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Leadership and Engaged Humanities Scholarship with Patricia Parker – Part 1

January 25, 2023 | Kristen Chavez

Institute for the Arts and Humanities Director Patricia Parker reflects on her first year leading the IAH, and how her experiences and work in engaged scholarship prepared her for the role.



Kristen Chavez: Welcome to The Institute, a podcast in the lives and work of Fellows and friends of the Institute for the Arts and Humanities at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. I’m your host, Kristen Chavez, and today I’m delighted to speak with our director Pat Parker. Pat is the director of the Institute for the Arts and Humanities and the Ruel W Tyson Distinguished Professor of Humanities. A member of the Carolina faculty since 1998, she is a professor of critical organizational communication Studies and former chair of the Department of Communication. Her research and teaching focus on organizing and leadership with an emphasis on social justice processes. Her most recent research is community based and multimodal, drawing on critical pedagogies oral and archival histories, and participatory methodologies to explore the intersections of race, gender, leadership and power in organizing. A longtime veteran of the Institute, Director Parker’s first Faculty Fellowship was in 2002. She was a Kauffman Fellow for Social Entrepreneurship in 2007, participated in the Academic Leadership Program in 2011, and participated in the Chairs Leadership Program in 2015.

In addition to her work at the Institute, she was also the co-chair of the University’s Commission on History, Race and a Way Forward. The commission is charged with exploring, engaging and teaching the University’s history with race and provide recommendations to the chancellor on how the Carolina community must reckon with its past. A year into her leadership, as director of the Institute, we sit down with Dr. Parker to talk about her work and her many leadership roles. Thank you for joining us on the podcast, Pat.

Patricia Parker: It is my pleasure to be here.

KC: We’ll jump right in. And I’ll begin by noting that the very first episode with The Institute Podcast featured you as a guest. At that time, you were serving as the chair of the Department of Communication and had begun work on your next book, which would be based on your engaged scholarship. Ultimately, that work culminated in a new book in 2020, Ella Baker’s Catalytic Leadership: A Primer on Community Engagement and Communication for Social Justice. How has your journey as a scholar and as a faculty leader who continues to be engaged with the community shaped you for your current role as the director of the institute?

PP: Well, that’s a that’s a really great question. As you noted, I participated in the very first podcast when I was chair. And that seems like such a long time ago, it was a while ago. Let me answer your question by first saying that the mission of the Institute for the Arts and Humanities is to empower faculty to reach their full potential by creating community and cultivating leadership. Of course, a fundamental part of the of our mission is to advance the arts and humanities. And so I would say that, certainly being chair of the Department of Communication and being a scholar in the Department of Communication, helps me to support that mission, every aspect of that mission. The Department of Communication is in the Division of Fine Arts and Humanities in the College of Arts and Sciences, and it makes us unique among communication departments in that we are very interdisciplinary.

We’re in the College of Arts and Sciences. And my faculty, colleagues and I are very much engaged with the focus of the humanities, in terms of thinking about the human condition and thinking about those important questions that make us human. Whether we’re talking about in my own work and critical organizational studies, I’m always thinking about the processes of communication and organizing that take into account how power is circulating and how people’s humanity is being recognized.

And so, you know, this idea of, of the human condition as a scholarly project is very much a central part of our department, as well as the arts. I mean, we are in the Department of Communication, we have media, and performance arts. My colleagues are doing wonderful work. We have a new under my leadership —  as chair of the department we have a new media art space — on 108 East Franklin. It’s a beautiful space where our students are able to have the latest technologies that support their media making, whether it’s in media production or in other arts making. So I would say that being immersed in the Department of Communication and engaging with my scholar… with my colleagues over the last 22 years, I think? 24 years, I should say — has really helped me to understand the critical importance of the arts and humanities, in the academy. And also the challenges there. I mean, it’s in terms of getting funded for funding for our scholarship for having a community of scholars to engage with, you know, having, you know creating those opportunities. So that’s, that’s something that’s been on my mind, throughout my career and being now in the directorship and being able to support my colleagues and in that work is absolutely an amazing opportunity. So I’m really happy to be here to be able to do that.

Let me also say that, as Chair of the Department of Communication, my peers across the College selected me as chair of the Council of Chairs, and that put me in a position of really getting to know, my colleagues, my faculty colleagues across the campus and being able to engage with them on different issues and knowing the things that are facing our departments. I think that’s another thing that really prepared me for this directorship.

Anyway, to summarize, I would say that, you know, it’s really being chair of a department that’s in the fine arts and humanities and being able to learn more about the breadth and depth of the challenges for my faculty colleagues, has helped me to really move our mission forward. I’m happy to be here.

