Emory works to advance the public and civic purposes of the humanities through Imagining America

By Imagining America | November 05, 2014

Written by Corey Goettsch, PhD Candidate in History and a graduate assistant in the Laney Graduate School. [Note: This blog post originally appeared on on November 4, 2014. It is posted here with permission.]

Humanities scholars were once visible public figures. In the early 20th century, Woodrow Wilson, a historian, became president of the United States. Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., famed author of The Age of Jackson and The Thousand Days, taught at Harvard before becoming a member of the John F. Kennedy Administration as a Special Assistant to the President. At Columbia University in the 1950s and 1960s, Richard Hofstadter, C. Wright Mills, and Lionel Trilling regularly stood in the public spotlight. But starting in the 1970s, humanities scholars became increasingly isolated at their universities. Ironically, as humanities scholars’ work became more inclusive and democratic in its content – covering workers, women, people of color, and members of the LGBTQ community – it became more remote from public discourses.

Re-engaging the Humanities through Imagining America

As of late, however, there has been a movement to reengage the humanities with the world outside the academy and to use humanities scholars’ work in America’s diverse history and culture to help promote a more democratic society. A consortium with approximately100 universities and partner organizations as members, Imagining America is a leading player in this movement.

Featuring major participation and leadership by faculty and graduate students from Emory University, Imagining America is an organization that seeks to “create democratic spaces to foster and advance publicly engaged scholarship that draws on arts, humanities, and design.” Imagining America grew out of a White House Initiative from the late 1990s. It emerged in the context of a nascent “’informal movement’ amongst artists, humanists, designers, and other scholars in the cultural disciplines who passionately wanted to claim engagement” with the larger community as integral to their identities as scholars. The initial host campus was the University of Michigan until IA moved to Syracuse in 2007. The organization hosts yearly national conferences, including one that recently convened in Atlanta from October 9-11, 2014.

A Comprehensive Mission

Imagining America has a comprehensive mission with many goals. One is full participation: universities ought to partner with their communities to recruit underrepresented groups for participation in higher education and address challenges within those communities. Another is extension: humanities scholars should extend their work beyond the academy to become more publicly engaged and contribute to their community. Imagining America is pushing to make publicly-engaged academic work, not just traditional scholarly articles and monographs, included among the work that enables junior scholars to acquire tenure. Imagining America also advocates weaving public engagement into undergraduate and graduate education. Undergraduates should be trained in making informed decisions based on evidence and learn how to collaborate with others in their communities to push for meaningful change. For graduate students, Imagining America has run the Publicly Active Graduate Education (PAGE) program since 2003, which is developing a framework for publicly-engaged graduate training and enabling graduate students who are interested in engaged scholarship to connect with peers and senior faculty. And finally, Imagining America is in the process of developing assessment models for engaged scholarship projects. Through what is called integrated assessment, universities are asked to team up with community stakeholders and use case studies to define what engaged assessment should be, looking beyond the semester and the university to see how collaborative projects are affecting the community as a whole.

Imagining America at Emory

Emory faculty and students are deeply involved in Imagining America and recently took part in the annual national conference hosted in Atlanta. Dr. Vialla Hartfield-Mendez, a professor in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese, is the chief faculty representative of Imagining America at Emory, and she is also the Director of Engaged Learning at Emory University’s Center for Community Partnerships. Through an innovative collaboration between the Laney Graduate School and the Center for Community Partnerships, there are also three Laney Graduate School-funded Imagining America fellows from LGS’ graduate student body. All three were also selected as Imagining America PAGE Fellows. Their successive year-long fellowships made it possible for Emory to break new ground as the principal host for the national Imagining America conference, working over the span of three years to cultivate Emory’s membership in the consortium, participate in several Imagining America workshops and other activities, help to organize and facilitate the local conference steering committee, and plan and implement the details of the 2014 conference.


Dr. Vialla Hartfield-Mendez, IA National Conference, October 2014 (Photo by Lee Wexler)


IA graduate fellows Sarita Alami and Dr. Shan Mukhtar, IA National Conference, October 2014 (Photo by Lee Wexler)

Sarita Alami, a doctoral candidate in History and Emory’s 2014-2015 Imagining America fellow, is currently completing her dissertation about newspapers that prison inmates edited and published, focusing on the ways in which “prisoners have used the printed word to become activists and shape their experience behind bars.” Meghan Tierney, a doctoral candidate in Art History and the first Imagining America fellow to be appointed for 2012-2013, studies the Ancient Americas, and her dissertation is about depictions of shamanic experiences in Nasca ceramics. Dr. Shan Mukhtar, a recent graduate of the Institute for the Liberal Arts and the 2013-2014 Imagining America fellow, specializes in Critical Race Theory and Ethnic Studies. Her dissertation, which she has begun revising into a book project, focuses on constructs of race in academia in the post-Civil Rights American South and looks at how “diversity was defined and implemented in a majority-minority university.”

Involvement with Imagining America has enriched the professional lives of these LGS graduate participants. Sarita Alami recently led a three-hour session at the annual Imagining America conference about community-based learning that “included faculty and administrators from 15 institutions, nonprofit CEOs, and a university provost.” This was not an experience she “could [have gotten] from a [traditional] graduate fellowship.” Her involvement in Imagining America has “put me in touch with hundreds of other people who are doing the same things.” According to Sarita, “the network I’ve built through Imagining America has reminded me that the academy can be a crucial, driving force for change in the world.” While at Emory, she has worked with such community-based programs as The Transforming Community Project and the Center for Community Partnerships and has taught place-based courses that have engaged with community organizations.

Meghan Tierney found that Imagining America opened up an avenue of academic work that was previously unknown to her, saying that “Public scholarship was not on my radar before I became involved in Imagining America, but now I see it as central to my career going forward [and has] … enlivened my experience at Emory and in academia in general.” Since starting as a fellow, she has worked with the Michael C. Carlos Museum to bring Nasca art objects to a wider public. The Carlos Museum hosts Nasca works, and she has given tours of the collections of the museum to local primary and secondary schools with large Latino populations, helping Atlanta’s diverse students connect with the Americas’ multicultural history in a very tangible way. Meghan also co-authored, with Vialla Hartfield-Mendez, an article about the Carlos Museum’s public engagement with the Atlanta Latino community in the inaugural edition of PUBLIC: A Journal of Imagining America.

Through her involvement with Imagining America, Dr. Shan Mukhtar endeavors to help change how diversity is understood at universities. The purpose of her engaged scholarship is not just to provide a critical perspective on how diversity has hitherto been defined in the university. She seeks “to intervene quite directly into existing diversity work and provide alternative ways of addressing ethno-racism, reforming the social, economic, and political inequities that persist among different racial and ethnic groups, and creating more substantive spaces for intercultural relationships.” Shan has found that Imagining America has opened avenues for her to do this: she was able to work on “higher education organizing workshops with staff, faculty, and fellow students based on IAF [Industrial Areas Foundation] labor organizing strategies and cultural organizing methods from the Civil Rights Era.”

Emory’s Vision Carried Forward

Imagining America and local initiatives at Emory like the Center for Community Partnerships and the Center for Ethics are tangible evidence of Emory University’s commitment to ethical inquiry and using research and teaching to meaningfully influence the community at large. Engaged scholarship is a natural outgrowth of Emory’s commitment to courageous leadership and positively transforming the world. LGS students like Sarita, Meghan, and Shan, through their own work as well as experiences with Imagining America, will carry forward their commitment to engaged scholarship, planting seeds of change wherever they go.