Jonathan Banfill
Todd Presner
Maite Zubiaurre

At University of California, Los Angeles, the Humanities are located at both the historic and symbolic center of the university, on the main quad in three of the original buildings erected on the campus: Royce Hall, Powell Undergraduate Library, and the Humanities Building. They house departments that include dozens of world literatures and cultures stretching from the Middle East to the Americas, from Eastern Asia to Western Europe. The undergraduate library specializes in foundational texts of human civilization, including philosophy, history, literature, the sciences, and the arts. Founded in 1919, UCLA is nearing its first centenary, but the university builds—both literally and metaphorically—on humanistic and liberal arts traditions that are many centuries long and globally diffused. In this regard, one might bring to mind the shift from a theocentric worldview in the Medieval period, which cultivated the trivium (grammar, rhetoric, and logic), to a more humanistic approach in the Renaissance period with its developing studia humanitatis, focused on history, Greek, and moral philosophy (ethics). This shift developed the idea that knowledge is culturally conditioned and increasingly that monocular perspectives on the world need to be displaced by multiperspectival, transdisciplinary approaches. The wellspring of humanistic knowledge came from many literary and vernacular sources, abetted by the rediscovery of classical texts in Greek and Arabic, preserved in Byzantine and Islamic sites of learning, and disseminated through transcriptions, translations, editing, and annotation practices, which were greatly accelerated by the invention of the printing press. The core disciplines that we recognize today as comprising the Humanities—literary and language studies, philosophy, art history, musicology, history, among others—have deep roots in these institutional, cultural, and technological histories.


Porosity by Maite Zubiaurre.

But yet, for all its grand ambitions for reckoning with the world, the university has remained by and large an isolated institution, walled in and often walled off from its surrounding community, accessible to a chosen few, stratified by economic, social, and racial differences, and perhaps too invested in the security of its storied past. What, after all, are the physical buildings meant to evoke, except a grand past of privilege and prestige? Royce Hall, UCLA’s architectural and cultural landmark, is built in the Lombard Romanesque style. Its towers reference Milan’s ancient Basilica of Sant’Ambrogio, which gained its Romanesque style in the twelfth century—800 years after it was built. Carved into stone above the stage in Royce Hall is an unattributed quote: “Education is learning to use the tools which the race has found indispensable.” It is attributed to Ernest Carroll Moore, a philosophy professor who served until 1936 as UCLA’s first provost. One may wonder: What tools has “the race” found to be “indispensable”? Pen and paper, paintbrush, camera, clay, word-processing machines, Photoshop? Is learning to use such tools enough, or might we need to interpret the objects created, assess their significance, and probe their conditions of possibility? And who, after all, can learn to use these tools found to be “indispensable” by “the race”? We know from Moore’s other writings on education, for example, that not every human being counted as part of “the race,” and we know all-too-well that racial thinking, eugenic paradigms, and social Darwinism were not just part and parcel of late nineteenth and early twentieth century thought but were also framing assumptions in his published writings.How do we confront these profound histories of exclusion and hierarchy that are literally inscribed in the edifices of the university? How do we open the university to other stories and histories, particularly those from the outside?

The bricks of UCLA’s Royce Hall tell a fascinating story—a story of continuity and venerability—that harkens back to the early twentieth century. As it happens, UCLA still acquires its bricks from the former Alberhill Coal and Clay Company, now renamed Pacific Clay, the same factory that produced the first bricks that set the foundation of the UC “branch” in Westwood in the late 1920s. This fact allowed Los Angeles–based New Zealand artist Fionna Connor to, in her words, read “the UCLA campus through the use of bricks” in her April 2016 installation Process Inter-rupted. Intriguingly, that installation took place in the same classroom where the Urban Humanities Initiative 2015–2016 cohort was working on several collaborative projects of precisely the type that leave behind brick walls—and even contribute to tearing them down. In reading the campus through its bricks, we might further ask: What do we know of the people who actually produced the bricks, who carted them to Westwood, who toiled in the Los Angeles sun to build the grand campus on land that was originally Gabrielino-Tongva? How does deep knowledge of the layered histories of places inform, or fail to inform, our positions, ways of knowing, and actions in the present? These are questions that come from historical, cultural-critical, and ethical perspectives influenced by the humanities.

Traditionally, brick and mortar stand for a university solidly anchored in the ivory tower model, where knowledge is produced, preserved, guarded, and stratified in countless ways. Many educational situations quietly reinforce the very social, economic, and racial hierarchies of inclusion and exclusion, of permitted speech and permissible discourse, where students are judged by their facility in reflecting predigested knowledge formed with the tools the race has found indispensable. Yet one may wonder about these tools. Following Audre Lorde, we might ask: Can the master’s tools dismantle the master’s house? Is it possible to use “the tools” and transform the ivory tower model and the brick walls themselves? Or, might entirely new tools need to be invented, ones that imagine and bring about new possibilities, futures that are distinct and different from the stratifications of the past built into the educational edifices themselves?

