An Interview with Sara Knox Hunter on Founding and Funding a Discussion Residency

In 2011, Sara Knox Hunter founded Summer Forum, which takes the model of an artists’ residency and uses it to support reading and conversation. Each Summer Forum residency has a broad theme, assigned texts, invited guests, and a carefully chosen location, all of which serve as starting points for discussion. This year’s residency will take place from July 6 to 13 in Joshua Tree, California. The 34 residents (chosen from a pool of about 100 applicants) will sleep, eat, and attend the program for $350—one-third of the actual cost per person. Sara (who just moved to New York from Richmond, Virginia) and I (who live in Chicago) talked about Summer Forum over Skype.

What led to your starting Summer Forum?

Originally I was planning to finish my terminal master’s degree and then apply for a Ph.D. program in comparative literature. On my way to doing that, instead of picking a more traditional thesis focus, I started to look more at the institution and examined this specific publication called Profession [the Modern Language Association’s "journal about the fields of modern languages and literatures as a profession"].

I started looking at articles from the mid- to late-1970s and compared them with the academic articles that were coming out and all the mainstream press that academia was getting after 2008, and the issues were so similar: education is too expensive, we hire way too many adjuncts, we’re losing full-time faculty positions, we’re accepting too many Ph.D. students so that there are too many unemployed Ph.D.s once they graduate. It was pretty depressing to me. We keep talking about a crisis in education, but it’s really this ongoing slow drag.

So how did you come out of your thesis research thinking about something like Summer Forum?

At the same time, my partner, Michael Hunter, was going to different artists’ residencies. And a lot of my close friends are artists, and they would all go away for the summer. I was like, maybe there’s some way to create something discussion-oriented that utilizes that model, where you don’t have to be in grad school, you don’t have to commit to five-plus years for a Ph.D., you don’t have to pay for a terminal master’s program, but you can still have these opportunities for intense study and commitment with a group of people who are all curious and interested in discussing ideas and willing to commit a smaller amount of time and a smaller amount of money. That was my starting point.