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Pitt’s Humanities Engage program is re-imagining doctoral education

  • Arts and Humanities
  • Community Impact
  • Global
  • Kenneth P. Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences

West Africa’s jaunty and melodic palm wine music was born from social gatherings. Often affiliated with working-class coastal communities in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Ghana, the genre fuses traditional musical elements with guitar techniques introduced by sailors. But its popularity is in decline.

Supported by the Pitch Your Own Summer Immersive program from Pitt’s Humanities Engage initiative, University of Pittsburgh doctoral student and Ghana native Josh Brew is helping to build career stability for palm wine musicians so they can preserve the genre for future generations.

Humanities Engage gives doctoral students like Brew hands-on experience in their field. Supported by a $1.5 million Mellon Foundation grant, the cross-disciplinary program re-imagines humanities doctorates with innovative initiatives such as the summer immersive which connects students with host organizations pursuing mission-focused challenges.

To spread the word about the program and the impact of the fellows’ work, an inaugural Humanities Engage Symposium will be held Sept. 13-14 and feature alumni, Humanities Engage awardees and other speakers. It is open to all students, faculty and community members; register to attend in person or virtually.

From May to July, Brew supported the Legon Palm wine Band (LPB, pictured above) in Accra, which formed in 2014 at his alma mater, the University of Ghana. He led efforts to establish their digital presence by developing a website and social media accounts and became the group’s manager.

He also hosted two workshops that united industry and academic leaders to discuss the challenges of building and maintaining a music career. The second brought out nearly 70 attendees and featured a keynote from the president of the Musician Union of Ghana, Bessa Simons.

“It’s about sustaining music careers in order to sustain the environment of specific and dying music traditions,” said Brew, a second-year ethnomusicologist in the Kenneth P. Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences. “LPB plays acoustic instrumental traditional music, so it’s difficult to break into the market because many people see it as outdated. But if the bands collapse, so will the music tradition eventually.”

The youngest of three children, Brew was raised in a musical environment where palm wine was a core part of his identity, but he was not encouraged to pursue music as an occupation. He didn’t truly delve into his musical interests until attending university in 2010, where he saw an opportunity to explore the intersection between sustainability in music studies and musical traditions.

“To sustain, you need to connect with your audience in every way possible, and in the current age, the internet and digital platforms are best,” Brew said. “You can’t just focus on the craft; you must explore sustainability to a higher level.”

Following conversations and encouragement from his friend, fellow ethnomusicologist and Fulbright Scholar Colter Harper (A&S ’06G, ’11G), he came to Pitt where he discovered Humanities Engage.

“Books have taught me about how the music industry and musicians are, but not how the world and working with people are going to be,” said Brew. “The language we use in academia isn’t always clear or accessible for people outside the field. But Humanities Engage helped me have that conversation with the musicians. It was something I’d been looking for and was perfect.”

He added, “Platforms like this allow you to explore for yourself and to benefit society. It’s a good way for doctoral students to put research into practice to solve real world problems.”

Communication to counter trauma

Fellow Humanities Engage scholar Alex Holguin’s immersive experience focused on a community closer to home.

The third-year communications graduate student spent the summer working with Pittsburgh’s Neighborhood Resilience Project (NRP), a faith-based organization that promotes community development among trauma-impacted groups. This opportunity aligned with the New York native’s choice to attend to Pitt.  

“We have some of the best professors when it comes to engaging the intersection between psychoanalysis and communication, and I was interested in exploring how we use psychoanalysis to think differently about the world and navigating various traumas that are attached to the world,” said Holguin.

As NRP’s media communications manager, he generated core messaging to share through social platforms about the group’s offerings: a free health care clinic, support from volunteer medical professionals and a backpack program that provides six meals each weekend to nearly 2,000 children — partnerships that, in the past, involved NFL players like Troy Polamalu.

Holguin said the Humanities Engage program resonated with the social nature of how he approaches scholarship. “I believe academia, publication research, everything we produce, should be tied to a social benefit and to people. Humanities Engage gave me collaborators to work alongside and who could nurture my growth as a scholar.”


— Kara Henderson, photo courtesy of Josh Brew