KC: I think that was a brilliant summary of all of your expertise and your history. As you just mentioned, and you touched on a bit your scholarly expertise is in leadership communication, how does your research inform your perspectives on leadership while at the IAH?

PP: As you mentioned in the in the introduction, I recently finished a book that was centered on Ella Baker’s, what I call her catalytic approach to leadership. Ella Baker was a human rights, civil rights icon, who was very influential in… mostly people note her influence in the 60s, she influenced, most notably, the young people who became SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, that really were instrumental in some of the sweeping changes that happened during that era, and she was considered their mentor. And her approach to leadership, I call catalytic because she was able to tap into the power that, you know, in her view, already exists in communities. And by communities, you know, she was working in Black communities in the south, during the 60s. But as, as I understand, you know, communities, you know, there are communities in academic institutions, there are communities and political circles that are… In any kind of organizations, you can start to think about communities and people who have an understanding of the challenges, everyday challenges that they face.

And so that approach to leadership really informed my thinking around what does it mean to organize in a humanistic way? What does it mean to think about how we cultivate belonging? How we decide who belongs and who doesn’t, and to make that conscious, you know. Oftentimes, we are not aware of the what I would call a spirit of interpersonal violence sometimes that happens in the every day. And so my approach to leadership is informed by Ella Baker’s approach and it is something that I practice in my everyday life and as in my way as a leader. And so thinking about the Institute, I’m always thinking about how we’re cultivating this idea of belonging and giving people the space or helping them to find the space to do their scholarship and to connect with others and, and to grow and to flourish. So I’d say my approach to leadership and thinking this perspective has been has made me think about human flourishing in a really systematic way. In other words, in a way that it can happen like we can create the conditions in which flourishing happens.

KC: I like that idea of human flourishing. You have been director of the Institute for the Arts and Humanities for a little over a year now. What has that past year been like? What have you learned?

PP: I’ve learned a great deal in this last year and a half, I actually, I guess I’m right at the one and a half year mark, because this is we’re recording this in December of, which is the end of the semester of my second year as director. That first year, which was ’21-’22, you know, July ’21, we were just, you know, the University was just thinking about coming back, right? Coming fully back or partially back. We were sort of in that space of thinking about, you know, how back are we? If you want to put it that way.

But it was an important time for me to be able to sort of get my footing, you know, there were a number of meetings and conversations that were still being held on Zoom. And so what that allowed me to do was to be able to have lots of conversations with lots of people. So my first priority in at the beginning, was to do a listening tour to learn from the people who were the primary stakeholders at the Institute. So I had an opportunity to speak with my wonderful faculty colleagues who are the leaders of our programs. We have excellent program directors for our core programs, the Faculty Fellowship Program, the Academic Leadership Program, the Chairs Leadership Program — all of our programs that engage faculty throughout the lifecycle of their careers. And so that, you know, the Faculty Program Directors are the heart, at the heart of what we do. So having an opportunity to listen to the challenges that they face, to their desires and dreams, and to learn about what they’re doing to create this flourishing that I’ve talked about. So that was really, that was really important.

I was also very excited to be able to have conversations with members of our external advisory board. The external advisory board is a very important part of the Institute. And I’ll tell you why: from the very beginning of the Institute’s founding, there was a group of committed alumni who were very engaged with this idea of supporting faculty in the arts and humanities. Ruel Tyson, who is the founding director and someone that I had the honor, as many of my colleagues did, many people did, of course, over his wonderful life, had a chance to, to get to know and to be in his presence, and now being able to be a director, you know, following his wonderful vision for this art. And so at that time of that founding, there were this group of engaged alumni who really understood the importance of supporting faculty. And so to my delight, the current board and for years, this board has really sustained that interest in that fundamental mission of the Institute. And that is to understand that that a university does not exist without its faculty. Obviously, the students are here. And we know that we have to, we want to support our students, but our faculty are here in that service of educating our students and doing their scholarship and doing wonderful work that impacts our state, our local community and the world. And so having that opportunity to get to know each one of the 34 members of our board — I think we have 34 — was just was just a real joy.

My first year was mainly spent listening. But also was able to this year greet faculty for the first time at our Welcome Reception. I remember as a faculty member, that being really sort of the mark of the start of the semester — the fall semester, the academic school year — was coming to the wonderful Hyde Hall, always, you know, a beautiful event and seeing my faculty colleagues oftentimes, you know, the Chancellor’s would be there, as our chancellor was here this year, to greet faculty and just a real festive atmosphere. So that’s really been wonderful.

