety, Entertainment, and others — a first for TTBOOK.

Youngblood also conceived of, and coordinated, a flash fiction contest in partnership with the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery– contest winners had their three-minute pieces performed on the radio by actors from Ensemble Theatre Studio-L.A.

Executive producer Steve Paulson says the English Ph.D. student brought "intellectual depth and rigor" to her work.

"Stephanie was a tremendous asset to our team," he says.