Reading in Santa Barbara, Present: Students Plan a Public Humanities Showcase

by Abigail Droge
Published July 5, 2019

The climactic moment of our syllabus this quarter in “Reading in Santa Barbara” was a student-run showcase, put on in partnership with the UCSB Reads program. The showcase was an opportunity for students to design and host their own public humanities event, inspired by our quarter-long theme of “reading communities,” the social connections fostered by literature. Drawing from their exploration of the present and past relationships between reading communities both on and off campus, students were charged with creating an event that would model the kinds of relationships that they wanted to see in the future.

In addition to our extensive archival work in UCSB’s Special Research Collections, a key way of introducing students to the many reading communities around them was to place an emphasis on inviting visitors to our class. These visits were oriented around what we might envision as a series of expanding concentric circles of community, beginning with student writing initiatives in our own department and moving through two annual one-book programs, one on our own campus – UCSB Reads, hosted by the University Library – and one in the larger cityscape – Santa Barbara Reads, hosted by the public library system.

We began the quarter with a visit from Christine Ho, the student Art Editor of The Catalyst, a campus literary magazine. Readings from The Catalyst bookended our syllabus. Beginning and ending with the literary connections in our immediate surroundings, described from the perspective of a student peer, seemed an impactful way to introduce and reflect on the concept of reading communities.

Alex Regan, UCSB’s Outreach and Academic Collaboration Librarian, next came to share the goals of the UCSB Reads program with us, as well as crucial event-planning tips, which laid the groundwork for our quarter-long partnership around this year’s UCSB Reads book, Thi Bui’s beautifully illustrated memoir, The Best We Could Do. Her visit shed light on the many opportunities for creating community through a one-book program on campus, as well as the extensive programming already taking place around the text, which helped us to frame our reading of The Best We Could Do through the lens of the public humanities from the outset. Our class timing aligned perfectly with many UCSB Reads events, culminating in Thi Bui’s own visit to campus. Students had the opportunity to participate in an illustration workshop with Bui, as well as attend a public lecture in which Bui orchestrated a live comics-reading (with voice actors drawn from the audience) and shared deeply insightful comments about her writing process and her life experiences as part of a family that immigrated to the US from Vietnam in the 1970s. Both Alex’s visit to class and Thi’s presence on campus deeply inspired the work that became central to our class’s own UCSB Reads event.

Our final class visitor was Jen Lemberger, the Programming and Marketing Librarian at the Santa Barbara Public Library. Jen spoke to us about the Santa Barbara Reads one-book program, which helped to frame another key text on our syllabus, My California (a collection of essays, memories, and vignettes from California authors, which served as a Santa Barbara Reads selection several years ago). Jen also gave us insight into the many aspects of programming at a public library, ranging in audience from children to retirees and fulfilling needs from camaraderie and friendship to social justice and activism. Her visit helped us to form a clearer picture of the literary landscape around us, bringing to light the many uses of books by and for local communities that students might not otherwise realize. To encourage students to engage with reading communities both on and off campus, I offered extra credit for participation in a UCSB Reads event or any event hosted by the public library.

These class visits all contributed in crucial ways to our thought process about creating our own public humanities event in partnership with UCSB Reads. Making the walls of our classroom more porous encouraged students to position our class work within a much larger panorama of literary experience. To begin our preparation in earnest, we kicked off the event planning process with a “brainstorming day” in class. I brought poster board, post-its, and markers and tasked groups of students with generating ideas for the event’s goals, format, and potential audiences, all of which should in some way be informed by the perspectives we had thus far encountered as a class, from our visitors, from our archives, and from our readings. Students then compared notes across groups and arrived collectively at an agenda. Uppermost on the priorities list was to create an event that was interactive and participatory, one which would recalibrate the expected dynamics of teacher/student or lecturer/observer and instead invite the audience into the conversation. Students also suggested extending special invitations to groups from the public library, local artists whose creations we had seen in Special Research Collections, and members of other departments on campus.

The resulting showcase took the form of “stations,” which allowed audience members to circulate around the room and engage with different aspects of the class that resonated with The Best We Could Do and with the UCSB Reads project at large. Each station was run by three or four students, who took ownership over designing their own agendas and materials. Station 1 presented an overview of the history of graphic narratives. Station 2 shared our “Archival Graphic Narrative” midterm assignments. Station 3 led the audience in a close-reading discussion of selected passages and images from The Best We Could Do. And Station 4 looked ahead to our final assignment, asking the audience to create a post-it wall of ideas for how best to imagine the role of literature in a “Utopian University.”

Overall, students considered the event a success, though such success also came with a greater understanding and appreciation of the amount of effort and dedication required to make an event run smoothly. Subsequent class discussions focused on debriefing the process in relation to the larger thematics of our class, and I also asked students to turn in a short reflection about our experience with UCSB Reads in a way that could be shared with the library. The act of crafting their own public-facing event and explaining our goals and themes to people unfamiliar with the class seemed valuable in transforming students’ perceptions of our coursework. Several commented on the joy of having one-on-one conversations with genuinely-interested audience members. My hope is that the event also helped students to see the potential reverberations and relevance of our discussions beyond the strict boundaries of the classroom.

One of my biggest takeaways from this experience in relation to the goals of WhatEvery1Says is that the future of the public humanities relies upon pedagogy. If we want the humanities to be engaged in our surrounding communities – whether that be with fellow researchers in different fields or with local residents – we must teach students how to make it so, perhaps by incorporating that very challenge into the assignments and goals of our classes. Unfortunately, the current model of academic specialization has not often prioritized – and has, in many cases, obscured – the potential connections between what we do in a literature course and what others do in their labs, in their homes, or in their workplaces. One of the greatest tools of humanities advocacy might therefore be a model of public humanities that is reproducible, scalable, and teachable.


With sincere thanks to Alex Regan for her enthusiasm and support throughout our partnership with UCSB Reads. Thanks also to Jen Lemberger, Christine Ho, and Thi Bui for their inspiration and willingness to engage with our class.  

This post is part of a series about the ongoing UC Santa Barbara English course, “Reading in Santa Barbara: Past, Present, and Future.” For context, read more about the motivations and design process behind the course. 

The goal of the Curriculum Lab is to ensure a steady dialogue between research and teaching for the WhatEvery1Says project. For more information, see our webpage and this introductory blog post, and stay tuned for more Curriculum Lab posts throughout the year!