Strategies for Advocacy in the Humanities- Abstracts and Information about the Session

This site was created to provide information about session 639. Strategies for Advocacy, Lobbying, and Activism in the Humanities which will take place in the 2015  MLA January Convention in Vancouver, BC. The session is scheduled for Saturday, 10 January, 5:15–6:30 p.m., 117, VCC West. Please write any comments or relevant links to advocacy in the humanities below and share widely. We look forward to an engaging discussion in January!


INFORMATION ABOUT THE SESSION- from Organizer- Giovanna Montenegro, Lecturer of German, University of California, Davis

Last year, Michael Witmore, Director of the Folger Shakespeare Library, testified to Members of Congress on how important funding was for the National Endowment for the Humanities. In his testimony, Witmore discussed the difficulties that former students had when deciphering Shakespeare’s use of the word “incarnadine” in Macbeth. Shakespeare’s subtle transformation of an adjective meaning “the color of flesh” to a verb that will redden or “incarnadine” the sea with Macbeth’s guilt stumped the brightest of his former math and engineering majors. Witmore saw this example as indicative of the way through which the study of Shakespeare can lead students to use their imaginations to ponder the societal meaning of using adjectives or nouns as verbs, as in the case of the (new) infinitive “(to)google.” As Whitmore stated, “If our economic prosperity as a country depends on our abilities in the STEM fields of Science Technology and Mathematics, our capacity for creativity, innovation, and leadership will similarly depend on our strength in the humanities. We will always need people who use words well, and who know what they mean, just as we need people who understand the technologies that make the world go round.”

As an example of possible collaborations between the Humanities and the Sciences, Witmore discussed the NEH’s support for Digital Humanities through his participation in projects that bring engineers and humanists together to analyze the work of Shakespeare.

Yet, while Witmore emphasized the need to bring those in STEM fields together with those “who use words well,” state councils, creative artists, and public humanists have been lobbying for the humanities in a myriad of ways. For example, the California State Council, seeks to foster “a state of open mind” among Californians using literature, history, and critical thinking. Hence, our goal in this roundtable is to bring all of these perspectives together to impart strategies for advocacy, lobbying, and activism in the humanities for MLA members ranging from graduate students to seasoned scholars.

Specifically, this roundtable will build upon the strategies discussed at the 2012 MLA Convention roundtable “Making a Case for the Humanities: Advocacy and Audience,” arranged by the MLA Delegate Assembly Organizing Committee (DAOC). It will further answer questions posed at the MLA Delegate Assembly Meeting in Chicago in January, 2014; the DAOC’s Agenda Item for Open Discussion: “Strategies for Strengthening Humanities Education as a Public Good: How Do We Respond to Questions of Our Value? What Should the MLA Do?” raised many questions concerning allegiance between humanists and K-12 teachers, scientists, artists and members of congress.

This MLA roundtable, will continue this discussion and will allow us to further collect resources which we will post here on the MLA Commons website. The roundtable will include US, Canadian, and International perspectives from state humanities council directors (Ziegler), scholars who seek to foster public engagement with the humanities in the academy (Mangum), and scholars who use a variety of methods including Public Art and Performance (Colby and Shi), and Rhetoric and Radio (Krajewski, Miranda) to engage wider communities. The goal is to show what strategies are already being implemented, and other examples that faculty members and PhD students can then use at home to continue to lobby for the humanities.

Abstracts for Short Presentations:


Teresa Mangum, Professor of Gender, Women’s, and Sexuality Studies and Director, Obermann Center for Advanced Studies, University of Iowa
Increasingly, humanities centers across the US and Canada are playing important roles in bridging the gap between scholars and the broader public. Graduate students have been especially insistent in finding ways to integrate the academic and public humanities. Inspired by a program at the University of Washington-Seattle, nine years ago the Obermann Center developed the “Graduate Institute on Engagement and the Academy,” which prepares graduate students not only to explain their scholarship to non-academic audiences, but also to develop partnerships that enhance their research and demonstrate its public value. You can learn about the program from the students themselves, here: The Institute is built on the principles of the organization Imagine America: Artists and Scholars in Public Life One challenge in documenting publicly engaged humanities teaching and scholarship is that the most exciting projects may not generate traditional academic forms of documentation. Imagining America has responded by launching the journal PUBLIC My co-editor Anne Valk (Williams College) and I are also attempting to create opportunities for crossover publication that will more deeply connect humanities scholars and cultural leaders in the public humanities through our book series, Humanities and Public Life (University of Iowa Press). You can see a preview of the kind of project the series will include by attending an MLA screening of The Penelope Project (Friday, Jan 9 at 7 pm in 208 VCC West, session 407). The creator, Anne Basting, is a professor of theatre and age studies and a playwright. At the screening she will discuss her collaboration with Sojourner Theatre, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee students and faculty, and the staff and residents of the Luther Manor retirement home in Milwaukee. As Basting’s project vividly demonstrates and as graduate students in the Obermann Institute so often insist, advocacy has the potential to grow into deep, collaborative, engaged partnerships that can animate both communities and the humanities in unexpected ways.


