Creating Care and Space in Humanities Administration: Katharine Wallerstein

Katharine Wallerstein (Associate Director, UC Davis Humanities Institute) is one of the leaders of the newly re-grouped Humanities Administration Network. This past week she generously answered my questions regarding what is at stake in the current administration of humanities centers and institutes (HCIs), as well as who in fact is invited to participate in this network. On May 12 and 13, the network will host two virtual conversations titled “Forming the Humanities: On Care” and “Traversing the Humanities: On Space” (registration), and Wallerstein encourages all HCI administrators to join. — Aaron Fai, CHCI Membership and Diversity Officer

Aaron: What is the function of an HCI administrator these days? How have the last five years changed this role, you think?

Katharine: Look, it’s no secret that the humanities and arts are struggling for funding and support. In the classroom, ladder-rank faculty are not being replaced as they retire, and adjuncts, lecturers, and graduate students are carrying the workload. The privatization of the university, the neoliberalization of models of higher education not only in this country but elsewhere, the move to the right of our government on all levels, and the amplification of anti-intellectual popular discourses have together amounted not only to a decrease of support for the humanities, arts, and humanistic social sciences, but demands upon people in those fields to “prove” their worth. As part of this trend, administrators have increasingly been asked to become managers rather than directors and intellectuals invested in creating a culture of experimentation and expansiveness. As an Associate Director, “management” is the last thing I want to see myself doing. Managing time and resources well, sure. But managing people? Managing ideas? No. And the whole idea that we can quantify research, or conversations, or ideas, or creative interactions of any kind is just so anathema to the very content of those ideas, conversations, and research. There are complex historical reasons for these shifts that can be summed up perhaps a bit too easily by the term neoliberalism. Still, whether we call it neoliberalism or late capitalism or something else, the cultural effects are far reaching. I think that a significant part of the burnout that everyone experiences—and I’m talking pre-COVID!—is not just because we work longer hours than we should with fewer staff and fewer resources than we need, but because we are trying to square a circle with our roles as administrators.

Aaron: What innovations are you seeing and would you like to see in HCIs? What role do you hope the newly re-grouped Administration Network can play in encouraging innovation?

Katharine: Public humanities has been one, very essential, innovation. I hope that we can continue to expand how we understand research, and creative production, and that we continue to find ever new ways to accommodate and honor a range of epistemologies in the academy, while also locating the academy in the community so to speak. I think that the Public Humanities Network and the Humanities Administration Network have a lot in common and I’d really like to imagine ways in which we might collaborate and join in each others’ activities. More generally, I think that understanding intellectual production, in all its forms, as a dynamic and changing field, and not getting stuck in rigid categories of definitions is the sine qua non of keeping the humanities relevant. This is trickier than it sounds. Innovations in disciplinary approaches, new social identities, and new trends in research can often lead to new orthodoxies, and then we are back at square one again. My hope is that this group can provide a space for talking about all of this. How can we maintain our centers as spaces of possibility, always becoming, to use a Deleuzian concept, creating new paths as we walk them, new ways of interpreting the world, and new ideas for how to live together within it?

Aaron: How would you like this network to be in service to humanities administrators who are in very different institutional and career contexts, particularly those not in North America? In other words, how can this network address the international nature of its membership?

Katharine: There were several ideas behind this network. First, the group is not new. We—Rachel Arteaga, Assistant Director of the Simpson Center for the Humanities at the University of Washington; Maurits Van Bever Donker, Senior Lecturer Research Manager at the Centre for Humanities Research, University of the Western Cape; Andrés Claro, Consejero, Centro Interdisciplinario de Estudios en Filosofía, Artes y Humanidades, Universidad de Chile; and I—are merely the new steering committee for an already existing group, taking over from the prior one. We are, though, choosing to change its focus a bit, in some of the ways I described above. Part of this change is in making it more relevant internationally. And of relevance to everyone, regardless of institution or nation, is the question of why what we do matters. It’s a more philosophical question, more meta, and less nuts and bolts. We are taking a risk, I guess, in not focusing on topics such as grants, and advocacy, which are obviously hugely important to talk about and what people have come to this group to talk about before. And maybe we will bring that back next year. But this seemed to some of us like a place where we could also raise these big questions about what we do, as administrators, and what we do as centers. What affective life does a center take on? What social and political spaces do centers provide, alongside intellectual spaces, and how can we keep making that our primary focus, despite all else that is being asked of us? In some key ways the path to creating a more just, sustainable, kind, and democratic world is one of slowing down and taking time, and space, to let new ideas and new alliances develop. The work we enable is after all not just the work of scholarship. It is the work of friendship. It is the work of exercising different and new and counter-hegemonic ways of being together. The cultures and social dimensions of these spaces are as vitally important as the papers and working groups and conferences they produce. And this, going back to my point above, simply cannot be measured by any of the metrics we are being asked to employ. Having spent a great deal of time in academic and intellectual settings outside the US I have come away with the sense that, whatever our significant differences, there are important points in common among those of us who do the work of creating spaces and of accompanying the people and ideas who/that move through them. Of course our differences are essential too, and addressing common questions across these geopolitical and cultural differences can only enrich our discussions and our work.

Aaron: What advice or experience would you like to share with new directors or folks trying to start a new HCI?

Katharine: Well, first, each context is so different. What kind of a university are you operating within? Small, large, public, private? And then contexts outside the US can be entirely different. I will say that starting new initiatives can be incredibly exciting, and very challenging, especially in this climate. But it is precisely because of these challenges that this work is so crucially necessary. The world needs more spaces of open engagement with ideas, and more spaces where the liberatory power of common engagement in a range of critical creative practices is really understood, and where these practices are allowed to flourish. Making that happen will more often than not mean balancing both a legibility to the structures you operate within, and an invisibility to them too.

If I may, I’d like to add a few more words about this group. “Humanities Administration” for us is not limited to Associate Directors (or similar titles). It includes faculty directors, research group coordinators, and anyone in any way engaged with the work of directing and administering humanities spaces, broadly construed. We very much hope that anyone who feels they fit those categories (certainly anyone in the CHCI network, for starters!) will join our conversations on the 12th and 13th, and help us move the group forward.