Robyn Schroeder first became interested in public humanities (although she wasn’t calling it that yet) as an undergraduate at Wesleyan University. She had always been fascinated with issues of public memory, and one of the things she got involved with was giving campus tours, sharing the university’s history with students and their families.
That led to a series of jobs after graduation, at museums big and small — the Glessner House Museum and later the Museum of Science and Industry, both in Chicago, as well as the Lincoln Home National Historic Site in Springfield, Illinois.
One of the key things Schroeder (pronounced “SHRAY der”) learned through those experiences was “that there are experts in the world beyond the academy who have a tremendous capacity for teaching us local and larger histories.”
She knew she wanted to attend graduate school and chose Brown University, receiving both an M.A. in public humanities and a Ph.D. in American studies there. She went on to serve as director of graduate studies and as a post-doctoral fellow at the John Nicholas Brown Center for Public Humanities and Cultural Heritage. She wore a variety of hats at Brown — running academic programs, helping students with community practicums, fellowships and finding jobs beyond the academy.
Schroeder is bringing that passion for public humanities to UNC’s College of Arts & Sciences as the new initiative director for the Mellon-funded Humanities for the Public Good. She began the post Oct. 9.
Humanities for the Public Good will use multiple strategies to integrate public humanities into the curriculum, tap the potential of digital technology for humanities scholarship and teaching, and reach out to diverse communities to elevate awareness of existing humanities activities at Carolina as well as foster new avenues of public engagement.
Schroeder has already been meeting people and making connections, and “has observed how much more is possible because of the mission of this public institution in serving people beyond this campus — in reaching the state of North Carolina.”
One of the events Schroeder created at the John Nicholas Brown Center was a “Day of Public Humanities” with a fellow postdoc, Jim McGrath. They curated and organized activities and a discussion on how to raise the profile of the public humanities.
At UNC, she hopes to conduct a baseline assessment of the publicly engaged activity already happening here.
“We have a flourishing ecosystem of public humanities work already, but part of my purview is to make connections among people who might not normally come into contact with one another,” she said. “My husband calls that ‘thickening the matrix.’”
At Brown, Schroeder was active in the Northeast Public Humanities Consortium, an organization that shares resources among universities doing publicly engaged work.
“What I see in looking around at other universities doing public humanities work is an opportunity for Carolina to become a leading model,” she said. “I want to inspire people to think that the realm of the possible is bigger than they think it is.”
Schroeder, who has an office fittingly in the Institute for the Arts and Humanities in Hyde Hall, would love to meet with people to learn about their public engagement projects and share her goals for the new Mellon grant. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org to set up a time to connect.
By Kim Spurr