Press Release

The Whiting Public Engagement Fellowship
Showcasing the Value of the Humanities to Our Lives

The relevance of humanities programs at colleges and universities has been called into question repeatedly and prominently of late. Consider these recent outcries published in The New York Times, the Harvard Business Review, on, and in The New Republic, all reacting to suggestions that, at a time when jobs are scarce and the cost of higher education has skyrocketed, students can’t do anything with a degree in history, classics, or American studies; that those who teach the humanities are bogged down in obscure theory; and that our most expensive institutions have become more insular and less connected to the “real world.”

Yet, some of the media that influence us most – award-winning documentaries that shape our individual opinions and public policy; groundbreaking books that catalyze a national conversation about issues like civil rights or the environment; acclaimed podcasts about everything from the global economy to our legal system; and websites we consult on a daily basis to provide background to news and cultural stories – draw on, and indeed require, the deep thinking, historical and contextual expertise, and rich analysis of the humanities to inform our lives fully. And, as it turns out, plenty of humanities scholars today are making important, far-reaching, and direct contributions to public culture.

With a firm belief that those who devote their professional lives to the study and teaching of the humanities are in a position to contribute to public understanding in a unique and profound way, the Whiting Foundation announces the Whiting Public Engagement Fellowship, and its first eight WPE Fellows. The WPE Fellowship is a way of supporting the work of these experts across various disciplines within the humanities, reminding us all of the exciting work they do that is the source of so much of the important information we consume, and showcasing some of their freshest and most brilliant contributions.

What is the WPE Fellowship and how were Fellows selected?

The Whiting Foundation invited approximately forty colleges and universities to nominate one recently tenured professor in the humanities for the WPE Fellowship, focusing on those who have already used their scholarly expertise to creatively reach wider audiences. Nominees were asked to complete an application by fall 2015, and these were peer-reviewed by a committee of distinguished scholars and cultural leaders from across a variety of disciplines.

This fellowship of $40,000 is meant to fund six consecutive months of leave for work on an ambitious, public-facing project. An additional stipend of up to $10,000 will be made available to cover project costs such as travel, collaboration, technology, and training.

The fellows will convene in the summers of 2016 and 2017 to plan and discuss their work, talk with senior scholars who are experienced public humanists, and participate in an intensive one-day workshop with the OpEd Project.

Who are the 2016 WPE Fellows and what – specifically – will the Fellowship allow them to do?

The eight Fellows hail from a range of departments: English; American studies; classics; history; global studies; environmental humanities; and African-American studies. They will use a variety of media for engagement with the public, from websites to exhibitions, from apps to curricula, and from podcasts to books. And they come from schools of all sizes and types, including five public universities. Four are research universities; two are liberal arts colleges; and two are master’s-granting institutions. The schools are scattered across the US, and three projects have strong international components.

The projects themselves are wide-ranging and directly affect a particular public audience. A few examples include:

  • an app delivering rich historical context to major American cultural sites – everything from Civil War battlefields to the Hollywood sign
  • a documentary film exploring the communities living in the “Saudi Arabia of Lithium,” an area spanning several South American countries where most of the world’s supply of the element is found and mined
  • a trove of oral histories of diverse residents of Brooklyn capturing the present moment of dramatic change
  • a series of exhibitions of contemporary art created by prisoners
  • a podcast on the looting of antiquities linking – in each episode – an ancient artifact to a larger geo-political, scientific, or cultural issue

Enclosed are more details on all eight projects; even more information is available online. The goal of every project is the same: effectively communicate the knowledge and expertise gained from deep study of the humanities to a larger, public audience.

Introducing the Projects Underway from the 

2016 WPE Fellows 

An ever-expanding digital home for a unique Afro-Latin community

Renée Alexander Craft (UNC at Chapel Hill; Global Studies & Communication)

Alexander Craft will expand a digital project about and co-created by the Congo, a unique Afro-Latin community on the Caribbean coast of Panama blending African, Central American, and Caribbean traditions. The site, Digital Portobelo, includes visual art; audio and video interviews with rolling bilingual transcripts; and short contextual videos. At its center is the Congo carnival performance tradition, celebrating the resistance of Los Cimarrones, formerly enslaved Africans who escaped to the rainforests of the Americas to establish independent communities during the Spanish colonial period and developed a unique culture out of their diverse influences. Alexander Craft has spent much of the last sixteen years living in the Congo community, where she has received the rare honor for a non-community member outsider of being allowed to perform in the annual celebration herself. During the Fellowship, she will also launch a new inter-generational oral history project bringing together middle- and high-school students and community elders.

