Practicing Listening: When Humanities Meets Humans

I’m Brittney Knotts, a fifth year PhD candidate in the English department researching girls’ coding culture in Pittsburgh, PA. My dissertation research brought me to Assemble in the spring of 2020 where I was preparing to conduct field work throughout the 2020-2021 academic year. Assemble is a community-based organization that seeks to engage and empower people through STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art, and math) programming from elementary school to adulthood. Their mission is distinctly social justice oriented, and the vast expanse of the programming they offer is impressive from afterschool four days a week, to partnering with local schools and organization, to adult maker nights (and much more). As my ethnographic work began, I wanted to make sure that I gave something back to Assemble and tried to understand the organization in a different way.

2021 is Assemble’s tenth birthday—ten years of programming, guest experts, summer camps, staff, and paperwork. As I presented my interest in working with Assemble through the Humanities Engage Immersive Fellowship, Nina Barbuto, the founder and director of Assemble, laughed and asked how comfortable I was with database management, specifically Google Drive organization. The truth was, not extremely comfortable, but I was willing to learn and work with her to get it done. This perhaps is the first thing I learned about public facing humanistic work, in some ways you learn as you go. Nina does it all, and anything I could take off her plate I was willing to give a shot. My immersive fellowship, then, consisted of interviewing stakeholders about their use and needs for the Google Drive, mapping a new organizational model, reorganizing the Drive, and presenting the completed project to stakeholders. The Google Drive is particularly important to a growing organization like Assemble because it is a space where shared documents live: lesson plans that can be used across programs, financial files that are crucial to different committees, and archives of everything in Assemble’s past. Stakeholders like board members, curriculum managers, teachers, and marketing heads all have access to and rely on the Drive to perform their job and to keep Assemble running. Being able to see this history and labor in live time through the database, I was sure, would also help to enrich my own interaction and research with the organization.

Luckily, all my time in school has given me some organizational and communication skills which helped tremendously in this project. I was able to conduct interviews and conversations with relative ease and bring together a variety of desires and wants. Through the course of the immersive I learned not only about the mechanics of a shared Google Drive (deleting things can be a dangerous game), but I also developed skills at naming folders and documents so they could be easily searchable, learned about archive development favoring ease of access for a variety of uses, and began to understand how to conceptualize ten years of non-profit work in a digestible way. Things that seemed useful to me (for instance where photographs of programs might be saved) were questioned and altered in practice by teachers and managers—a true moment of theory meets practice which the ivory-tower of academia often ignores. This project was intimately enmeshed with the people it was for.

During the six months of work with Assemble, I met with Nina weekly. Early on I told her about my interest in pursuing non-profit work and organization development as a possible career goal, and throughout the immersive she was open about what that means in terms of labor. Our meetings were often nestled in-between other meetings, speaking engagements, and teaching for Nina, and I came to count on her running a little late from other commitments. Even on her “time off” (of which there wasn’t much), Nina would respond to emails. We met twice while she was on a balcony at the beach, her family playing in the pool below. This was the first summer that Nina didn’t need to be heavily involved in summer camp, something she was grateful for. It was clear to me that Nina loves her job and she’s good at it. When we met outdoors, neighbors stopped to say hello and shouted at her from cars as they drove past. The Garfield neighborhood loves Nina, and she loves them back.

I have long considered non-profit work as a potential career path. So often, when we see this work from the outside it feels like a shiny project, one illustrated by the smiling photos of kids on Instagram and the events that we go to. Hidden are the serious conversations, the meetings, the grant proposals, and the hours that go into it all. This work is also a commitment, a commitment to real people in a way that academic work can often be distanced from even when it is about real people. For me, this is perhaps one of the most important lessons from this immersive fellowship: if we start to think of immersive experiences as more important for graduate education, we must also flip that question and ask why graduate education (in the form of a student) is important for the community at large. How can we sink in? How can we listen to what people need or want from us? And how can we create sustained engagement? My immersive became about human connection more than database work, and human connection can be hard work. But it’s work that’s worth doing if we’re ready.

Brittney Knotts
Department of English
July 2021
Learn about all the 2020-2021 Immersive Fellows and their experiences with their host organizations.