Book Excerpt: Imagining Otherwise: Speculation in the Americas
Oct 9, 2023
The new book Imagining Otherwise: Speculation in the Americas represents eighteen months of research insights and works-in-progress from the inaugural Interseminars Initiative cohort of the same name at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. The book was released at the group’s culminating symposium held at the Humanities Research Institute on September 15 and 16, 2023.
Funded in part by a $2 million grant from the Mellon Foundation, Interseminars is an innovative experiment in interdisciplinary graduate education in the arts and humanities. Based in collaborative research and teaching, each project spans an 18-month period, culminating in a community-facing event. The grant funds three such projects through 2025.
The first Interseminars project, led by faculty members Josue David Cisneros (Communication), Patrick Earl Hammie (Art and Design), and Jorge Lucero (Art and Design), was themed “Imagining Otherwise: Speculation in the Americas.” Referencing examples from TV’s “Lovecraft Country” to recent anti-racist activist efforts, the theme centered speculation as a method for looking differently at the world—both to critically assess its status quo and to reimagine how it could be different. Studying speculative forms in art and activism, they proposed, can help guide scholarly and creative inquiry about crises ranging from climate change to systemic violence and immigration policy. The project’s work was foregrounded in the knowledge and experiences of historically marginalized communities throughout the Americas, exploring how speculation has been and can be used to reframe the past, present and future.
The cohort’s nine graduate fellows hail from a range of disciplines and home colleges, including Education, Fine and Applied Arts, and Liberal Arts and Sciences: Kofi Bazzell-Smith (Art & Design), D. Nicole Campbell (Communication), Daniela Morales Fredes (Urban & Regional Planning), Adanya Gilmore (Dance), Beatriz Jiménez (Spanish and Portuguese), Ramón (Ray) Martinez (Spanish and Portuguese), Emerson Parker Pehl (English), María B. Serrano-Abreu (Educational Psychology), and Toyosi Tejumade-Morgan (Theatre).
The book contains materials and resources from class, including syllabi; a photographic year-in-review; a Q & A with the fellows on their experiences; and research writings and creative works-in-progress, including an original play and artwork.
On November 9, a2ru will be hosting a webinar with the instructors and graduate fellows from the seminar. “Imagining Otherwise: Speculating New Forms of Graduate Education in Arts and Humanities” will take place on Zoom from 3:30-5:00pm Eastern, when the participants will share their experiences in this innovative program, as well as some of its emergent implications for graduate education and interdisciplinary inquiry.
Ahead of the webinar, a2ru is proud to publish an excerpt from the book, the Introduction written by Cisneros, Hammie, and Lucero. You can also download a free PDF of the entire book by clicking below.
Introduction: Thoughts on interdisciplinarity, speculation, and the reimagining of graduate education
J. David Cisneros, Department of Communication; Patrick Earl Hammie, School of Art & Design; and Jorge Lucero, School of Art & Design
The Interseminars Imagining Otherwise experience was an eighteen-month collaboration across disciplines and difference that took place between 2022 and 2023. The project was sponsored and administered by the industrious and hyper-supportive crew in the Humanities Research Institute at the University of Illinois, and funded by the Mellon Foundation. Immediately the project went beyond the resource- affordances of institutional space, time, money, and the charge to connect across areas of study through our theme “Speculation in the Americas.” As a learning cohort, we decided early to see ourselves—both conveners (faculty) and fellows (graduate students)–as mutual contributors, co-creators, if you will. Of course, that never means that every person brings the same thing to the table; rather it is an understanding that everything anyone brings is equally received as material for inquiry and expression. We started from the assumption that we all had some expertise and some gaps in knowledge and that these dynamic differences in the “room” would become a chance to mutually rethink our scholarly approaches, pedagogies, and creative works. We expected the time together to be both challenging and revealing in educative ways and that something new—albeit indeterminate—would come from it.
We can now confirm that this happened, even though we do not see the culminating symposium held in September of 2023 and this publication of the same year as “the end”. It is a portal where we have been able to practice patience, generosity—even—some faith in the process, to see emerge trust, persistence, attunement, and an embracing of the fragments, the seedlings, the first findings of a lifelong process, which we know will reverberate throughout multiple scholarly/creative/educational endeavors for the near future.
How do we know this?
