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Community-engaged research on the Detroit River

What does literary theory have to do with the Detroit River? A lot, it turns out!

The Detroit River Story Lab is a great example of what practical humanities looks like – in practice. It is a collectively led interdisciplinary project at the University of Michigan. It is also, importantly, a partnership between several UM schools and colleges and a whole range of local organizations on both sides of the Detroit River.

I interviewed David Porter, professor of English and Comparative Literature, who founded the Lab in his interest to explore new, more public-facing ways of doing research in the humanities.

When I asked him about the beginnings of the Lab, David referred to his tenure as Department Chair. In that position, he felt keenly graduate students’ increasing anxieties around the crisis of the academic job market. “I thought it was time for humanities departments to stop burying our heads in the sand, and I decided to do something about it,” David says.

In a push to boost institutional support for graduate careers, he put together a course to broaden grad students’ awareness of and contact with attractive career opportunities available to them. “The course is somewhat unorthodox in its methodology,” he says, “but it’s really meant to chip away at the conception that there exists this wide chasm between academic humanities and other employment sectors.”

After stepping down from his position as the Department Chair, and true to his thinking that the chasm is much of academia’s own making, David wanted to explore new ways of narrowing the gap in terms of his own research.

“Due to my sabbatical, I had more time to spend on the water along the Detroit River and the Great Lakes, and I started to read more and more about the river’s past and present. I became fascinated by the central role the river played in the stories of the local communities, and I started looking into ways that a focus on narrative might help advance some of their priorities.”

In the Detroit River Story Lab, the connective tissue between narratives and communities is provided by the concept of narrative infrastructure. The concept offers a lens for looking at how communities are constituted and sustained by their shared stories, just as they are by their physical infrastructure.

The Story Lab works alongside its partners to research the many-layered stories of the Detroit River and to make these stories more widely accessible to the communities to whom they belong. By helping to elevate and celebrate these stories, it seeks to strengthen the narrative infrastructure of riverside communities, especially those that have been traditionally marginalized and whose stories have not been told as part of official histories.

This is work that cannot be achieved through academic research alone. The Detroit River Story Lab is a collaborative project to its core. It involves a wide array of interdisciplinary collaboration at the University of Michigan from Afroamerican and African Studies to Ecology and Evolutionary Biology – and much in between. But its partnerships reach well beyond the halls of the University, to local organizations and communities on the Detroit River banks.

We talked a lot with David about how to build connections beyond academia in a situation where you don’t have existing networks to pull from. For the Detroit River Story Lab, the community contacts had to be built from scratch.

“My earlier research was something totally different – on cultural connections between China and Europe in the early modern period,” David says. “When I started working on the Detroit River, at the beginning I felt lost in a way that you do when you are a newcomer in a strange land.”

Little by little he started to make sense of his new surroundings.

The first community contact, the Detroit River Project – an organization dedicated to educating about the history of freedom, resistance, and justice in the Detroit River Region – came about when David happened to learn about their work through a radio interview.

He started first subscribing to and, after a while, collaborating more closely with Planet Detroit – a newsletter run by a U-M graduate and committed to raising awareness about Metro Detroit’s environmental and public health challenges and potential solutions.

These early contacts soon led to new ones, such as the Detroit Historical Society, The Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, and many more.

David Porter stresses that the role of the Story Lab is largely that of a convener and capacity-building catalyst. To do this work, it is essential to understand the community priorities and their histories and contexts. This means, for example, that the Lab’s academic collaboration is built based on what the participating communities need the project to deliver.

It became very clear during our conversation that building connections to community partners requires curiosity and exploration – even happenstance, as not all small organizations can be found online. It takes establishing dialogue on needs and aspirations. And it takes mutual interest in finding common purpose and goals.

This is not a traditional way of approaching academic research. It means dialing down the emphasis on traditional forms of academic expertise and authority and being willing to turn associated hierarchies on their head. David confessed to me that embarking on this journey has required a measure of intellectual humility. “I’m lucky to have project partners who don’t mind calling me out on blind spots I wasn’t aware of. It hasn’t always been easy: I’ve had to unlearn some of the usual scripts of academic self-importance!”

In its operations, the Detroit River Story Lab is mindful of the power differentials between a rich university and the small, often under-resourced organizations at the local level. Therefore, the grants that the Lab has been able to secure have not been spent only on research.

Grant money has been used to pay for internships at the partner organizations and stipends for community consultants.

It has been used to support the co-development of place-based history curriculum for riverside schools.     

Some of it has been spent on educational sailings where local kids learn about climate change and the plankton in the river water.

It has even paid for boat building workshops where teens from the area learn about the cultural histories of their communities – about stories that make them feel they belong.

Going forward, it will help cover the cost of training programs in citizen journalism for community members who cannot afford expensive degrees.

Yet, despite its community-first orientation, the Story Lab has a clear academic identity. It houses projects related to the concept of narrative infrastructures with three overlapping components. This means that all its partnerships are somehow related to place-based education, community heritage, and non-profit journalism.

And, of course, the Detroit River.

In addition to its local importance, the river works as a kaleidoscope that brings to light scholarly connections that would otherwise remain hidden. For David personally, it has offered a new framework for thinking about his scholarly interests in early globalization, the relations between East and West, and cross-cultural methodologies.

“Doing this work, I’ve sometimes felt that I know nothing. But on the upside, it has been incredibly generative – a process of genuine learning and collaboration.”

Original photo by Provisionshots