The Urban Humanities initiative is an attempt both to apply conventional tools in unconventional ways and to invent new tools by respecting the fundamental virtue of bricks, namely their porous nature. Porosity—that is, the ability to breath in and out, to open up to the world, and to rapidly and evenly transport and expand moisture (life) and knowledge—is the modus operandi, or better even, the modus vivendi of a new, “fluid” university model based on permeability, openness, interdisciplinarity, collaboration, and community engagement at the local, national, and transnational levels. Needless to say, the digital era and the relatively new reality of knowledge production and consumption patterns based on digital networking and widespread virtual learning has heavily contributed to the “softening” and increasing porousness of universities, with noticeable effects on the uses of their physical and institutional spaces. But it is not only digital tools that have enabled this softening; it is also an ethic based on diversity and difference that reimagines the public university as sites of engagement that are multidirectional and nonhierarchical in the past, present, and future.

Against the somber background of what Umberto Eco termed “apocalyptic” thinkers who mourn the downfall of the Humanities and perceive only the crisis of public education,“integrated” and “generative” approaches optimistically speak of a radically “new ecology of teaching and learning” that not only acknowledges but also openly embraces the opportunities of a paradigm shift.“What is different at this historical moment,” director of the University of Michigan’s Institute for the Humanities Sidonie Smith contends, “is the intensification of cross-institutional [and cross-departmental and cross-divisional] collaborative activity in the humanities and opportunities for modeling collaborative graduate [and undergraduate] education.”Therefore, in a fitting response to the zeitgeist and as part of a new ecology of teaching and learning, Smith’s “Manifesto for a Sustainable Humanities” proclaims the need of “preserving the intimacy of the small and [stewarding] the distinctiveness of the local while recognizing the attraction [and potential] of global networks,” and of “relishing the commitment to teaching through innovations in the classroom, among them explorations of participatory and project-based humanities inquiry.”More importantly, she urges the Humanities to “reconceptualize the scholarly ecology as a flexible collaboratory, one that positions the scholar as singular producer of knowledge, but also as a member of a collaborative assemblage involving students, colleagues, computer engineers and graphic designers, project designers and strangers of the crowd.”6


La linea de Tijuana I by Jonathan Banfill and Maite Zubiaurre.

“Strangers of the crowd” may as well stand here for diverse communities not always sufficiently integrated into the knowledge networks or institutional formations that focus singularly on teaching the correct use of tools considered to be indispensable “for the race.” What about tools that stem from “beyond” or “outside” the university? What about ways of knowing, thinking, seeing, and building that come from communities not traditionally selected to partake in the knowledge formations and credentialing programs prized by the university? How does the university’s fundamental porosity expose students to possibilities and potentialities from the outside? And what does this mean for the mission of the university embedded in multiple critical networks that extend far beyond its walls to ways of creating and thinking that are “foreign” to it? Critically inflected forms of community engagement are certainly one of the imperatives of a new ecology of teaching and learning that shares with bricks the fundamental quality of porousness and permeability.

Intellectual and pedagogical initiatives such as Urban Humanities are based on and inspired by these principles. In the same way in which contemporary LA is now aligning itself with the global cities of the Pacific Rim, contemporary UCLA too is shifting, and amplifying its geographic and pedagogical scope in the same direction. Needless to say, by turning its gaze toward the Pacific, it is not only canvassing the far horizon, but also looking more intently at the demographics of the city and state it serves. Presently, 47 percent of Los Angeles County’s population is Hispanic or Latino, and 13 percent is Asian. Since 1 July 2014, Latinos have outnumbered non-Hispanic whites in California.How does this demographic reality change the way we consider the context of UCLA in LA, in California, and along the borders between the United States and Mexico in the post-NAFTA world, and in the ever-mutating global flows?

In the summer of 2015, a diverse group of twenty-four graduate students and five faculty members came together for a three-week, intensive summer institute that used Los Angeles as a “learning laboratory” to put these concepts into practice. The students came from both Ph.D. and professional master’s programs in the humanities (literary studies, history, and Chican@ studies), architecture, and urban planning, and brought together a wide-range of positionalities, life experiences, and perspectives. Some participants had grown up in Tijuana or Mexico City; others had never set foot in Mexico. Through historical investigations, multimedia mapping projects, and spatial ethnographies, the institute was framed around the investigation of contested histories, erasures, and spatial injustices in Los Angeles. Students worked in collaborative, interdisciplinary teams to make films, produce “thick maps,”and propose digital activist interventions, all with the goal of creating a foundation for a cross-disciplinary learning community prepared to work together for the remainder of the year.

