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Turning the PAGE: Ten Years of Leadership for Engaged Graduate Education
In 2013, Publicly Active Graduate Education (PAGE)—Imagining America's graduate fellowship program—turned ten years old. In celebration, IA hosted a story circle at its national conference to explore the program's impact. As recounted by participants in that conversation (many of whom are quoted below), in its first decade, the PAGE program involved almost 150 graduate students actively pursuing engaged paths as scholars, artists, and activists. Run by and for graduate students since the beginning, PAGE continues to reflect the dynamism of the engaged scholars who comprise it.
IA's Founding Director Julie Ellison had nursed the idea of a graduate network under the IA umbrella since IA's inception in 1999. In the conversations about graduate education that proliferated at that time, Ellison remembers, there was a lot of "aboutness"—conversations about graduate students but not by and with them. Meanwhile, a handful of programs for engaged graduate students—most notably, the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation's Practicum Grants, Humanities Out There at the University of California–Irvine, and the Public Humanities Institute of the Simpson Center for the Humanities at the University of Washington—were presenting important alternative models for graduate professionalization, funding, and mentorship. Not coincidentally, these programs took shape under the leadership of three early and influential friends of IA: respectively, Robert Weisbuch, Julie Reinhold Lupton, and Kathleen Woodward (IA's founding board chair). Ellison was eager for IA to focus on civic engagement in a way that included the next generation of leadership.
IA's graduate education initiative—already titled, but not yet active—got a jump start in 2003. At that year's national conference, University of Texas at Austin graduate student Sylvia Gale used her allotted time on a panel intended to highlight graduate student leadership in public culture-making to ask the obvious: Where was the graduate voice in this conversation? What were students actually doing in the field, and what might they have to say about their own professional preparation? Ellison asked Gale to direct the nascent PAGE initiative, and the PAGE fellowship program began soon after. Each year, a cohort of ten to fifteen graduate students selected through a peer-application process attends IA's national conference and a preconference summit on public scholarship and community engagement. These fellows now also participate in a yearlong working group to promote collaborative art-making, teaching, writing, and research.
At the start of its second decade, PAGE reframed itself as a peer network organized not by an individual director, but instead by a rotating cohort of PAGE alumni who share responsibility for mentoring and designing support structures for the new cohort of fellows. IA supports PAGE with an annual budget, but the co-directors and each year's fellows determine together how those funds are spent. PAGE has used its funding to host monthly peer-designed webinars and virtual dinner parties, to support fellows as they visit one another's campuses, and to fund the cocreation of scholarly artifacts. For graduate students being professionalized to value sole authorship and prepare themselves for job talks, these new possibilities for cooperation within the professoriate are important ruptures. The virtual and real environments created as a result of these projects offer, as IA Co-Director Timothy Eatman says, "fresh perspectives on ways to conceptualize the university of the twenty-first century."
The story of PAGE is as much a story of reciprocity as one of agency. It is a story that matters for the transformation it has caused within IA as well as for the model it suggests for institutional transformation writ large. As Kevin Bott, PAGE's second director and now IA's associate director, says, not only are PAGE alumni driving many inquiries for IA membership from their new campuses, but they also "are entering the ranks and working to advocate for what we do.... So in terms of developing a future professoriate passionate about, committed to, and willing to speak up about the need to support public scholarship, I think we are seeing many promising fruits from the planting that was begun a decade ago."
If PAGE is, as IA's co-directors are fond of saying, "the lifeblood of Imagining America," it also has incited dialogue leading directly to new growth. For example, PAGE hosted the first conversations at the national conference about both publishing and assessing public scholarship, long before IA's journal Public and its research group on Assessing the Practices of Public Scholarship were created. As Ellison remembers, even at its start, "[PAGE] was the only group [within IA]—until maybe recently—that actually acted like … a self-organized constituency." Ellison recalls that after discussing what they wanted from IA at their annual summits, the PAGE fellows "would come to me and say, 'Well, now we want board representation; now we want to bring back former PAGE fellows.' Nobody else was that organized; nobody else came with such strategic and heartening requests."
As Gale remembers in relation to the IA conferences, "I never felt that IA was trying to position PAGE [fellows] … as the acolytes, the apprentices, the young scholars in training. Instead, PAGE was constantly positioning itself, and continues to [position itself], as … the cutting edge of public scholarship, crossing more boundaries, pushing more doors open, and taking more risks than anybody else at the conference…. So, it was reciprocal." Gale characterizes the PAGE fellows as motivated by the idea that "the conversation that this conference wants to have needs us. And we need that conversation in order to sustain our work over the long term."
This reciprocal dynamic was possible in part because IA's leaders were willing from the start to be vulnerable and to acknowledge that, even as heads of a visionary organization committed to the transformation of higher education, they did not know what graduate students knew about their own trajectories. Instead of nurturing a conversation about graduate education with tenured faculty and administrators, IA created a peer space—by which we mean not only a space for graduate students to engage with their peers, but also a space where participants are treated as peers by IA.
Navigating this relationship is an ongoing process. As associate director Bott says, the "thinking and imagination of PAGE" are not always "at the forefront of IA's work." The capacity for self-critique and vulnerability reflected in this comment is what makes IA such a fitting partner for the PAGE network, and what makes the idea of PAGE and IA continuing to evolve together so exciting.
The story of PAGE suggests one way of spurring and sustaining the institutional change needed to support the next generation of higher education leadership. In the words of Julie Ellison: "PAGE models for the rest of us how to work as a self-made constituency determined to organize change—an interest group in the best sense." Yet as we sat around that story circle in 2013, we grappled with how to, as Eatman put it, "try to figure out what it really means to change the dominant ethos of an organization."
Generational shifts are hard, particularly for disciplines and departments that are defined by their own traditions. But IA, as a values-based organization couched within higher education and committed to public scholarship across the cultural disciplines, has few of those territorial boundaries. That unboundedness has made IA particularly open to the kinds of changes PAGE has introduced.
That unbounded quality also makes IA—and PAGE—a perfect staging ground for change across higher education. We write this article together as past PAGE fellows who now straddle the roles of faculty, administrator, student services staff, and community liaison in our current institutions. Imagination, vulnerability, reciprocity, and agency are core to our ability to find a home within higher education—and to be comfortable in challenging higher education's status quo. IA's partnership with PAGE provides a blueprint for building the version of higher education that we most want to create and inhabit.
Adam Bush is past PAGE director and current director of curriculum for College Unbound; Sylvia Gale is past PAGE director and current associate director of the Bonner Center for Civic Engagement at the University of Richmond.