Illinois Humanities Assistantship
Nicoletta Ruane, PhD candidate in Philosophy, has been working with Illinois Humanities since August 2016 as part of the pilot partnership between IH and Loyola. History PhD candidate Katie Macica caught up with Ms. Ruane to learn more about her experience working in the field.
Describe your role at Illinois Humanities.
For the last several months I’ve been working as program coordinator for Illinois Speaks, a civic engagement program that hosts facilitated community discussions on social, political and cultural issues throughout the state.
I support the grants side of the program by working with grantees on their public events and ensuring they are trained in discussion facilitation, but most of my work is devoted to developing the regular monthly Illinois Speaks meetings. As of March 2017 we have seven such monthly meetings, in Carbondale and Golconda, Illinois, and in five neighborhoods in the city of Chicago—Pilsen, Garfield Park, Hyde Park, Uptown and Old Town. This spring I’m working to expand the monthly meeting program into Elgin, Decatur and Granite City.
I help our community facilitators in their efforts to invite a diverse range of people to their discussions, inform the varied topics groups select for themselves with different kinds of resources, and locate guest speakers from different institutions and agencies to participate in the conversations.
What has it been like to work directly with the community in the Illinois Speaks program?
In a word, humbling. Much of what Illinois Humanities does is provide the means for others to engage the public in humanities events that they design. These programs can range from traditional to boldly experimental.
Our state is home to a large body of extraordinarily talented people who bring the ideas and momentum to the work. In this context, I simply provide the resources needed for the programs to be professionally facilitated and the topics well-informed. In just the last few months, Illinois Speaks has partnered with a broad range of dedicated librarians, public school and university faculty, museum and historical society staff, community and youth leaders, and public advocates. Much of what I have learned, I’ve learned from those we have worked with, and of course the Illinois Humanities staff.
How has your graduate education at Loyola prepared you for this position?
My graduate education prepared me for this role more than I suspected it might have. Failing to speak to the general understanding of a social or political issue remains an ever-present risk in this work, and having an academic background can amplify that risk in certain ways. Of course, this is something one must be highly conscious of in the undergraduate classroom as well!
What surprised me was what aspect of my Loyola education came into play, because it wasn’t my area of specialization. One of the great strengths of Loyola’s graduate program in philosophy is its emphasis on the history of philosophy. I think this is what benefited me most in challenging situations, where the support I needed to offer involved being able to identify different social, political and cultural trends and their sources; how these have been understood, or their place in the history of ideas; and then how to make this sort of knowledge accessible and relevant to a contemporary issue, something I learned while teaching philosophy at Loyola.
What is the biggest takeaway from your fellowship so far?
This is very complex. One major lesson has come from having learned more about the rich history and geography of the state, which brought with it a much clearer understanding of some of the social and political fault lines that now pose challenges to developing a robustly democratic polity—namely, a deep understanding of the experiences of others. While this is merely preliminary in the broader framework of politics, I think it’s a critical starting point for truly effective civic engagement.
But the greater takeaway during this assistantship is a more profound understanding of the contradiction the humanities finds itself in, particularly in carrying out a public mission. The humanities as such are not well understood in our society, and this interacts in complex and sometimes unclear ways with the mass interest that exists in the arts, literature, history, politics, the pressing questions of value and human experience, and so on. In other words, very many people enjoy and are certainly thinking about and discussing relationships and products of culture with others, while remaining largely cut off from the historical and theoretical modes of understanding that exist for the works and experiences that are so treasured.
Leaving out here any comment on what lies behind this disconnection, one of the most important things I’ve learned is that it will be essential to think very broadly and boldly about the existence of the humanities for the future, and to be extraordinarily well-informed in this thinking.
What has been the most rewarding part of your experience so far?
This is a much easier question to answer! Illinois Speaks seems to be developing into a program that can bring people together who do not often interact to sit down to discuss issues that will probably foreground their own values and experiences. Doing this well requires a certain amount of insight and sensitivity, solid training, and experience. The most rewarding aspect of the assistantship has been in helping our community facilitators grow into doing this work as the program has expanded, something which I have a lot of help with from IH staff and our partners. But it is something I believe can create some lasting value.