Trisha Barua

I’m in Mellon Public Scholars because of an unrelenting curiosity on the possibilities of connecting humanistic research with the initiatives of community organizations. I’ve attempted to negotiate the boundaries between academic and public life since I entered the university, and this program is an opportunity to meet colleagues who share similar goals.

In college, academic and public work spilled into each other. As I earned a degree in American Culture, with a focus on Asian / Pacific Islander American Studies, I mobilized the Asian American community around racial justice at the University of Michigan. Soon after completing a senior thesis on gender in South Asian American cinema, I started working at an organization that supported South Asian survivors of domestic violence in Seattle. Through this non-profit, I coordinated a South Asian women’s political collective for undergraduate and graduate students at the University of Washington. Even though I was unaffiliated with the academy, I bridged university and public life.

In graduate school, this fluidity between academic and public spaces started to wane. As an inter/non-disciplinary field, Cultural Studies has few fixed tenets. At UC Davis, students grapple with what it means to be a Cultural Studies scholar. Even though our research spans a range of methods and topics, we have a common principle: Cultural Studies is a political project. Despite this principle, I feel like my graduate training abstracted the meaning of political work. Previously, this work emerged through collaborations outside of the academy. Sometimes my academic goals don’t seem to have significance beyond a dissertation. It feels odd to see political work as driven by individualized research, especially given that my academic interests have always stemmed from local conditions.

I study representations of contemporary Oakland, the city in which I live. I thrive when collaborating with others, so I’ve started to bridge research and community through public-facing projects. I co-convene a group of graduate students who study Oakland. We’re sponsoring a roundtable discussion, “Expanding the Frame: Multiple Perspectives on Gentrification in Oakland,” at Oakland Public Library on Saturday, May 7. This event centers activists who mobilize around prison abolition, public health, sustainable housing, and indigenous critiques of settler colonialism. Because we aren’t conducting research with our community partners, I hesitate to claim that this collaboration is public scholarship. Still, we think through the ethics of what it means to be scholars out/alongside the academy.

If either political or public scholarship is meant to have long-term resonance, they need to be seen as inseparable. I’m in Mellon Public Scholars to explore these questions: What is the public purchase of academic cultural critique? How do we negotiate the contradictions of attempting to do public, political scholarship using resources from a privatized, inequitable university? How do we balance between being accountable to our academic institutions and community partners? (How) can public scholarship transform the ivory tower?

I don’t intend to resolve these questions. Instead, I hope we collectively grapple with scholarly praxis in the public humanities.