Going into her final year as a Ph.D. student in history, Daniella McCahey never planned to take an internship at an art museum this summer. But in the process of applying for postdoctoral professorships, she was introduced to UC Irvine’s Humanities Out There Public Fellows Program — learning that Santa Ana’s Bowers Museum, one of the initiative’s partner institutions, was seeking a consultant for an upcoming exhibit on her specialty, British exploration of Antarctica in the 20th century. She applied, and the job was a perfect match.
“It was serendipitous,” McCahey says. “As someone who’s always been primarily focused on academia, I never saw myself working on such a big project outside the classroom, but it’s been amazing to share my research with people who have never been interested in history like this and to watch them come away with a whole new appreciation. Many maps don’t even include Antarctica, so I love helping people learn about it.”
She’s one of nine humanities doctoral students participating this summer in UC Irvine’s new Humanities Out There Public Fellows Program, funded by the Henry Luce Foundation and private donors. The fellowships are designed to increase public access to the humanities through community internships like McCahey’s, while introducing humanities scholars to careers outside tenure-track teaching.
H.O.T. Public Fellows work for 10 weeks with local organizations — PBS SoCal, the Santa Ana Public Library and the Los Angeles Review of Books among them — to develop projects that bring their expertise in humanities to the public. While the program is only in its second year, projects have included archiving oral interviews for “Memories of Migration,” an exhibit at the Santa Ana Public Library; conducting original research on one of California’s first oil paintings at the Laguna Art Museum; and developing a K-12 creative writing curriculum for PBS SoCal. McCahey’s work at the Bowers Museum involves crafting curricula and tour materials for an exhibit on the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition that will open in late September.
UC Irvine English professor Julia Lupton, founding director of Humanities Out There, seeks partnerships with institutions that will benefit from innovative humanities projects while encouraging graduate students to consider careers in public engagement, including positions in academic administration and at museums, archives, cultural festivals and publications.
“As the number of humanities Ph.D. students nationwide continues to outpace the faculty positions available, UC Irvine is creating new opportunities for its doctoral students to explore professions beyond academia,” Lupton says. “The H.O.T. Public Fellows Program is an attempt not only to foster relationships between UC Irvine and Southern California institutions, but to redefine how students and faculty in the humanities envision success.”
An aptitude for community engagement
Many students, like Jessica Conte, who’s pursuing a Ph.D. in East Asian languages & literatures, have discovered an aptitude for community engagement after becoming H.O.T. Public Fellows. She interned last year at the Vietnamese American Arts & Letters Association’s film festival, editing the screening guides and organizing and moderating panels.
“I wasn’t interested in film before I took on my fellowship. I had done film criticism, but I had never imagined doing anything like the film festival,” Conte says. “If you’d asked me a few years ago what I wanted to do with my degree, I would have said [teaching]community college, but the festival made me realize that what I really love about teaching is interacting with people and sharing knowledge – and there are so many ways to do that besides traditional professorships.”
Amanda Swain, executive director of UC Irvine's Humanities Commons, appreciates that the H.O.T. Public Fellows Program has made humanities more accessible to the local population.
“One of the best parts is sharing our students’ love of the humanities with the public and making those disciplines less insular,” she says. “Humanities scholars have such passion, knowledge and analytical skills; we want to spread that energy and expertise across Orange County and Los Angeles.”
Swain notes that the H.O.T. Public Fellows Program is not intended to divert Ph.D. students from academia, but to encourage them to make their research engaging and publicly accessible in their chosen careers. Although McCahey is still aiming for a faculty position upon graduation, she says her fellowship this summer will affect the way she teaches, as well as the projects she hopes to undertake outside the classroom.
“I love teaching history to college students who are already interested in it, but there’s a real sense of pride in teaching younger kids and people in the community who’ve never encountered anything about the history of Antarctic exploration,” McCahey says. “It’s all about exposing people outside academia to new ideas. In the future, as a professor, this is something I’ll remember.”