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Simpson Center for the Humanities

Scholars at Work

By Denise Grollmus

When Gillian Harkins first started volunteering with University Beyond Bars (UBB), she noticed that while many UW faculty and graduate students did work related to prisons and education, few were speaking to each other about it. In the hopes of working collaboratively to develop streamlined and rigorous course offerings while thinking critically about how best to be accountable to the students they served, Harkins started the Transformative Education Behind Bars (TEBB) working group through the Simpson Center in 2009.

Since then, Harkins, a UW Associate Professor of English, has facilitated a number of projects that center currently and formerly incarcerated people while collaborating with various groups to identify and develop pathways from inside prison to college campuses. From TEBB and the 2011 National Conference on Prison Higher Education to the 2018-2019 Prison Education Collaboration and the seminar “Collaboration Across Walls: Public Scholarship as Means or Ends,” Harkins has worked with a wide range of leaders, students, faculty, staff and activists across a variety of programs, campuses, and communities to help build coalitions dedicated to increasing access to higher education for those who face the greatest barriers to it.

It is this collaborative work that is being celebrated by the Barclay Simpson Prize for Scholarship in Public. This is the third time the prize, which carries an award of $10,000, has been given. Named for the philanthropist who endowed the Simpson Center for the Humanities in honor of his father, the Barclay Simpson Prize is meant to recognize UW faculty who practice humanities scholarship as a public good. The winner is selected by the Executive Board. “What so impressed the board is Gillian Harkins’ profound dual commitment to both building programs and networks to make higher education available to incarcerated adults and to writing about it,” says Kathy Woodward, Director of the Simpson Center and Professor of English. “She is known across the country not only for her deeply collaborative work in Washington state but also for her influential writing on prison education.”

Honoring History, Working Collaboratively

Harkins has always understood community activism as a part of, rather than apart from, her scholarship....

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Jenna Grant (Anthropology) recently received a $10,000 Public Engagement Seed Grant from the Whiting Foundation for her project, Archive Actions: Cambodians and Cambodian Americans Producing Ethnographic Histories. Grant will collaborate with Cambodians and Cambodian Americans in the Seattle area to design public events and a digital exhibit using a collection of photos and documents from the final weeks of the Khmer Rouge donated to the UW Libraries Special Collections by US photojournalist and UW alumna Elizabeth Becker. Not only will Archive Actions mark the activation of the Becker Archive, but it will model a process for the University to be accountable to relevant communities in the production and interpretation of historical archives. By working together with those communities affected by the Khmer Rouge, Grant will ensure that the shape of the archive and the histories it represents are directed by those whose stories the archive tells.

Archive Actions is an extension of Grant’s previous work with the Becker Archive. In December 2017, Grant, with the support of the Simpson Center, brought internationally-acclaimed Cambodian filmmaker Rithy Panh to UW. Alongside screenings of Panh’s 2013 film The Missing Picture, and First They Killed My Father (which Panh produced), Grant also collaborated, with Southeast Asia Studies Librarian Judith Henchy and Southeast Asia Studies MA student Adrian Alarilla, on a video installation utilizing materials from the Becker collection. Age of the Kampuchea Picture was an interactive video installation meant to embody Pol Pot's visions of Kampuchea by projecting a selection of Becker’s photographs onto a map of Kampuchea that was composed of facsimiles of Becker’s notes and official papers of the Khmer Rouge regime.

Grant is also a recipient of a 2019-2020 Society of Scholars fellowship. Her project, Fixing the Image: Medical Imaging in Phnom Penh, examines recent accounts of technology, images, and medicine by way of a detailed ethnography of medical imaging in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Playing with multiple senses of the term ‘fix’, Grant’s project explores practices of (self)definition, care, and repair of health, health systems, and the nation.

You can read more about Archive Actions ...

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We are pleased to announce that two graduate students from Political Science have been awarded Mellon/ACLS Dissertation Completion fellowships. These fellowships support a year of research and writing to help advanced graduate students in the humanities and related social sciences in the last year of PhD dissertation writing. ACLS awarded 65 fellowships in this competition for the 2019-20 academic year.