Julie Ziegler,  Executive Director, Humanities Washington
While important humanities research and dialogue continues to take place within the academy, it is increasingly important to bridge the “town and gown” divide, and bring the humanities to the general public.  State humanities councils and other not-for-profit organizations and government agencies are an important conduit between scholars and the general public, providing opportunities to connect and build a broad base of support and appreciation for the humanities and the role of the public intellectual.   Benefits to scholars and the academy include increased awareness for and support of the work of scholars in the academic setting, the opportunity to expand or rehearse a research project before varied and discerning audiences, and provide a change of pace and an opportunity to know their city, region, state or province in a new and remarkable way.  For the public, exposure to new and expansive thinking benefits our communities and our society in immeasurable ways.  This presentation will touch on how scholars can effectively bring their work to the general public, and the long-term benefits that can result, including improved relationships with elected officials who can help fund this important work.

Sasha Colby, Associate Professor Explorations in Arts and Social Sciences and World Literature- Simon Fraser University
Houston, we have a problem – or several interconnected problems leading to a sense of crisis in the humanities: dropping enrolments, governmental cuts in funding, job freezes.  In a time where, arguably, the humanities seem more important than ever in terms of offering analytical and creative skills, skills that will outlast the rapid obsolescence of “training,” it feels like the bottom is dropping out – that somehow, mysteriously we have become a species at risk.  It is tempting to look back, in this moment, to some kind of golden age, to a time where the humanities were valued and seemed to offer some kind of essential good to society that could not be found elsewhere.  Often this sense of unassailability is illusory – the humanities have almost always had to plead their worth in the face of more pragmatic or utilitarian ideologies – but when I imagine this admittedly mythological golden age, I am almost always transported to Victorian Oxford, particularly the moment when John Ruskin and Walter Pater were both there, duking it out, in their well-mannered way and possibly over tea, about the value of art and literature, and various modes of critique.

Here is the thing about Ruskin, and Pater, however.  Charged with their own need to defend the arts from a Victorian emphasis on technological progress, they were aware of their audience.   They knew, in their own ways, that it would never be enough to be read only by their students and colleagues and a few experts outside of the academy.  They wrote for the public.  They wrote elegantly but also clearly, with specific examples that captured the imagination.   They told stories.   When Ruskin wants to push the case for Gothic imperfection, he urges Victorian young women to think about the glass beads they buy as trinkets and the soul defeating task of creating them.  When Pater wants to create interest in Michelangelo, he tells stories of the artist’s youth as a way of creating human interest in the individual who would become the genius.  Very few people reading these texts now complain that the texts are not sophisticated enough or too concerned with “accessibility.”  Quite the opposite – “The Nature of Gothic” and Studies in the History of the Renaissance have become standards in research and teaching.   And so the question becomes:  What happened?  When did we stop thinking about audience?  When did clear language and narrative fall out of favour?

The answer is to be found somewhere in the swirling tide of post-modernism.  Undoubtedly, theory has provided us with many useful perspectives. But it has also contributed to a declining interest in connecting with audiences outside the university.  We often ignore public hunger for ideas that are clearly communicated and for stories from our disciplines.  We shun accessible work for its lack of “rigour.”  And then we are puzzled by public indifference.

In this paper, I will argue for clarity and for narrative as central to any strategy of “outreach.”   This does not involve “dumbing down” academic thought, but rather expressing it clearly and harnessing it to arts-based modalities that cut across the divide.  Creating this bridge, I will further suggest, is central not only to creating new types of research but also, quite possibly, to saving ourselves.