Our imagination about what interdisciplinarity and collaboration could mean, and about the imperatives and possibilities of collaborative interdisciplinarity in the humanities, has been expanded—maybe even exploded! We—the conveners—came into this time together as experienced advocates of interdisciplinary humanities work, with a sense of what the jamming and overlapping of our fields could and should do: it was about finding connections across our disciplinary traditions and areas of expertise—a process of translation and cooperation for collective benefit. But this Interseminars project proved to be radically different, even “alien” to our past experiences in interdisciplinarity. Rather than finding connections across our traditional disciplines, we broke these apart into pieces, purposefully finding ways that they fit together smoothly, incongruously, or uncannily. We’ve held loosely the idea of “disciplines” to talk instead about theory, methodology, methods, tools, concepts, histories, audience, institutions, and purposes. It is new—a different model of interdisciplinary collaboration in the humanities–and perhaps even new imaginings of what our disciplines and what the academy could be.
In the last eighteen months—both in and out of the classroom—we aimed to honor and share what each collaborator brought to the group, but in this process, we were always moving the way we do things and constantly exploring new possibilities. Week in and week out we experimented and deliberately moved across registers – movement and performance exercises, readings, drawings, dialogues and debates, data analysis, making collages, field trips, curricular experiments, event planning and guest hosting, exhibitions, and manuscript preparation. We worked together to explore and play with and across these elements to find out what is profoundly important about our disciplinary traditions and what we want our work to become in this expanded rethinking of what graduate education could be in the academy. We pursued this even though sometimes it came with an unsettled feeling and/or disoriented—precarity—like the whole experience was balancing on a knife’s edge. Still, everyone was exceedingly adventurous. Whenever the anxiety crept up in any one of us, we reached out; sometimes to hold hands and be encouraged by each other, but many other times to accept the nudge—or even push—of a colleague to leap into our own surprising daring.
In the end, we felt that the risk was interwoven with care, humility, grace, and a willingness to fail, and this kept us working together and committed to each other and to what we have been making together (much of which is hinted to in this book). In other words, the Interseminar, purposefully horizontalized—yet admittedly fragile—experience was first and foremost a deeply humane collaboration in teaching/learning—one that honors each of us as scholars and humans but also gave us the opportunity to enact the institution as a place where people do life together: a forum for kinship, deliberation, democracy, love, and the permission to keep asking “what if?” as a primary mode of robust scholarly practice.
We also asked, “what if our institutional work mattered beyond the matriculation of schooling?”
At the risk of this potentially being a flattening statement, we would like to highlight the fact that uniformly—across the twelve of us—there has been a persistent urgency for our work (whatever it may be) within the academy, to matter in the world. For the work to have a significant social impact, if not in actual scale, in profundity across geography and time. No one in the group is making and thinking, writing and reporting, disconnected from the civic realm. This is one of the reasons why the collaboration went has been so generative. Of course, we had disagreements— after all one of the key positives of our coming together was our differences—but no matter our protruding intersectionalities (in form and content), we recognized our participation in the group as a public move that fused through our “individual” work away from the group, back into the group. It seems minor, but this collegiality and horizontality between the twelve participants became one of the pilars of everything we have done. It has allowed us to be all the things we are alluding to in this introduction, but which you will discover through the next three hundred plus pages, as experimental, playful (in the most serious way possible), encouraging of one another, patient and yielding, and most importantly, a never-ending journey always at the expectative.
We are always expecting.
Expecting to see what else. Expecting to see what’s up. Expecting to hear others or include more of each other, or—even—to hear/see/uncover another version of oneself. As “the academy,” we entered this process wide-eyed, wanting to see how much the institution would bend and fold. How much could we test its pliability for our own lines of inquiry? This book is a paused point, a moment in time where we have gathered many of the frayed threads we started to pull on over the last eighteen months and some of which we began to braid together. We are presenting these threads here incomplete for two reasons. One, so you can take them, reconfigure them, and make new iterations of them. We are also putting them here so that we can come back to them! We want to return to this collection next year or decades from now, and we want to find newness in this volume which at the moment of its publication was a “culmination,” but which we all accept is merely a bracket, a collection, a time-capsule of speculations, unanswered and sometimes unanswerable questions, and therefore so many possibilities.
For us three, the experience was nothing short of life changing. We are indebted to our friends and colleagues in the Humanities Research Institute, particularly those who made the Interseminars possible, those who helped to select our theme/project, and those who helped us execute it! We are also thankful to our home units, particularly our unit executive officers and Deans who facilitated our participation in this year and a half long project. In the end, our gratitude and affection is strongest for the nine spectacular Interseminar Fellows who are the breath of this whole endeavor: Kofi, Daniela, Maria, Ray, Emerson, Nicole, Adanya, Toyosi, and Beatriz. Can we tell the entire story of how you have been our main teachers since our very first summer intensive in the early summer of 2022? We cannot. What we will do then is to always recount the stories, each time remembering further details of how we came alongside each other to make a work together, a work that we know is being made in every stop each one of us makes from here forward.