Friday, April 8, 2016

For almost 40 years, the Obermann Center for Advanced Studies has served as both oasis and laboratory for researchers from across the world looking for space to dive deep into their disciplines while rubbing elbows and minds with experts from other fields.

In 1978, the University House was renamed to honor a generous gift from University of Iowa alumni Esco and Avalon Obermann. Today, the center is located in a nearly 100-year-old Tudor house directly across from the President’s House on Church Street, where it continues its long tradition as a hub of interdisciplinary research.

Directed since 2010 by Teresa Mangum, a professor in Gender, Women’s, and Sexuality Studies, the center provides offices for six Fellows-in-Residence each semester, supports faculty with a number of grant programs, provides funding and staffing for a major annual humanities conference, and serves as a nexus for University-community activities, including lectures, workshops, and performances.

Most recently, the center’s Graduate Institute on Engagement and the Academy—co-funded with the Graduate College--celebrated its 10th anniversary last month with a two-day symposium featuring workshops, roundtable discussions, and keynote speakers.

Throughout its 10-years, the institute has allowed both graduate students and faculty members to collaborate across disciplines and engage with the public outside the university.

“Engagement is our philosophy,” Mangum says. “By engagement, we mean deeply reciprocal, mutually respectful partnerships.”

Mangum says that inside the university, faculty and graduate students are experts in an intellectual discipline, but outside academia, people in related fields are “experts of practice.”

“They can teach us so much about where theory and speculation land out in the world,” she says.

For a relationship to work, both partners need to be honest about their needs and limitations. The relationship should create new knowledge, while having a concrete benefit for the partner in the community.

Over the weeklong institute, graduate students develop their ideas for a public engagement project. Though there is no requirement that it will come into being while they are still students, participants have launched projects with local schools and museums, the Senior Center, the local biking community, and other organizations while pursuing their degrees. Relationships and connections formed during the week continue organically, and most students eventually carry their projects to fruition, or simply incorporate the ideas from the institute into their new roles after graduation.

On the Obermann Center’s website, the anniversary is marked by stories from institute graduates about how the program has shaped their work. One graduate, Tala Al-Rousan, is now a postdoc fellow at Harvard. Her original thesis plan included mainly statistical research on health challenges in migrant camps; after the institute, she realized the new dimensions qualitative research could add to her project. Now, after interviewing refugees about their needs, she is involved in trying to create centers for mental health to help refugees cope with the trauma of leaving home.

Another alumnus, James Lambert, brings Shakespeare across cultures by producing a Shakespeare Festival with his students at the University of Kuwait, and Jessica Anthony, currently a visiting professor in dance, led undergraduates in a yearlong examination of Iowa’s waterways that is now culminating in theme-based performances around the state. The projects are as varied as the students themselves.

The institute has not only impacted graduate students but faculty as well. Mangum said when the institute started, public engagement work was not something all faculty put on their CVs.

“They just assumed the university wouldn’t be interested,” Mangum says. “It was something they did on their own time.”

Within the first few years, it became clear that the Obermann Center needed the interest and support of faculty to continue, so with the help from the Center for Teaching, co-founders Mangum and David Redlawsk held an institute for faculty much like the one for graduate students. Now, interested faculty serve as co-directors for the Graduate Institute and often collaborate on projects with each other that continue long after the institute is over.

“There’s a lot more attention on campus now to say that publicly engaged work is both an obligation of a public university and a way to do better research—leading to new questions and making our work rich and nuanced,” Mangum says.