In comparing Los Angeles and Mexico City, the pedagogical and research methods of the Urban Humanities were motivated by the bold question of whether it is possible to decolonize knowledge. Can knowledge ever be “decolonized”? The answers are far from clear-cut. We began with a relatively simply proposition: Rather than bring our knowledge and tools to Mexico City to “solve” a problem there, how might we study Mexico City in order to learn what knowledge and tools could be brought back to Los Angeles to help us see our “home city” differently? How might we identify, address, and challenge the spatial injustices in Los Angeles with toolsets, perspectives, and knowledge from another city and set of experiences? What kind of intellectual groundwork would have to be put in place to begin to orchestrate such a transformation? To do so, we would have to imagine new kinds of knowledge, new kinds of collaborations beyond the walls of the university, and utilize a range of tools to develop new kinds of speculative knowledge and historical awareness.

The summer institute acted as the foundational brick upon which the rest of the year was constructed, creating a new collective conception of what the classroom can be and how knowledge is generated. The classroom is not fixed; in fact, the chairs and tables themselves are mobile, rolling around to form new combinations. The walls are used as work space as well as the floor. Over three weeks, the classroom moved from Westwood to La Placita and Chinatown. One session focused on mapping the events of the 1871 Chinese massacre. Tables were pushed aside, a ten-foot-long map was unfurled on the floor, and students spent hours annotating it with a multiplicity of narratives, data, and comparative analyses—both historical and synchronic—culminating in contemporary examples of racial injustice and erasure.


La linea de Tijuana II by Jonathan Banfill and Maite Zubiaurre.

Other sessions left the classroom behind entirely. We moved into key sites in Los Angeles, and in this way the traditional classroom with its hierarchical ordered space was overcome. Urban Humanities propose something closer to a collaborative workshop, a messy garage or whimsical laboratory, where knowledge can be co-created with a spirit of porousness across borders both visible and invisible: disciplinary, national, linguistic, social, and cultural.

This spirit of a “new Humanities” continued throughout the academic year, where Los Angeles and Mexico City were put into productive conversation. The two seminars that followed worked to provide a flexible, open knowledge of the thematic confluences between the two cities—water, earthquakes, traffic and mobility, precarious housing, political and social violence—creating a dialogic circuit for deeper understanding. In the fall seminar, the focus was specifically on Mexico City: watching films and documentaries, reading novels and histories, and learning about events such as the 1968 Tlatelolco massacre and the 1985 earthquake. In the destructive aftermath of catastrophe, the idea was to apprehend the creativity of life in Mexico City as ways of rethinking, rebuilding, reimagining, and surviving after disasters, whether human-made or natural, contemporary or historical. How could such knowledge, creativity, and imagination be brought back to Los Angeles?

In the winter, we focused on the theme of borders and transgressions, where the US-Mexico border was not just understood in its embodied, physical, and geographic manifestation, but also as a symbolic, economic, and cultural formation. This included a study trip to Tijuana and San Diego where the abstract knowledge of the classroom encountered the reality of the border. The Tijuana experience was encapsulated by an evening visit to Playas de Tijuana, where the border fence extends across a sandy beach and disappears into the Pacific. Here, shrouded in an eerie ocean fog, we walked along the border, touched it, stuck our hands through the vertical openings, read the messages scrawled on the fence and the pieces of political art, truly feeling the immensity of the division as we peered back across to the United States. We were forced to materially confront our relationship with the border—including, for most of us, our privilege of being able to freely cross it back and forth—and to think through where our knowledge might better open up spaces for circulation and justice through such a seemingly insurmountable edifice.

The rest of the year followed such practice, continuously creating a growing bank of reflexive knowledge built across Los Angeles, Mexico City, and the geographic, cultural, linguistic, and social borderlands in between. By the time we arrived in Mexico City, a conceptual toolset existed for engaging in community projects. Each of the three partner organizations—an arts organization (inSite/Casa Gallina), an architecture firm (Productora and their LIGA space), and a city government urban think tank (Laboratorio para la Ciudad)—provided a different lens for interpreting the city. They first came to Los Angeles to work with us, and then we went to Mexico City to work with them on site. The idea was not to package and ship “expert” knowledge in either direction, but rather to forge partnerships, grow collaborations, and open critical perspectives for networks of engagement. In this two-way process, knowledge was “forged and produced,” to quote the Brazilian educator Paulo Freire, “in the tension between practice and theory.”9

