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Blog Post

Countermapping the Humanities @ CUNY: A Public Humanities Study

By Kendra Sullivan, Kristi Riley, Nga Than, Darshana Narayanan, Matthew K. Gold
May 18, 2021
Countermapping the Humanities @ CUNY: A Public Humanities Study

As part of their interactive public humanities research, the team utilized Twitter to name the project. Screenshot courtesy of Kendra Sullivan.

From Audre Lorde to Yarimar Bonilla, The City University of New York (CUNY) has been an academic homebase to faculty and students for whom social justice is central to their research, teaching, learning, and service. As one of the nation’s largest and most racially, culturally, linguistically, and economically diverse universities, CUNY remains a catalyst for activist scholarship and social transformation. Since 2015, participants in the Andrew W. Mellon Seminar on Public Engagement and Collaborative Research at the Center for the Humanities at the CUNY Graduate Center have ambitiously carried that tradition forward. Now in its third, successive grant cycle, the Seminar seeds dozens of creative, collaborative, and community-engaged projects that offer new ways of understanding and addressing pressing social issues.

The current iteration of the Seminar began in summer 2020, when NYC was still the epicenter of the pandemic. To date, COVID has claimed the lives of 52 CUNY colleagues. There is no data yet on how many students lost loved ones. Seminar participants wondered, how to produce publicly-engaged and participatory work while remaining socially-distant, holding space for pervasive loss, and responding constructively to the unfolding crisis? The conditions of the global pandemic compelled Seminar participants to enact community and care without contact. Each has set out to establish novel means to sustain and grow the relationships and collaborative assessment and action that undergird community-based research.

One group composed of two sociologists, a digital humanist, a poet, and a neuroscientist turned to Polis, a machine learning platform that allows for democratic and dialogic processes to unfold through open-ended online surveys and analyses. The team is co-led by Dr. Darshana Narayanan from Polis and the Computational Democracy Project (the non-profit that hosts Polis). Polis is a real-time system for gathering, analyzing and understanding what large groups of people think in their own words, enabled by advanced statistics and machine learning. The platform was developed in Seattle by Colin Megill, Christopher Small and Michael Bjorkegren. It gained momentum as part of the vTaiwan legislative process that brings Taiwanese citizens and government together to co-create digital legislation. Its implementation in government is widely viewed as a success for deliberative democracy and participatory self-governance projects worldwide. A number of Polis survey projects are emerging from the Seminar on issues including: student food insecurity and access on CUNY campuses, the twin crisis of racism and COVID in NYC public schools, and parent experience of pandemic response in Harlem. Over the course of the year, fellows have worked together to develop creative ways to use Polis to innovate academic research and survey methodologies.

Unlike multiple choice or even interview surveys, Polis allows for an interactive and conversational data collection process. Participants can offer comments on existing questions and submit their own. The fact that the survey is collective and additive means that it begins to ask and answer the questions the participants of the survey find most compelling while still standing up to rigorous review processes for researching human subjects. For the sociologists on the team, this approach is an opportunity to center the discipline’s creative and humanistic origins in ways that enhance empirical approaches to social phenomena while also pushing the boundary of research in the digital era.

The capstone project of Polis’ collaboration with the Seminar is a survey on the stakes, aims and existing infrastructural support for public humanities at CUNY and focuses on three targeted areas: scholarship-activism, the purpose of public higher education, and knowledge that centers lived experience. The survey is being developed by a team of five, interdisciplinary scholars including Nga Than (Sociology), Kendra Sullivan (English), Kristi Riley (Sociology), Darshana Narayanan (Neuroscience, Political Science), and Matthew Gold (Digital Humanities).

The survey will be shared in phases to groups of activist-scholars across 25 CUNY campuses and all five boroughs. Drawing on the experiential knowledge of CUNY and NYC’s public scholars to inform iterative stages of the project, this survey will allow humanities practitioners at CUNY to develop:

  • strategies to support publicly engaged scholarship at CUNY, such as clarifying credit and evaluation processes for publicly-oriented research during tenure, developing curriculum that incorporates democratically engaged and service-based education in CUNY classrooms, and establishing frameworks for creative, mixed-method, case study-based, and multi-author humanities dissertations, to name a few examples; and
  • resources, such as funding for programmatic and project support; compensation for key community partners; campus gardens, food banks, and kitchens; and visual storytelling, oral history, and mixed-media campaigns based on community-led research to support social justice goals within and beyond CUNY.