Bruce Krajewski, Chair & Professor, English, University of Texas at Arlington (
Past and Furious, or House of Bards and How to Rebuild with Rhetoric
The upper levels of public North American universities, boards and presidents, are full of business people, or those who act like them. The corporate university works subliminally and subcutaneously, advancing political causes that often hurt people who work in the humanities. Thus, we have continual narratives of the humanities’ decline, and workers in the humanities who are angry about their derogation. The history of the humanities includes the history of rhetoric, which began arguably with the sophists.  My suggestion is that we revive sophistry as one method to intervene in the corporate university, and bring about its demise from within.  The recent salient example for consideration is the Mitt Moment, the revelation that Romney spoke one way to donors paying $50 thousand a plate at a Republican gathering in Florida when he believed he was in private, and used another mode of discourse exoterically for purposes of getting elected.  This Janus-faced rhetoric is as old as Plato’s Seventh Letter, but reinforces the ancient point Plato made, which is that it is dangerous to have your true philosophy recorded.  The MLA is not committed to any serious battle with the corporatists.  As a splintered group unaligned with any political party dedicated to undoing corporate machinations, MLA’s members might want to consider making esotericism work for us, toward universalism not yet realized. The House of Bards can undermine the House of Cards. Consider what has been learned via Edward Snowden, and the snow job perpetrated on people across the globe. We are in the appropriate country, Canada, to think about snow jobs, and what we might learn rhetorically from Snowpiercer, a film with a slogan on one of its posters that reads: “Fight Your Way to the Front.”

Fei Shi, Professor, Tutor in Humanities, Professor, Tutor in Humanities
Quest University Canada  
Experiential Learning in the Humanities: Student as Artist and Activist

Quest University, Canada’’s first and only independent, not-for-profit, secular private university just graduated its first class three years ago. The institution was founded in response to the demise of large lecture-style classroom environments, and it aims to transform undergraduate education with small, interactive, seminar-style teaching across its entire curriculum. It faces enormous challenges and opportunities as an exciting start-up institution for higher education. As a faculty member who has the rare opportunity to grow along with an institution, Dr. Fei Shi in this roundtable discussion focuses on two cases of how faculty members foster student learning and social engagement in the Humanities at Quest University:  1) an integrated and mandatory off-campus experiential learning course/credit in Quest curriculum. 2) Practice-based Humanities and art courses such as “Film: Community” and “Arts for Social Change.” These value-driven, question-oriented, community-based courses and learning opportunities help students become political activists who engage actively with social problems in local communities around them as well as in other parts of the world. They reinforce the values of Humanities education not only in its critical force but also in its transformative power.

Juan Miranda and Silvia Aguinaga-Echeverria – Graduate Students Spanish Department, University of California, Davis
Correveydile– Bridging the Academy and the Hispanophone Community through Public Radio.
This presentation will discuss a public humanities/public affairs radio project created by Graduate Student volunteers from the Department of Spanish and Portuguese at the University of California, Davis. The central aim of the radio show is to build a bridge between academic Spanish research and the surrounding Davis and university community. The program, hosted at KDVS 90.3 on a bi-weekly basis, is structured with different sections such as: Introducción, Entrevista, Curiosidades de la lengua, y Radioteatro (Introduction, Interview, Language Curiosities, and Radiotheatre). In the presentation, we will explain the purpose of each section of the radio program, including what each one entails and what the sections provides for the listener. Secondly, we will discuss the program´s impact on the university and the city of Davis, specifically regarding the bridges that the program has built between professional scholarship and the greater community. Finally, we will discuss the benefits that the program provides to beginning level Spanish students: both as radio audience members and as participants of the show.


 Sasha Colby is Associate Professor in World Literature at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia. She is currently working on her book project, Staging Modernist Lives: H.D., Mina Loy, Nancy Cunard, which includes solo-performance texts as well as critical chapters, and an appendix on teaching literature through theatre. The book will also include multi-media excerpts from the plays. Her manuscript, Matryoshka: On Memory, Motherhood, and Migration, is currently under review. This text combines strategies from literary/cultural theory and creative non-fiction. Her book Stratified Modernism: The Poetics of Excavation from Gautier to Olson. focused on poetry and archaeology from 1860-1950 (Oxford: Peter Lang, 2009). Additionally, she has served as Writer/Director/Producer/Performer for the Gabriola Theatre Group in 6 full-length productions. During this time she raised $50,000 in proceeds for local non-profit organizations.