An online resource for teachers about one of the most important – but little-understood – American events of the 17th century

Lisa Brooks (Amherst College; English & American Studies)

Inspired by two wildly successful workshops she led with groups of educators, Brooks will build and pilot a website for educators and students about King Philip’s War, which transformed 17th-century New England and was proportionally the bloodiest war in our history. Using full-color digital maps, primary sources, a story map, and other documents as curricular resources, the website will guide teachers of K-12 through the historical geography of this sprawling conflict. Brooks, a well-known scholar of Native American history (and one with Northeast Native American roots), will emphasize stories not often covered in secondary schools, even in New England, such as the role of Weetamoo, a female Wampanoag leader who was at least as powerful as King Philip himself at the time and as decisive in the course of the war.

A series of exhibitions and a bold new book on art created by prisoners

Nicole R. Fleetwood (Rutgers University – New Brunswick; American Studies)

Fleetwood, who became interested in prison art when an incarcerated cousin sent her a series of photographic prison portraits, has found that, for prisoners, art often becomes a crucial tool for survival, self-expression, and social life. She is currently finishing a book on the surprising variety of visual art being created in prisons and about prison life, which will be the first ever written on the topic by a scholar. The Fellowship will allow her to design and implement public programming to bring the art to a wider audience, including a traveling exhibition and a series of artist talks in Philadelphia and New York.

A new podcast that tells the stories of illicitly traded antiquities

Zoe Kontes (Kenyon College; Classics)

Kontes has spent years understanding the complexity of issues surrounding the illicit trade in antiquities, including modern tales of looting from archaeological sites, issues of ownership and repatriation, and questions regarding authenticity. Her interest in museum antiquities dates back to 1999, when she discovered a mislabeled Roman sculpture in a museum collection. With her Fellowship, Kontes, who also DJs a local radio show, will create the first twelve episodes of a podcast on the illicit trade in classical antiquities, the first of its kind. Each episode will use the story of a specific artifact to explore larger topics such as the looting of ancient sites; forgeries and the science behind determining authenticity; and what happens to cultural property during war. For example, a 4th century BC gold funerary wreath unearthed by looters and concealed in a hollowed-out watermelon to be smuggled out of Greece opens up a discussion of the issues around repatriation.

An investigation into the South American Lithium Triangle

Luis Martin-Cabrera (University of California, San Diego; Literature)

Lithium, an essential component of the rechargeable batteries found in laptops and cellphones, is being mined in Bolivia, Argentina, and Chile at a startling rate, altering the ecological landscape and the lives of the indigenous peoples living in the region. Martin-Cabrera will document the lives of the inhabitants of the so-called “Saudi Arabia of Lithium,” an area spanning these three countries and home to 85% of the world’s reserves of the element. Martin-Cabrera will capture their stories and incorporate them into a website along with interactive maps, pictures, and a documentary film, the result being a resource for journalists, environmental and humanitarian activists, and scholars engaging with this issue.

The creation and exhibition of a trove of diverse oral histories of Brooklyn

Jessica Siegel (Brooklyn College (CUNY); English, Journalism, & Education)

Siegel, a journalist and longtime NYC high school teacher featured prominently in Samuel G. Freedman’s acclaimed book Small Victories, will expand the Brooklyn College Listening Project, an oral history project capturing a mosaic of the residents of the borough at a moment of dramatic change. She will create Listening to Brooklyn, a digital archive launching in 2016 and interactive multimedia exhibition in 2017. The multilingual website will incorporate maps and photographs and provide resources for teachers and students to use the oral histories in the classroom or to create their own.

An app that brings history alive for thousands of sites across the country

David J. Trowbridge (Marshall University; History & African-American Studies)

Imagine that you’re on vacation in a new city. You walk down a street that looks generic enough – but pull out your smartphone, and suddenly history lives at your fingertips. The building across the way used to be a stop on the Underground Railroad; John F. Kennedy gave an important speech from the balcony above you; a major fire that started on the next block over changed how factories are designed forever. Trowbridge will use the Fellowship to further develop Clio, a free mobile app and website named for the Greek muse of history that connects the public with information about historical and cultural sites around the United States. Since Trowbridge created Clio in 2012 as a side project using his personal funds, it has grown into a national resource with more than 20,000 users a month and 9,400 curated entries. It includes contributions from hundreds of historians working through a selective crowdsourcing model. Clio also provides special accounts for educators that allow them to create proposed entries with their students for review, editing, and approval by professional historians.

Making a river’s past, present, and future visible from America’s oldest botanical garden

Bethany Wiggin (University of Pennsylvania; German & Environmental Humanities)

For Wiggin, rising temperatures and river water in Philadelphia lends a sense of urgency to learning about the history and context of people’s interaction with their environment. Collaborating with historians, scientists, and visual artists, Wiggin will create new programming for the public at sites like Bartram’s Garden, America’s oldest botanical garden – including the more than 10,000 middle- and high-school students who visit annually. Events under the broad umbrella Floating on Warmer Waters will explore ecologically friendly living by placing it in the historical perspective of Philadelphia’s Quaker past; consider the role of utopian ideologies in shaping development and conservation; and invite the public to engage in experiments in sustainability on a floating science lab created by artist Mary Mattingly.

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