Sean Kim Butorac has been awarded a Mellon/ACLS Dissertation Completion fellowship for 2019-2020 for his dissertation entitled “States of Insurrection: Race, Resistance, and the Law.” He specializes in race and ethnic politics, American political development, African American political thought, public law, and democratic theory.

Emma Rodman has been awarded a Mellon/ACLS Dissertation Completion fellowship for 2019-2020 for her dissertation entitled "The Idea of Equality in America." Her research focuses on American political thought, particularly on questions of equality, inclusion, race, constitutional law, and subjectivity.

Congratulations, Sean and Emma!

By Caitlin Palo 

Where the House Was started with Frances McCue’s proposal to director Ryan Adams to make a short documentary of the teardown of the Victorian house at 1634 Eleventh Avenue. The now demolished structure, built in 1902 as a mortuary and funeral home, became a writers’ center in 1997, after moving from a temporary home on North Capitol HIll. Linda Breneman bought the building and later shared ownership with Linda Johnson, a fellow board member. The nonprofit Richard Hugo House was founded by Linda Breneman, Andrea Lewis and Frances McCue in 1996.

At the private screening for friends and sponsors of the film, McCue said, “What began as a little tiny idea to film the teardown of the Hugo House, turned into the history of the gentrification of Seattle.”  The film could easily have been an elegiac portrait of a time over and gone. McCue cautioned, “If you make a film about the American West there are a lot of ways to mess it up. If you start by writing about the sunset, you’re done, it’s over.”  Instead the film crew used the demolition of the House-that-was as the triggering event for bringing together poets, writers, local historians and geographers to talk about the city in the 21st century. 

The loss of a beautiful Victorian seems like yet another sunset in Seattle’s decade of intensifying gentrification as the city is built up with a boom of look-alike “5 over 1” apartment buildings. The five floors of flat sheeting over one floor of concrete walls are like blank censor boxes walls erasing the town that was. The film literalizes the sensation of a vanishing Seattle by including Frances McCue’s erasure poetry. Selections of poems from her book Timber Curtain appear on-screen over scenes of Seattle and the West. As she reads the poems aloud, words are slowly blacked out until fragments remain and only memory of the spoken words echoes in the mind.  But on the screen, the remnants become a new poem.

Richard Hugo’s spirit pervades the film through the pieces of memories McCue and the film crew recorded on travels across Washington, Idaho and Montana to meet his friends. Though Richard Hugo himself never lived at the Hugo house, and maybe never even visited there, the House, like the film, is built in his memory and in his ethos.  Hugo was in many senses a Seattle poet: starting poems directly from the banks of the Duwamish river, which runs past Boeing where he worked as a technical writer and out to the Puget Sound.  And yet, as closely tied as he was to the city, his poetic method was to find places away from home that could spark a sense of...

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The most recent issue of Public: Arts, Design, Humanities, a journal of Imagining America, features an article by Dan Berger (Interdisciplinary Arts & Sciences, UW Bothell) as a case study of publicly engaged digital scholarship. The special issue, “Beyond Mass Incarceration: New Horizons of Liberation and Freedom,” includes sections on public scholarship principles, practices, case studies, resources, and a gallery of short-form contributions describing projects that exemplify the issue’s particular focus area. Berger’s article, co-authored with UW Bothell alumnus Magdalena Donea (Microsoft), Denise Hattwig (UW Libraries), and Danielle Rowland (UW Libraries), is titled “A Counter-Archive of Imprisonment: The Washington Prison History Project,” and focuses on a large-scale project that includes an open-access digital archive, a website for the archival materials, and a video game developed from handwritten designs created by Ed Mead, “a longtime radical from the Seattle area who spent close to two decades in prison (1976–1993) for his involvement in the George Jackson Brigade, a clandestine anticapitalist group formed in the 1970s,” while he was incarcerated in Walla Walla state prison in 1987. Berger worked on the project extensively as a Digital Humanities Summer Fellow in 2017.

