Idea Blog

Elizabeth Meadows: Summer at the Curb Center–The Work of Public Engagement

Posted on: July 2nd, 2014 | Posted in: Uncategorized | 0 Comments

Ed note: Dr. Elizabeth S. Meadows leads the Creative Campus and the Curb Scholars Program for the Curb Center at Vanderbilt.

I started at the Curb Center last summer, and it was a hectic time—planning the opening retreat and fall semester’s Scholar sessions, selecting Innovation Grant recipients for the first time, and planning the 3rd Annual Creative Practice Boot Camp on the fly—all while learning how to do a new job with a staff as new to the job as I was.  I found myself wondering what summertime at the Curb Center would be like in a “normal” year.  Now I know…

Last week we got the first batch of blog posts from Curb Scholars doing summer internships this year.  In NYC, one Curb Scholar is working with a theater company that mounts innovative and challenging productions taking on important cultural issues that have  public policy angles; urban development, income inequality, the environment, and free speech are just a few of the concerns at the heart of the productions at this theater.  Another Curb Scholar has ventured further afield—traveling to a remote region of Peru, where she’s working with a non-profit organization on a project that unites scholarship, enterprise, and art in empowering the people of Hualcayán to preserve their heritage and boost their local economy.  Meanwhile, halfway across the world, a third Curb Scholar continues his immersive experience of Chinese life in the 21st century, while also working for a California-based non-profit as part of a virtual writing team made up of interns from around the world.  While doing the research for a series of articles about Nujiang, a river that flows through China, Tibet, and Myanmar that the Chinese government has plans to dam, he’s also creating a set of poems accompanied by photographs documenting his experien

ce in Kunming.  These students are taking what they’ve learned during three years at Vandy—in their classes, the Curb Scholars Program, and their interactions with peers—and putting it to work in communities far removed from here.  Their work is a testament to the vision that informs the Curb Scholars Program: while they put their passion and creativity to work for the public good, they enact the Curb Center’s mission to make the arts central to dialogues around public policy issues.

All of this seems particularly fitting for a summer that began with the Curb Center and the Robert Penn Warren Center for the Humanities partnering to present the first annual Mellon Summer Institute in Digital and Public Humanities.  Part of the Andrew W. Mellon Partners for Humanities Education grant that Vanderbilt received in December of 2013, the Mellon Institute provided twelve grad students from the Departments of English, Sociology, History, Spanish and Portuguese, and Religion with experience using digital technologies in public humanities projects.  Professor Teresa Mangum, Director of the Obermann Institute for Advanced Studies at the University of Iowa, kicked off the week with a workshop on practicing humanities scholarship in the public sphere, emphasizing the necessity for sustaining long-term, mutually beneficial, and reflective relationships with community partners.  During the weeklong Institute, we saw incredibly exciting examples of such work from both faculty at Vanderbilt and public and community partnerships.  For example, the Nashville Public Library, Humanities Tennessee, and Casa Azafrán, a community organization in Nashville, have an ongoing project to record and preserve the stories of Nashville’s immigrants from around the world, creating public history from the words and experiences of people from the many intersecting communities of the city.  Imagining America defines public scholarship as “scholarly or creative work integral to a faculty member’s academic area [that is] jointly planned, carried out, and reflected on by co-equal university and community partners.  And it yields one or more public good products.”  By working to equip early-career scholars with the knowledge and resources for engaging in such work, the Curb Center and the Robert Penn Warren Center make scholarship active in the world around us.

The excitement of the Mellon Institute was especially welcome after the bittersweet farewell to the Curb Scholars class of 2014: Keith Berquist, Harvey Burrell, Danielle Morrison, Amery Sanders, and Cal Umlauf.  Saying goodbye was an occasion for looking back at my first year leading the Curb Scholars Program and the Creative Campus Initiative, and I realized that working with this incredible group of graduates has changed my aspirations and goals as a scholar, making me more eager to bring the daring and passion that each of them embodies into my research and teaching.  The work of the Curb Scholar summer interns, of the students, faculty, and community partners at the Mellon Institute, and of the graduating class of 2014 come together in a serendipitous and inspiring conjunction that reminds me of the real aim of this job: engaging people in multiple intersecting communities to participate in creating knowledge that makes good things happen.

That’s what summertime means at the Curb Center!

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