HWW to HRI: Community-Based Research Practice

More than a Metaphor: “Humanities Without Walls” in Practice

When Antoinette Burton began her tenure as director of the Illinois Program for Research in the Humanities (now the Humanities Research Institute/HRI), the Humanities Without Walls (HWW) consortium was in its infancy. Funded by the Mellon Foundation, the consortium of humanities institutions is an experiment in humanities practice through interdisciplinary, cross-institutional Grand Research Challenge teams and career exploration.

“Coming into this job eight years ago, Humanities Without Walls was kind of a metaphor,” said Burton. She saw it as a useful way to describe the breaking down of silos or crossing the porous boundary between the academy and the world at large.

“It wasn't until we had accumulated the first 45 unique Grand Research Challenge projects, which each in their own different way proved the possibility of ‘humanities without walls,’ that I really began to get it as more than a metaphor,” she said.

In addition to the regional and national impact of HWW’s Grand Research Challenge projects, the tangible effect of HWW’s public-facing programs within our own campus and community is clear: six U of I-based Grand Research Challenge Projects have been funded, thirteen UIUC PhD students have completed the community-based Summer Bridge program, and four UIUC graduate students participated in HWW’s Career Diversity Workshops.

As the HWW consortium has evolved, Burton has come to realize how the Humanities Research Institute has absorbed some of its insights in its programs and projects. “Humanities Without Walls’ reciprocity and redistribution concept is really about mixing up the site of knowledge production and questioning hierarchies of authority and expertise,” she explained. It’s also about working thoughtfully when trying to cross from campus into the community and back again.

From Consortium to Campus

Fall '23 Community Speaker Series panelists Mel Grantham, Janice Walker, and Teddie Hill.
(L to R:) Fall '23 Community Speaker Series
panelists Mel Grantham, Janice Walker, and
Teddie Hill.

The integration of ‘humanities without walls’ approaches in HRI projects and initiatives is particularly visible in its work with We CU, such as the Humanities in Action (HIA) program. In HIA, undergraduate humanities students are matched with a community partner to address a vital area of need in the Champaign-Urbana community. Importantly, the students also receive monetary support to help remove financial barriers to service work.

Humanities Research Lab courses are another community-oriented opportunity. Offered through HRI in collaboration with the Office of Undergraduate Research, HRLs are humanities courses that incorporate a significant community-based research component. Students in HRLs have used their skills to work with local organizations on issues such as community gun violence, food insecurity, challenges faced by unaccompanied minors, and access to healthcare within the Hispanic community.

The Odyssey Project—an adult education program for low-income community members, hosted by HRI—has certainly been shaped by community partners who play multiple invaluable roles including recruitment of eligible students. The newly launched HRI Community Speaker Series brings these partners (in the fall, Champaign County Christian Health Center, First Followers, and WIN Recovery) to the fore to share the challenges and successes of working directly with the public in essential services and needs.

Building ethical community-based experiences into humanities training is also an extension of HWW thinking. The Odyssey Project has a predoctoral fellowship attached to it which enables this kind of experience for Illinois PhD students, and the Mellon Post-Doctoral Fellowship in Humanities as Social Practice which HRI also hosts further develops HRI’s expanding public humanities footprint. As does a pilot partnership with the College of Education that is supporting a research assistant to study Sola Gratia’s farm-to-school initiative.

Developing Best Practices

(L to R:) Humanities in Action scholars Araceli Urbina, Yousra Mahmoud, Sydney Turner, and Sophie Campa; HIA Coordinator Priyanka Zylstra, and HIA scholar Jessica Vargas.
(L to R:) Humanities in Action scholars Araceli
Urbina, Yousra Mahmoud, Sydney Turner, and
Sophie Campa; HIA Coordinator Priyanka Zylstra,
and HIA scholar Jessica Vargas.

Working in publicly engaged humanities is more than developing ideas and matching interests. What are some ways to ethically practice such community-oriented work? “Transparency, humility, and service,” Burton said.

At the center of Humanities Without Walls’ 2020 Mellon grant renewal is the guiding principle of “reciprocity and redistribution,” an ethos that Burton had already seen at work in several partner institutions in HWW. These were teams striving to practice ethical, equitable collaborations, often with organizations outside of predominantly white institutions (PWIs).

With the latest HWW grant renewal, collaborations with Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and Minority-Serving Institutions (MSIs) are now a requirement for the research teams. Additionally, through close consultation and guidance from Professor Jenny L. Davis (American Indian Studies, Anthropology, Center for Indigenous Science co-chair), the consortium is integrating lessons learned from Indigenous practices in research and knowledge-making.

These methods originated in an interdisciplinary research-focused context; however, Burton is continually finding opportunities to foster—and engage in—reciprocal, redistributive partnerships within the community on behalf of the institute as well.

It’s important to recognize and respect the agency of the community partner and acknowledge that the authority conferred upon you by a PhD, as an academic, does not trump or compete with other forms of knowledge, she explained. “It’s not that you arrive with a project already formed. It’s that you sit down and say, these are the parameters, what are your parameters, and how do we do this in a co-creating way?”

She often returns to the phrase “care and repair” as a reminder to be humble and vigilant in building partnerships. It’s also wise to think ahead to anticipate the risks of the partnership and discuss them in advance so that your collaborators are aware and will be able to pivot if needed, she said.

“Humanities without walls is both a metaphor and a practice, and they’re equally powerful.”

This article was originally published on the Humanities Research Institute website on November 8, 2023.  

Related stories:

The Summer Bridge Program: “Graduate students devote their summer to service

HWW Consortium: “Consortial Partners Reflect on HWW’s Evolution

Humanities in Action: “Students Put Humanities in Action, Build Lasting Connections

HIA and HRL Teaching Assistant Spotlights: Leslie Reyes  |  Flor Quiroz

HRL Featured Course: “Class-Community Partnership Explores Roots of Community Violence https://hri.illinois.edu/news/class-community-partnership-explores-roots-community-violence