Bruce Krajewski is Professor and Chair of the English Department at the University of Texas at Arlington. He has been an administrator and teacher at two institutions with doctoral degrees that have a Rhetoric focus. His interest in rhetorical strategies began with his first book, Traveling with Hermes: Rhetoric and Hermeneutics (1992). At the annual Internet Librarian conference in 2007, he addressed the encroachment of global capitalism on the humanities, with specific reference to the situation of academic librarians. That paper was “Strategic Approaches to the New Academic Library.” In a 2009 essay in the London Times Higher Education Supplement entitled “Microcosmographia Administrativa: Being an Incomplete Set of Etiological Considerations,” Krajewski sought to lay out some of the problems faced by administrators in the humanities in North America. He has undertaken a defense of the humanities in a humorous way in a piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education (2011) entitled “The 2011 Mind-set of Faculty.”


Teresa Mangum is a Professor in Gender, Women, and Sexuality Studies at the University of Iowa. In 2010, she was appointed Director of the Obermann Center for Advanced Studies. She has been publishing on issues such as publicly engaged pedagogy, the place of service in an academic career, and graduate student placement. With Anne Valk of Brown University, she co-edits the book series Humanities and Public Life for the University of Iowa Press. A long-time supporter and beneficiary of the Obermann Center, Mangum co-founded and co-directed the Obermann Graduate Institute on Engagement and the Academy, co-organized an Obermann Summer Research Seminar on age studies, and hosted the 2009 Obermann Humanities Symposium: “Platforms for Public Scholars.” She also served as the 2013 Director of the Iowa Humanities Festival. She also presided over the Roundtable “Making a Case for the Humanities: Advocacy and Audience” at the 2012 MLA convention.


Juan Miranda is a PhD Candidate in the Spanish Department at the University of California, Davis. He received his M.A. in Spanish Language and Literature, University of Nevada, Reno, 2010. He is the Program Director of Correveydile, a Spanish language show hosted through UC Davis’ KDVS radio station, which aims to link the larger Spanish-speaking community in Yolo County, California to the University through radio plays, interviews, and other innovative programming. He continues to bridge his research with public art through Spanish language creative works and performances. He has presented his research at various conferences, and has served as the chair of the Graduate Student Association at UC Davis from 2013-2014. He researches representations of soccer in conjunction with oppressed communities in contemporary fictional Argentine and Latin American films.

 Giovanna Montenegro (Organizer) is a Lecturer of German at the University of California, Davis where she received her PhD in Comparative Literature. Her research focuses on the intersection of German and Latin American Colonial Studies. She has served as a Delegate Assembly Member 2012-2014 and as a Member of the MLA’s Committee on the Status of Graduate Students in the Profession. She also served as a Graduate Representative of the American Comparative Literature Association. She has presented on issues of diversity in the academy at various conferences.

Fei Shi is a Professor/Tutor at Quest University in British Columbia. Over the past 9 years, in both Shanghai and California, he has taught over 20 different college level courses and directed many theatre productions. His teaching focuses on a highly innovative and interdisciplinary approach to Arts and Humanities. Theory-informed and practice-based, he challenges the students to read, write, think, speak, and act out of the box. He encourages students to become artists in their different fields of studies through daring adventures and creations.

Julie Ziegler joined Humanities Washington as executive director in 2008 after serving multiple terms on the board of trustees. She first became involved with Humanities Washington in 1998 and, during her tenure on the board, held leadership posts on the Grants, Development, Finance, and Executive Committees. Ziegler will address strategies for successful advocacy at the state and federal level, including strategy development (articulating a request with a clear call to action and identifying appropriate legislators to target); development of talking and proof points that demonstrate relevance and impact; scheduling meetings, developing meeting agendas, and recruiting a team; visit conduct and tips, including effective follow up; ongoing relationship development between visits; and how to mobilize constituents within local communities. Ziegler will also discuss maximizing impact by partnering with other advocacy and organizing groups working in the humanities such as the National Humanities Alliance, AAC&U, AASLH, AMA, ALA, and even the NEA and state arts councils.

Silvia Aguinaga-Echeverría is a PhD student in the Spanish & Portuguese department at UC Davis in the linguistics track. Her research is focused on Second Language Development, more specifically in vocabulary processing and acquisition. Using corpus analysis, she researches how learners acquire collocations in Spanish. She received her M.A. in Teaching Spanish as a Foreign Language from Alcalá de Henares University, Madrid, 2010. She moved to the USA to obtain another M.A in Spanish Language and Literature from Auburn University, AL, 2012. She co-directs the radio program Correveydile, a Spanish language show hosted through UC Davis’ KDVS radio station, which aims to build a bridge between the Spanish-speaking community in Yolo County, California, and the professional scholars from the university. Her main goal for the radio program is to show the different varieties of the Spanish language, in addition to bringing awareness and prestige to the different Spanish speaking communities.