The authors explain:

One of the most fascinating, and certainly the most unexpected, parts of the project has been the discovery of a text-adventure computer game about life in prison that Mead designed while incarcerated at the Washington State Reformatory in the late 1980s. The prison had recently introduced computers into the facility, allowing some of the civil society groups inside to use them in their efforts. (This was before the advent of the worldwide web; although prisoners at the Washington State Reformatory still have limited access to computers, they are denied internet access.) Ever the autodidact, Mead taught himself programming code. He made the game while incarcerated and recalls playing it with other prisoners.

Berger found the code in the archive in the form of a 20-page dot-matrix printout of original computer source code written in the BASIC language. Donea—a longtime tech worker who was then a graduate student at UW Bothell—worked to decipher its logic and committed to recovering its functionality and restoring it to some measure of playability.

Some bit of historical context is in order, since the format is anachronistic to modern gaming. In a text-adventure game, the player reads...

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ethan ucker (English) has received a 2019 Humanities Without Walls Fellowship, one of 30 doctoral students selected nationwide. Humanities Without Walls is a consortium that links the humanities centers at 15 research universities in the Midwest and beyond to create new avenues for collaborative research, teaching, and the production of humanities scholarship. Fellows attend a three-week summer institute in Chicago that prepares them to pursue values-based careers within, adjacent to, or outside of the academy.

Humanities Without Walls is funded by a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and organized by the Illinois Program for Research in the Humanities at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The program’s goals dovetail with the Simpson Center’s Next Generation Humanities PhD initiative, which contributes to nationwide conversations about developing new approaches to doctoral education.

The award recognizes ethan’s commitment to transdisciplinary public scholarship, and to democratizing and deprofessionalizing humanistic knowledge. ethan uses his work as a researcher, organizer, and educator to support efforts by communities that are systematically disrupted by the U.S. settler carceral state to build and sustain capacities, infrastructures, and futures that are beyond the reach of, separate from, and incommensurable with its institutions and its logics.

As a researcher, ethan explores autonomous capacity- and infrastructure- building projects that have arisen in the context of social movements for Black liberation and Indigenous resurgence in the U.S.  He studies the strategies used to materially provision these projects: the organizational containers and administrative forms that house and protect Black and Indigenous radical political imaginaries; less the manifestos and the speeches than the grant applications, budgets, and fundraising plans that they inspire and require. As an organizer, ethan contributes to the development of a response to Chicago’s gun violence epidemic that is driven by – that centers the voices and needs of – those most intimately affected by gun-related harms: young gang-involved people of color from working-class communities on the city’s South and West Sides for whom illicit firearms are easily accessible, and who are actively shooting guns and getting shot. This infrastructure-building project applies a harm reduction framework to illicit gun use to support communities’ efforts to steward their own conflicts without the police.

ethan is the co-founder of Chicago-based Circles & Ciphers, a hip-hop infused restorative justice organization led by and for young people of color who are impacted by violence that uses art, education, and direct action to work toward collective healing, accountability, and the abolition of the prison-industrial complex.

The fall 2018 Special Issue of the Western Humanities Review, on the theme of “humanities in the community,” is now available, and inside, you can find Annie Dwyer’s most recent publication, “The Humanities Doctoral Student in the Community.” Inspired by her work as Assistant Program Director of the Reimagining the Humanities PhD and Reaching New Publics program at the Simpson Center, and in conjunction with a presentation she gave at the Western Humanities Alliance conference last year, Dwyer wrote this reflection on the agency and possibility that graduate students demonstrate in their work. She writes:

“Far from simply individually benefiting from a short-term professional development opportunity, Mellon fellows are catalyzing enduring cultural change in their departments. [ . . .] Recognizing that the Mellon fellows are more effective at transforming their departmental cultures than any institutional entity might be, in recent years we’ve simply sought to amplify their voices and widen their reach.”

To hear some of those voices, you can read posts written by our Mellon Fellows on the Reimagining the PhD Blog.

Congratulations, Annie!

Image from Labor History project.

The Seattle Civil Rights & Labor History Project currently records slightly more than 31,000 page views every month, 372,000 in the past year. And now, thanks to a new, mobile-friendly design, pages are more readable and can be scaled to cell phones and smaller devices, which will help bring more traffic to the project and encourage users to read or view more of its content.

