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Spotlight on Ruth Martin Curry: humanist, civically engaged scholar, and dedicated Chicagoan

Modified: February 15, 2016
Ruth Martin Curry
Ruth Martin Curry is a born and bred Chicagoan who has spent her graduate career working to build connections between students and the greater Chicago community. She is a fifth-year PhD candidate in Comparative Literature, a Brady Scholar, and a graduate affiliate of the Alice Kaplan Institute for the Humanities. While her commitment to civic engagement is especially strong today, that wasn’t always the case.
“I felt the contrast of being a student of the University of Chicago and being a citizen of the south side very strongly and painfully, but I didn’t have the tools to think about how to bridge the gap.” Ruth explains, “So I left college feeling in some ways stunted by my education.”
Ruth took several years off before returning to school, spending time working and, in her free time, volunteering. One group she worked with was particularly inspiring: the Odyssey Project, a free, college-credit granting, humanities program for income-eligible adults who have limited to no access to education. As a tutor, she began to understand how her scholarly and civic interests could be joined.
“I found it so valuable to step into another type of classroom and use the philosophical and literary texts I love to engage my city,” she says. “It proved to me that liberal arts education and the humanities can include everybody. And should. After all, the humanities help us reflect on meaningful questions about living in a just society.”
When she went back to school several years later, Ruth knew she wanted to stay in Chicago and was determined to keep a balance between her education and her life outside of academia. Northwestern was appealing due to its proximity to the city and the opportunities available through the Center for Civic Engagement. After joining the Graduate Student Advisory Board for the Center, she realized that graduate students needed a better way to connect with one another and the community, leading to the creation of the group Civically Engaged Graduate Students (CEG), funded by a TGS Community Building Grant.
“My colleagues on the advisory committee agreed that we needed a network of graduate students who, like us, wanted to be grounded in a place even as we chased the most cerebral, abstract thing in our research.” Ruth says, “The TGS Community Building Grant offered the funds to create such a network, so this is our fourth year.”
This year, Ruth is a part of the Graduate Leadership & Advocacy Council on behalf of Civically Engaged Grads. They’re instituting a task force of graduate students to discuss expanding opportunities for participating in decision-making processes at the University.
In addition to Civically Engaged Grads, Ruth cofounded the NU Public Humanities Colloquium with Liz McCabe, Lecturer in Chicago Field Studies, as a way to bring together both scholars and non-academic professionals interested in the role of the humanities in public life. In 2014, they held “The Scholar in Public: A Symposium on Public Humanities” which featured conversations between graduate students and faculty from Northwestern and the University of Chicago and administrators of the Chicago Humanities Festival and Illinois Humanities (then the Illinois Humanities Council).
Ruth’s interest in student involvement spans beyond the graduate population. She has taught Chicago Field Studies in Civic Engagement, an undergraduate class combining coursework and internship experience, and is currently a graduate fellow of Northwestern’s Brady Scholars Program in Ethics and Civic Life. Graduate fellows mentor undergraduate students as they research, plan and undertake a collaborative community service project. It has helped her build deeper connections to Northwestern, the undergraduate population, and the greater Evanston community.
“Being a Brady Scholar has made me a part of something greater than my own education.” Ruth says, “It has connected me to our undergraduates and to our neighborhood in wonderful ways. It’s given me a home on campus.”
When she finishes her degree, Ruth would like to pursue a career as an undergraduate professor. “I would love to teach some combination of traditional literary studies and these untraditional constellations of service, civic engagement and work experience grounded in interdisciplinary inquiry.”
Although she is strongly in favor of a traditional liberal arts education, she believes that integrating real-world experience in civic engagement will create a well-rounded college experience. As she says, “One of the promises of a liberal arts education is that it makes you a better human being and citizen, so this seems like a natural complement.”