The Center for Public Humanities is excited to announce our new blog series called Coffee & Questions. Each month, we'll be interviewing a humanities scholar or community member and asking them everything from why they believe the humanities are important to what they're currently binge-watching on Netflix. We hope that this blog series will inspire you, introduce you to a variety of people and fields, as well as create new conversations.
Our first guest is Mary Rizzo, Associate Director of Digital and Public Humanities Initiatives in the Graduate Program in American Studies at Rutgers University-Newark. Prior to coming to Newark, she spent a decade working in public history and public humanities at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Center for the Humanities, the New Jersey Council for the Humanities, small museums (including an 18th century historic house where George Washington actually slept), and other educational organizations. She tweets as rizzo_pubhist and blogs (occasionally) at maryrizzo.net.
What inspires you in your current position/role?
My students and the people of Newark inspire me. My students are constantly asking hard questions of me about what is means to do the humanities in public, about how we deal with contemporary issues in a way that attends to the power dynamics at play in them and make that accessible to people beyond the university walls. Newark's people are inspiring because they are so determined. The activists, community members, and people who work at cultural institutions here make miracles happen with almost no resources at all. On those days when I feel simply overwhelmed I think about what they're accomplishing and it renews me.
What project(s) are you currently working on?
My biggest project is the launch of our new MA track in public humanities in our American Studies program. This new track, which is centered on inclusivity and social justice, grounds students in the history, theory and methods of the public humanities, gives them opportunities to do real work in projects in and out of classes, and includes nonprofit management courses to make sure they're ready to take on leadership roles when they graduate. We are especially interested in recruiting people already working in the field who want to get some additional training to move up in the world.
Why do you believe that the humanities are important to everyone, and not just people in academia?
Everyone engages with the humanities. When you turn to your friend after watching a Netflix and say, "you know what that movie made me think about?" you're engaging in the humanities. What we do in the public humanities is collaboration between community scholars and university scholars to illuminate contemporary issues of importance. For example, in Fall 2016, my grad seminar worked with community organizations and community members to develop an exhibit about community responses to police misconduct in Newark since the 1960s as a way to contextualize the recent announcement of a civilian complaint review board and Department of Justice consent decree. That's a specific use of the humanities to help us contextualize and understand a complicated contemporary issue. But the humanities are being "done" around us every day.
What shows are you currently binge-watching?
I'm always way behind on my shows. I'm finally catching up with House of Cards, though finding the middle of the 4th season a slog. Given our current election, it's fascinating to see the power plays and behind the scenes politicking. I keep wondering whether Frank and Claire are modelled on the Clintons. There seem to be a number of parallels, so that adds another layer to the show. I'm also rewatching The Wire, but that's work, not pleasure, since I'm writing a book about cultural representations of Baltimore since the 1950s. Except the show is so good, it's also pleasure.
What is the worst job that you had while working through your degree and what would you tell your past self now?
I worked as an office temp a lot during my grad school years. Since I was getting a PhD, temp agencies figured that I would be ok to place as assistants to fairly high up people. The absolute worst job I had was working for a very senior executive at an insurance company because his admin was on maternity leave. He was condescending and so incompetent that I was told by another admin he wasn't even allowed to turn on his computer because he would break it. One day he yelled at me to find him scotch tape and when I brought him the only kind we had--in the plastic dispenser--he basically called me an idiot who couldn't do her job because he wanted it without the dispenser. I wish I had walked out right then and there, but I did end up writing a short story about that experience which was not flattering to him at all. Weapons of the weak!
Thanks for sharing, Mary! We enjoyed learning more about you and your current projects.
Check back next month for more Coffee & Questions. Want to be featured? Contact us.
Want to hold a community event in collaboration with the Center for Public Humanities? Let us know!