The collaboration between the Seminar and the Computational Democracy Project marks the first relationship of this kind for both entities. Narayanan says, “This project has the potential to open up a whole new space for Polis, and provide a powerful new tool to researchers in the digital humanities and the social sciences. This project also resonates strongly with my personal commitment to breaking down disciplinary silos, moving information into the public realm, and increasing public participation in decision-making.”

Nga Than observes that “being the computational methodologist in different projects, I have firsthand experience learning how each team translates machine learning terminologies, goals, and promises in context. My role has been to unveil what is in the “black box” of Polis and machine learning, ensure research robustness, and attend to each project’s participatory ideals.” Kristi Riley adds: “Sociology owes so much to humanists who established a link between their research and social good early on in this discipline. It can be challenging to navigate interdisciplinary research, but once we overcome small challenges, the outcomes have been really exciting.” While there are plenty of rules and policies guiding each of the collaborator’s discrete disciplines, interdisciplinary work takes concerted effort, dialogue, and experimentation.

Together, we hope to explore the uses of computational analysis in publicly-engaged humanistic discourse, scholarship, and activism. We also hope data will promote institutional recognition of activism as scholarship, building pathways for professional advancement for publicly-engaged scholars, and creating structures to support the knowledge practices of theorists situated outside of university settings.


Nga Than is a PhD student in sociology at City University of New York – The Graduate Center. Her research interests are in social media, computational social science, international migration, and sociology. As a mixed-methods scholar, she has conducted qualitative research using interviewing, as well as employing machine learning to analyze text data, and administrative data. Her research has received support from the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD), Taiwan's Huayu Enrichment Scholarship, CUNY – Pre-dissertation Fellowship, and CUNY - Provost's Digital Innovation Grant.

Darshana Narayanan is a consultant at the Computational Democracy Project. She has long-standing interests and formal training in the study of human behavior at multiple levels and time scales: individual behavior, group behavior and behavior both in developmental and evolutionary time. She has earned a PhD in Psychology and Neuroscience from Princeton University and a master’s degree in Neuroscience from Brandeis University.

Kendra Sullivan is the director of the Seminar on Public Engagement and Collaborative Research and the publisher of Lost & Found: The CUNY Poetics Document Initiative at the Center for the Humanities at the CUNY Graduate Center. She is part of the ecoart collective Mare Liberum, currently working with Waterfront Toronto and Evergreen to launch a public art project on the Lower Don RIver & Parklands. Between Species/Between Spaces: Art & Science on the Outer Cape chronicles ML’s work with the National Seashore and a team of environmental artists and scientists.

Matthew K. Gold is Associate Professor of English and Digital Humanities at The Graduate Center, CUNY, where he is Advisor to the Provost for Digital Initiatives and Director of the M.A. Program in Digital Humanities and the M.S. Program in Data Analysis and Visualization. He has published widely on the digital humanities and digital pedagogy. He recently co-edited Digital Pedagogy in the Humanities (Modern Language Association, 2020) and Debates in the Digital Humanities 2019 (University of Minnesota Press, 2019). With Lauren F. Klein, he co-edits the Debates in the Digital Humanities book series from the University of Minnesota Press. He is Past President of the Association for Computers and the Humanities and President of the Constituent Organization Board of the Association for Digital Humanities Organizations.

Kristi Riley is a second year PhD student in the sociology program at the CUNY Graduate Center. Her studies focus on critical criminology, feminist theory, and popular culture, and she hopes to explore participatory action research. She holds B.A.s in psychology and community studies from the University of California, Santa Cruz, and a Master’s of Science in conflict resolution from the University of Oregon Law School. Prior to becoming a Fellow, Kristi spent the past decade working in justice reform, most recently on issues related to reducing the use of jail incarceration at the local level. Kristi is a recipient of the 2019 Public Humanities Fellowship from Humanities New York and the Center for the Humanities at the Graduate Center, CUNY.

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