The result was a series of projects of engaged, speculative scholarship that were realized in specific urban sites characterized by spatial inequities and injustices. The goal was never to “master” Mexico City, but rather to engage with local community organizations around specific issues within the city—street vending, children’s safety, gentrification—in order to bring back knowledge, insights, and perspectives that might be applied to analogous issues in Los Angeles. As Peter Chesney, a Ph.D. student in history at UCLA, reflected: “The most important experience in Mexico City was learning about the limitations of our own systems of knowledge, so that we could come back to Los Angeles and speculate about a place we think we know.” This is what we did returning to LA and extending, at least conceptually, the work done in Mexico City in a series of humanistic, interventionist collaborations with community groups in Boyle Heights.

In the spring studio, the urban humanities students worked with five Los Angeles–based community organizations—Libros Schmibros, The East Los Angeles Community Corporation, From Lot to Spot, Multicultural Communities for Mobility, and Self Help Graphics—grappling with critical issues currently unfolding in Boyle Heights, a neighborhood rife with spatial contestations and tensions between the residents and the ambitions of developers, city planners, business leaders, transit authorities, and government policies. These community organizations work on literacy, housing, green space, transportation, and activist visual arts, respectively, trying to find ethical, ground-up ways to enact change, struggling with questions such as: How do you develop a neighborhood that protects its residents, rather than welcoming in outside gentrifying forces? How do you intervene in ways that are ethical and attuned to the needs of greater LA? As outsiders to the neighborhood, our students occupied a liminal zone inflected with perspectives, knowledge, and activist practices stemming from Mexico City.

The projects that emerged were attempts, however provisional, to fuse these experiences and imagine scenarios that were ethically grounded, truly collaborative, and imaginatively engaged with the possibilities of translational, humanistic knowledge: A magic storytelling box for child literacy, a manual for community greening, a fotonovella imagining a just future for the neighborhood, a successful city arts activation grant for making a series of installations advocating for bike commuter safety.

Now there is also transnational circulation of these projects, with ideas spreading back from Los Angeles to Mexico City: La Caja Mágica, the magic storytelling box, will soon to be deployed in Mexico City on the children’s safety project where Laboratorio para la Ciudad continues to claim a “right to the street” for children’s play spaces.


Mexicocitylosangeles/Losangelesmexicocity by Jonathan Banfill and Maite Zubiaurre.

None of these projects is a grand statement or a utopian solution. They are small-scale interventions, speculative collaborations that are inserted into the fabric of the city in order to expose and begin to address a spatial injustice. They open up the public university to the outside and bring the outside in. They are porous in every sense of the word. As such, urban humanities bring productive responses to the oft-heard cries of “crisis” in the humanities; they are experimental, engaged, and speculative forms of knowledge-making, rooted in humanities perspectives and values, charged with creating new knowledge, new kinds of tools, and new possibilities for opening up the walls of the university and addressing spatial injustices through transnational creativity and networks. This is a prototype for the “fluid” university based on permeability, openness, interdisciplinarity, collaboration, and community engagement. Indeed, the decolonization of knowledge is never complete, but it must also start somewhere. We see Urban Humanities as one such start.


Cf. the excellent discussion of Moore’s works and this inscription by our colleague Chon Noriega:

While we don’t disagree with the many struggles faced by the public university in an age of neoliberal corporatization, we don’t see the university in ruin or the humanities in perpetual crisis. Cf. Bill Readings, The University in Ruins (Harvard University Press, 1997).

Sidonie Smith, A Manifesto for the Humanities: Transforming Doctoral Education in Good Enough Times (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2016), 87.

Smith, 39.

Smith, 108.



“Thick mapping” is a key method in the urban humanities in which “mapping” is given dimensionality through a multiplicity of datasets, historical perspectives, narratives, and multimedia assets. The concept is derived from Clifford Geertz’s “thick description” and underscores the constructedness, contingency, and layeredness of spatial representations. For a fuller discussion, see Todd Presner, David Shepard, and Yoh Kawano, HyperCities: Thick Mapping in the Digital Humanities (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2014).

Paulo Freire, Letters to Cristina (New York: Routledge, 1996), 85.

Jonathan Banfill is a Ph.D. student at University of California, Los Angeles. His research focuses on interdisciplinary higher education across Asia Pacific.

Todd Presner is professor of Germanic languages, comparative literature, and Jewish studies at University of California, Los Angeles. He is also the chair of the Digital Humanities Program.

Maite Zubiaurre is professor of Spanish and Portuguese and of Germanic Languages, and Associate Dean for Equity, Diversity and Inclusion, Humanities Division, at University of California, Los Angeles.

Posted by Boom California