Alumni Profiles Series: Jacqueline Kellish

 August 20, 2023

Jacqueline Kellish is Director of Public Engagement at the National Humanities Center (NHC) located in Research Triangle Park. She received her B.A. in political science and M.A. in social sciences from the University of Chicago before coming to Duke. While pursuing her Ph.D. in English, she worked as an administrative intern in The Graduate School, served as associate editor of NOVEL: A Forum on Fiction, and completed an internship with the NHC. After graduating in 2020, Dr. Kellish took on a full-time role at the NHC and was later promoted to her current position, in which she designs and implements programming to promote engagement with the humanities among diverse constituencies.

How did you come to your current position?

I began my tenure with the National Humanities Center (NHC) back in 2018 through a program run by Maria Wisdom at Duke called Versatile Humanists. It was an initiative funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities called “Next Generation Humanities Ph.D.” At Duke, the program sought to place graduate students from the humanities and social sciences in a variety of organizations to explore careers that were connected to  the disciplines they were working in but weren't traditional tenure-track jobs. The program  connected me with the NHC through a paid summer internship working on a project called Humanities Moments, which was a digital humanities initiative that invited folks from different walks of life to share meaningful humanities-related experiences

After my internship, I was asked to stay on in a part-time capacity at the NHC, which I did for several years. When I graduated with my Ph.D. in the spring of 2020, it was not an ideal time to be on the job market, but I was fortunate that I had the opportunity to continue working at the NHC. Within a year, I applied for and received a full-time position there as Public Engagement Coordinator. Not only was this a new role, but it also represented the creation of a new division at the center. Previously, the NHC had focused their efforts on their residential fellowship program, on K-12 educational outreach, and in general forms of institutional advancement. My appointment constituted a different kind of investment in public engagement for the center, focusing on a publicly oriented audience rather than a primarily scholarly one.

Now that I have been elevated to Director of Public Engagement, I am responsible for creating strategies and developing programming to help us reach diverse publics. These include not only academics at all levels, from graduate students to retired faculty, but also—and of particular importance to me—members of the general public who have a vested interest in the humanities. These people may have studied the humanities at some point during their lives, but it is equally likely that the humanities may not have been an area they ever had the chance to explore deeply in a formal, educational setting. My primary responsibility is to think about the different constituencies we should be serving and to develop programs, events, and opportunities to build community for those folks around some of our shared interests, methods, and convictions in the humanities.

What experiences during graduate school prepared you for this role?

In addition to my internship with the NHC, I also served as editorial assistant and then as associate editor for the academic journal NOVEL: A Forum on Fiction, which built on some work that I had done previously at the University of Chicago Press as an undergraduate. In that role, I was basically the person who was in charge of an issue before it was published. This involved acting as a liaison to Duke University Press staff, reviewing submissions, serving as a full member of the editorial board, managing student copy editors, securing publication permissions, and addressing final formatting issues.

This was an important experience because it helped me develop a meticulous eye for detail. More important, however, was the way in which the role helped me think about genres of writing in a larger context. I think sometimes we tend to see academic writing as a one-size-fits-all kind of endeavor.  When we address a scholarly audience, we use certain conventions and certain forms of voice. But the reality is that, for example, a book review about a contemporary dystopian sci-fi novel may have a radically different tone than something that is about Miltonic prose and its relation to the novel in article form. It helps to cultivate an awareness of those small differences and nuances, which can make a world of difference in how a piece reads and the audiences it may reach. That's something that has been hugely helpful and important to me in my work.

I think that my particular area of research also helped prepare me for a position that straddles the line between scholarly and public audiences. My scholarly expertise is in the global Anglophone novel from the late 20th century onwards, which is a topic that might be more familiar or approachable to the general public. The fact that I have been really attuned to new novels that have been published over the past 20 or 30 years is a helpful starting point for thinking about what sorts of literature have had a significant impact on broader readerships. If you take a look at major literary prizes, such as the Nobel Prize or the Booker Prize, the works you see recognized there—which are often the sorts of works people in the academy are inclined to write about—don’t necessarily reflect what people might be reading on the subway on their morning commute.  For me to mobilize my expertise in the service of the public humanities, I need to think critically about the kinds of topics that folks might be willing to attend an event to consider in a collective setting, and to understand how those topics can be connected to methods, objects, and discourses in the humanities today.

What do you see as the value of public humanities in today’s world?

In their ideal form, the public humanities have the ability to make people aware of the things they already love, that bring them joy, complicate their insights, and enrich their perception of the world. There are so many instances in which people are already engaging with the humanities on a regular basis. I think a lot of people would not consider what they do in their free time to be an outgrowth of the humanities, and yet I would argue that when you attend a musical performance, when you have a debate with friends about the relative merits of a television show, or when you read for pleasure, those are all different elements of engagement with the humanities. So, for me, one valuable thing the public humanities can do is to illuminate the work that's already happening in these instances and its value to our lives.

