How to succeed in Public Humanities

April 2, 2014
Atticks '11 with Sculptor Larry Egan

Amy Atticks '11 with Irish Sculptor Larry Egan, following a presentation to Offaly County officials, taken during a Public Humanities research residency in West Offlay, Ireland in the summer of 2010.

Credit: Amy Atticks

Archivists, arts administrators, art teachers, communications managers, consultants, cultural planners, curators, development writers, interpretive guides, marketing coordinators, museum curators and educators, nonprofit business managers, oyster farmers.

Education, interpretation, research, and administration.

Cities, historic sites, museums, parks, and universities.

The careers of our graduates reflect their interests—and the ways in which they have shaped the program to create professional opportunities.

“HOW”?  Prospective students ask: “I have a background in … anthropology, literature, music, history, art, chemistry …  and I’m interested in public art, museum work, cultural planning…. How will this degree shape my skills and interests into a career?”

The Public Humanities MA program University encourages students to pursue local and global engagement, providing ideas, toolsguidance, and opportunities to make personal and professional connections. There are only two required courses, “Introduction to” and “Methods in” Public Humanities, which provide students with a shared vocabulary and philosophical foundations. Other courses provide theory, knowledge, and academic and practical skills. Outside of the classroom, Center staff, faculty, other students, community employment partners and colleagues, alumni, and the wide-ranging members of Providence’s arts and cultural community serve as formal and informal advisors, engaging students in discussions on their coursework, providing feedback on practicums and work, sharing information about job openings in the community, and offering networking and insight into relevant projects and organizations. 

The program is flexible and students are challenged to customize their experience to make their time at Brown meaningful to their career trajectories. Given this flexibility, the “how” depends on who you speak to.

I checked in with Amy Atticks ’11, Principal Marketing and Communications Strategist at Thomas Jefferson's Monticello and Julia Lazarus ’07, Project Manager, Online Education Programs in Continuing Education at Brown University and asked them to tell me “how” they shaped the program to get what they wanted. 

 Amy jumps in:
From day one, each student is asked to report on their area of focus at nearly every meeting, brown bag lunch, program and presentation, e.g.: "I'm Amy Atticks, I'm interested in the history of photography and the entrance of photography into art museums." One important aspect of the program is the diversity of interests within each cohort. The class of 2011 had areas of interest ranging from zines to dance to African American history to foodways. And these interests often changed. What we shared was an investment in the preservation and presentation of cultural heritage and the arts, and a curiosity for useful methods and models for engaging the public. It was great to be part of a diverse cohort, but this meant that specialization was something each student needed to develop independently, finding content-specific peers at conferences, forums, special events, literature, online, and in subject specific courses.

Julia reports:
Shaping the program to meet my goals, an autonomy and an academic challenge I think some students in my year may have found daunting, for me was actually one of the very best parts of the program.  With the support and guidance of the Center, I was able to access professionals in the field I never would have reached on my own.  I was able to test my imagined goals against their understanding of the public humanities field and its myriad opportunities, and learned so much from the real examples and recommendations they offered.  Over the course of my two years I read about, studied, and encountered so many case studies -- in course materials and in the world -- that I left the program feeling very attuned to and familiar with the professional landscape.

Amy adds:
I also entered the program with a practical goal in mind. While working in New York City and reviewing potential future position descriptions that interested me, I realized that nearly every one of them required or preferred a graduate degree. While in the Public Humanities program, I continually reviewed position descriptions to make sure that I was using the resources available at Brown to make myself more employable. This meant reviewing paid positions, conferences, fellowships and internships advertised by the Center for Public Humanities; taking advantage of Training at Brown, CareerLAB, the Sheridan Center; and attending sessions with the program's visiting consultants. It also meant proposing independent studies that included practical skill building and sometimes even access to the faculty and resources at other universities or organizations in the community.  

 Julia matches:
“Thinking just about coursework, I entered the program focused on public programming for adults at contemporary art museums. Studying "the public humanities world view" within the core program courses became my theoretical and practical foundation.  Upon that, I added study of art and museum education, arts administration and cultural planning, public art and public spaces, and strategies for community engagement.  I found resources at Brown in Urban Studies and History of Art and Architecture, and at RISD in Art + Design Education and Public Art.  Every course I took both expanded and deepened my understanding of my professional goals, and I graduated with a much broader understanding of my capabilities and ways in which I could put my education and my passion for public humanities to use in the world.” 

Amy elaborates:
Everyone in the program was busy, and it was good to be busy. In just two years, I served as an editor for Digital Humanities Quarterly, co-wrote an article published in The Oral History Review, lived as an on-site caretaker for a historic house, lived as an on-site assistant to a professional photographer, developed interpretation for the holography galleries at MIT Museum, conducted field research in Ireland, worked with students at a local elementary school, developed field trips for middle school students visiting the Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology, participated in courses at Harvard and the Rhode Island School of Design, attended conferences as a HASTAC scholar, became a member of a Mellon Research Initiative Reading Group, completed teacher training through the Sheridan Center, worked with collodion glass plates at the John Hay Library....and more. All of these opportunities were brought to my attention by either a person or resource at Brown and were made possible because I was a student in the program.  

In the words of Thomas Jefferson, “It is wonderful how much may be done, if we are always doing. And that you may be always doing good, my dear, is the ardent prayer of yours affectionately.” Working in the cultural sector requires us to make the most of limited resources, and if you are fortunate enough to be a graduate student at Brown, you are likely already someone who takes initiative. I have never had so many good reasons to be busy as I did while a student at Brown. I found the Public Humanities program to be a friendly, nurturing environment which gave me access to once in a lifetime opportunities, as well as necessary guidance to pursue them. 

With great thanks to Julia and Amy for sharing their “how” stories, for more perspectives, the Center will be hosting our Annual Alumni Panel on April 7.  Jasmine Utsey ’12 (Cultural Project Management, Consultant), Leah Nahmias ’09 (Program Officer, NY Council for the Humanities) and Anya Ventura ’12 (Arts Research Writer at MIT’s Center for Art, Science & Technology) will be leading the discussion on just ‘how’ the Public Humanities program has informed their career trajectories. Curious publics are welcome.  Event details and RSVP here.

Visit Life after the MA for a rotating series of alumni interviews.  

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