We also had a salon; we had two salons over the course of this year. And those were opportunities to engage with our advisory board members, and also the wonderful donors, people who are making gifts to the Institute to help us to carry out this mission of supporting faculty and cultivating community. And so it’s been a great year, Kristen, a great year and a half. And I’m looking forward to continuing this work.

KC: I’m also biased, but I can attest and affirm that yes, it has also been a great year and a half here at the Institute and working with you throughout your start, really. As Director of the Institute, you’ve outlined your vision of the IAH as a sure place for faculty and the importance of cultivating belonging into the Institute’s work, and you mentioned cultivating belonging earlier in the podcast. How do you envision the Institute’s role in facilitating that feeling of belonging across campus?

PP: Well, I’ve touched on this a bit, the Institute is in fact that sure place. And what I mean by sure place is that the Institute represents what I think faculty know for sure: that this is the place that they want to be to do their research. I mean, each of us made that commitment when we decided to come to Carolina, the University of North Carolina, a great public research university. And I think that the Institute represents the core of what it means to be at a great public research institution. It’s the idea that we can fulfill a mission of serving the community. Engaged scholarship is a is a core part of my work. And the reason it is is because I’m at an institution that has an infrastructure that supports that, and many of my colleagues are doing engaged scholarship, meaning that they’re doing research that impacts communities, that works directly with communities. And so the Institute is that kind of place, but it’s also a place where faculty know that they can come to meet other scholars who are doing work that’s similar to them. I mean, whether it’s in the arts or humanities, it’s engaged scholarship, or some other aspect of doing their research, you know, the Institute is that place that can cultivate that. So what I want to do is to build on what the Institute has been doing for the last three decades — or more than three decades — to create that place.

KC: Thanks for sharing about your insights and your experiences over the past year and a half. I know you’ve been thinking about this and working towards this, but what can you share about what’s next for the Institute?

PP: Sure, I’m really excited to share. The past few months, I’ve been working with the staff, faculty, and our wonderful advisory board to create a set of strategic priorities to be implemented over the course of my tenure as director. This began with a retreat that we convened in the spring. Since then, we’ve been developing a couple of ad hoc committees that are helping us to dive into those details. We’ve created a framework that will guide our work over the next few months. And essentially, that framework lays out four priorities and a fifth that will help with implementation. The four priorities are Utilization of Hyde Hall, you know, this question about how can the Institute utilize its space even more to enhance intellectual engagement and community building among faculty to structure belonging within its four walls and to amplify the arts and humanities? Hyde Hall has been such an important part of our identity, as that sure place on campus and so that’s one priority that I want to that I want to pursue during my tenure as director.

A second priority is equity and inclusion. What can the Institute’s role be in being a leader on diversity, equity and inclusion in terms of faculty retention, in terms of hiring, in terms of breaking down barriers? So that’s a priority moving forward.

A third priority is internationalization. What are the ways in which the Institute can expand its global impact and footprint? How can we better support faculty in building their international profiles?

And then the fourth priority is community engagement and partnerships. Now of course, this is something that’s dear to my heart because the focus of my research and teaching on engaged scholarship. And here at the Institute, the questions that have emerged around this priority is, to what extent can the institute continue to partner with arts and humanities units on campus, in the state, in the nation and even beyond, to amplify their mutually beneficial work. This idea of engagement and partnerships extends to communities on our campus and beyond. And so I’m really looking forward to thinking about the partnerships that we develop, the public-facing aspect of our work, and other ways that we can do engagement and partnerships.

And then the final priority is one that will help us to build on the first four, and that is creating the infrastructure at the Institute. You know, the Institute has grown over the last decade, for sure. And I want us to look very closely at what it takes to support all of our different programs and the things that we’re trying to do in terms of connecting across campus locally and globally. So having that infrastructure support is going to be very important.

KC: And it’s exciting work to see over the next few months. There’s a lot more that I do want to dive into. But we’ll save that for our next conversation that I look forward to talking with you more.

PP: Thank you, Kristen, it’s been a pleasure talking to you.

KC: That will wrap up this episode of the Institute podcast. Tune in again soon for our second half of our interview with Director Parker as we dive into her work on UNC’s campus, and the importance of humanities engagement in public and academic communities. Subscribe to our podcast to know when that new episode drops. You can subscribe on  Apple PodcastsSpotify, SoundCloud, and wherever you listen to your favorite podcasts. Visit our website to find past episodes, transcripts and more news and stories about arts and humanities fellows, information about grants and leadership opportunities for all UNC-Chapel Hill faculty and our upcoming events. Thanks for listening.

Categories: IAH Podcast

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