The other thing that public humanities have the ability to do is to disrupt the hierarchies that we have put in place and reified in the academic system. This is a collective problem and it's obviously one of the reasons why the question of higher education in the U.S. has become as polarized as it has. While this may not be a problem exclusive to the academy, I do think we need to devote more care, attention, and energy to trying to be inclusive in the way that we think about intellectual engagement and learning. The most impactful public humanities projects reach beyond the walls of the university to think about new forms of community engagement. In doing so, they help to build relationships and transmit knowledge in a way that is not one-sided, but rather a collaborative exchange of ideas. This is what happens in the best seminar experiences, in which, rather than a professor transmitting information to students, a collaborative exploration is taking place where all parties are open to finding, receiving, and creating new forms of knowledge together.

Quotation from alumni Jacqueline Kellish reflecting on the value of the public humanities

Can you describe a project you’ve worked on that exemplifies these values?

During the pandemic, I proposed and founded a national COVID-19 oral history project, which I continue to direct. While there are other such projects, I designed this project with certain commitments and convictions that set it apart from similar archival ventures. First, there's a real pedagogical emphasis to the project. Specifically, we train students and community members to become oral historians themselves. It's really important to us to make sure that participants understand the responsibilities and best practices for interviewing and capturing this kind of knowledge so that it can be preserved.

Second, our conversations tend to focus on forms of structural inequity that were exacerbated by the pandemic. We were very deliberate in assembling a pool of interviewees who represented the full spectrum of the healthcare sector. When I formed this project, there were many articles and other forms of media coverage featuring the stories of nurses and doctors, but we weren't hearing very much from other people who were working in equally precarious but less visible positions. That oversight also meant that a lot of the representations of health care workers’ experiences were being further stratified along lines of socioeconomic status, race, and geography. Our project developed grassroots models of interviewee recruitment to build trust with various communities and to make sure that we were reaching out to and featuring environmental service workers, translators, food preparation staff, patient transport staff, and others.

We have about 250 discrete interviews in our archive to date from across the country. It's been a really profound experience and we've formed some great connections with folks in professional sectors and in communities that the NHC had never reached before. In some ways, this is a more traditional model of public humanities engagement, but it’s also a good one. It allows for a kind of democratic participatory model that can be a little bit more difficult to get off the ground within the confined space of the university and the limits of a semester or a quarter.

What would you say to graduate students in the humanities considering non-faculty career opportunities?

One really fascinating aspect of my job that has become more rather than less apparent to me over the years is the fact that I’m fortunate to still be working in the field in which I was trained. I actually think this is true for a lot more of use than we realize at the outset, even for individuals who are not pursuing faculty careers. My day-to-day life is very different than if I were a professor. I am not paid to pursue my own research or to publish my own work. But at the same time, what I do is perhaps more meaningful to a broader range of people than if I were teaching. I think that there’s something to be said for identifying opportunities to bring the philosophies that matter to you as a graduate student and in academia to the work that you're doing in any field.

This can happen in overt or in subtle ways. For me, it's fairly overt because I work at an institution with “humanities” in the title. I am involved in different forms of educational outreach, and I teach various types of classes. While these classes don't look like the kind of high-level literary surveys I had once imagined teaching, they are not radically dissimilar in terms of the types of things that I'm able to do. There are other folks who were colleagues of mine in graduate school who have positions that at first glance seem further from that kind of academic scholarly model, or from the humanities that they trained in. And yet, in many ways, they're marshaling the same kinds of expertise.

I know people who are working in diverse fields, including science communication, academic publishing, and even more creative fields, and I think in all of these cases there's a fundamental commitment to a few things: first, to promoting a kind of diverse and sophisticated worldview; second, to adhering to high standards of communication as a way to promote new ideas; and third, to understanding one's own work and one's own responsibilities within an ecosystem that is greater than just the university itself. Increasingly, even while I was in graduate school, a lot of us were struggling with the difficulties and challenges of doing work that at times could feel so narrow in scope. That’s not to say that direct engagement with students or with other scholars doesn't hold tremendous value, but it can be fairly self-limiting and at times my peers and I felt acutely aware of that fact.

For folks in the academy as well as those outside of it, I see this move toward a wider and more democratic perspective as a really important development. I think that's something that has changed radically in the last 10 to 15 years and I'm really happy to be in a position where that’s at the core of my job. No matter what you’re doing, it’s important to think about the way that you're positioning yourself, the way that you are representing your field, and the way that you are transmitting ideas in an inclusive fashion.



Nathan Drapela

Ph.D. candidate, German Studies

Nathan Drapela

Nathan Drapela is a Ph.D. candidate in German Studies. During the 2022-2023 academic year, he was a Graduate Student Affairs Intern in The Graduate School. He is currently teaching German and completing a dissertation on walking in nineteenth- and twentieth-century narrative prose. Outside of teaching and research, you can find Nathan backpacking or exploring North Carolina on his bike.