Last summer, while in residence at the Simpson Center as a Digital Humanities Summer Fellow, James Gregory (History) worked with web architect Ryan Poe to create and execute the design which involved an entirely new navigation system and reformatting the site’s more than 200 pages. Teachers in classrooms at all levels from middle schools to the University of Washington draw upon the resources available on the site, and its influence has reached public audiences and lawmakers since it was launched in 2005.

In addition, Gregory worked with research assistant Amanda Miller, a senior history major, to add content to the Mapping American Social Movements though the Twentieth Century Project. They concentrated on developing data and maps about one of the most important sets of social movements of the last century, the antiwar and new left movements of the 1960s and 1970s.

Congratulations, James!

feathered wing on black background

Phillip Thurtle (History and Comparative History of Ideas) has a new book on the role of visual grids in the history of biology, with startling implications that fan outward into matters as fundamental as desire, our understanding of our bodies, and our view of how society is composed. Biology in the Grid: Graphic Design and the Envisioning of Life (Minnesota, 2018), is part of the Posthumanities series at the University of Minnesota Press.

Biology in the Grid book coverThurtle also produced a digital companion website that explores these implications through examples drawn from science fiction, film, comics, and a sweeping array of cultural mythology. The site, Living Fables: Losing My Wings, built on the platform Scalar, allows viewers to choose their own journey through multimedia exploration of the biological pathways that give some creatures wings and others, in Thurtle’s words “twitching phantom limbs.”

Thurtle’s digital work was the subject of a 2016 Simpson Center story on “Why We Don’t Have Wings” that probes the social and biological questions layered within Thurtle’s imaginative question.


Biology in the Grid expands the evolutionary issue of wingedness into a deeper exploration of genetics and visual representation.

More from the publisher:

As one of the most visual sciences, biology has an aesthetic dimension that lends force and persuasion to scientific arguments: how things are arranged on a page, how texts are interspersed with images, and how images are composed reflect deep-seated beliefs about how life exists on Earth. Biology in the Grid traces how our current understanding of life and genetics emerged from the pervasive nineteenth- and twentieth-century graphic form of the grid, which allowed disparate pieces of information to form what media theorist Vilém Flusser called “technical images.”

Phillip Thurtle explains how the grid came to dominate biology in the twentieth century, transforming biologists’ beliefs about how organisms were constructed. He demonstrates how this shift in our understanding of biological grids enabled new philosophies in endeavors such as advertising, entertainment, and even political theory.

Thurtle was a Digital Humanities Summer Fellow at the Simpson...

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Image of Rachel Lanier Taylor

Rachel Lanier Taylor, a UW doctoral candidate in history, has developed a series of publications for the Society for History in the Federal Government to connect its work to public audiences. Taylor has worked as an intern for the society through the Simpson Center’s Historians at Work: Building Professional Networks project.

During that time, Taylor drew on her digital humanities skills to develop a blog for the society about history in the federal government (which is the nation’s largest employer of history PhDs). She launched a second blog for the History@FedGov educational portal. In a post about the Ellis Island Powerhouse and Laundry Building, part of the Statue of Liberty National Monument, she describes her research into the building’s architectural history:

My experience documenting this Georgian Revival style building and its various mechanical fixtures—an early-twentieth-century boiler, a mattress sanitizer, and refrigerated mortuary bins—allowed me to gain familiarity with work as a historian outside of academia and highlighted the importance of seeing the built environment as an archival and historical source worthy of preservation.

The internship is part of the Simpson Center’s Next Generation Humanities PhD initiative. The project joins parallel efforts in medical humanities, art history, English, Philosophy, Near & Middle Eastern Studies, and cross-disciplinary modern language programs, in envisioning new approaches and career paths in doctoral education.

Taylor studies US environmental history with dissertation supervisor Linda Nash (History) and interned in 2017 and 2018 with the Historic American Buildings Survey, part of the US National Park Service. She previously led the environmental humanities...

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