Trisha Barua

The academy is designed to fail women of color and domesticate the decolonial politics of ethnic studies. As a woman of color and critical ethnic studies scholar, I’m in a vexed position. Before I can situate my “public” in relation to the academy, I need to explore two ontological questions:

  1. Who am I in relation to the academy?
  2. Who am I in relation to my public?

My relationship to the academy has always been fraught. I have low expectations for institutional support and high expectations for myself in negotiating institutional barriers. I entered graduate school with the unfortunate assumption that I would be “presumed incompetent” and/or tokenized to represent diversity in otherwise majority white spaces. As an undergraduate, in coalition with my peers, graduate students, and faculty at the University of Michigan, I organized “Campus Lockdown: Women of Color Negotiating the Academic Industrial Complex,” a forum that responded to the systemic denial of tenure to women of color faculty in the neoliberal university. “Campus Lockdown” also highlighted the devaluation of sustained publicly-engaged scholarship that went beyond shallow service-learning courses meant for privileged students to experience diversity.

I was not naive about limits of the academy as I entered a the doctoral program in Cultural Studies at UC Davis. In Michigan, I used “Academic Industrial Complex” as a cheekily polemical epithet for the privatized university. Little did I know that UC Davis would become the archetype of the Academic Industrial Complex. Since I started graduate school, the UC Davis administration has become infamous for police violence against students, mismanagement of public funds, and expansion of for-profit models of education. I am deeply ambivalent about seeking legitimization from (and positioning myself as a representative of) this institution that has a tenuous reputation in working for the public good. As Roderick Ferguson states in The Reorder of Things, academics of color with decolonial politics can “be in the institution but not of it.”

How does my disavowal of the academy shape how I relate to “the public” in a bridge-building position between the university and the community? “The Public,” an abstract, catch-all designation for people and institutions outside of the academy, can include almost anyone and anything. For Mellon Public Scholars, I am working with EastSide Arts Alliance, an artist-led organization that forefronts cultural work as political work. EastSide uses public art derived from the Black and Chicano Arts Movements to organize East Oakland residents, challenge systemic racism, and resist gentrification. I write about EastSide in my dissertation, which is on representations of contemporary Oakland, and in my public humanities praxis, I seek to generate a shared cultural critique with artists and activists that has resonance within and outside of the academy. Working with the public means cultivating relationships that are mutually transformative. Rather than seeing public scholarship as an extractive transaction between university representatives (and their resources) and non-academics, I see myself as strategically leveraging my position within the academy to appropriate and redistribute its resources (including my labor) to push forward politically urgent work.

In “Seven Rules for the Public Humanities,” Steven Luber suggests that “we need to be more than academic.” Instead of merely “studying” EastSide’s cultural work with critical distance, I aim to approach public scholarship as an empathetic, collaborative, and critical practice. Public scholarship can enable humanists to reconnect with our humanity. Our institutions often alienate us from ourselves. Our (de)valuation is contingent on individualized intellectual labor. Many of us desperately need to know our intellectual curiosity shouldn’t be ignited or extinguished by the job market. In the words of consummate public scholar Grace Lee Boggs, who had a PhD in Philosophy but was not a professor, “These are the times to grow our souls. Each of us is called upon to embrace the conviction that despite the powers and principalities bent on commodifying all our human relationships, we have the power within us to create the world anew.” As we transform ourselves, we transform the world around us on a local scale. Given the intense privatization of the academy, cultivating relationships alongside the ivory tower can transform how we, as academics, view ourselves and how we’re viewed by the public.