Simon Abramowitsch

Is the declaration “public scholar” a statement of ambition? Is it a dream? A statement of contradiction that either cannot or should not be resolved?

For anyone working in the legacy or shadow of ethnic and women’s studies movements–what Roderick Ferguson discusses in The Reorder of Things as the “interdisciplines”—the answer is probably all of the above.

This is certainly true for the public that I engage—the one I imagine as a public: communities in the San Francisco Bay Area who participated in or who are the knowing and unknowing beneficiaries of a 1960s and 70s movement of creating independent multi-ethnic media when this material was scarce or non-existent.

Ferguson examines the conflict between the institutional power of the university and the resistance to that power by minority groups in the 1960s and 1970s. But as these new interdisciplines offered recognition and affirmation for minority groups within the university, they also presented a means of managing or controlling resistance, not only in the university but in society generally.

But this conflict is only part of the dynamic.

Mark Chiang pinpoints another paradox in the development of ethnic studies: on the one hand there is the claim for a very direct relationship between ethnic communities and university ethnic studies—that these academic departments are responsible to and to some degree under the authority of the “community.” And yet, at the same time, there is also the desire and demand for the kind of intellectual autonomy that academic tenure, in theory at least, should provide.

Resistance. Control. Recognition. Affirmation. Community. Responsibility. Autonomy. Authority.

In this context, the idea of a “public scholar” presents the fundamental conflicts inherent in the attempt. And all of the other various names that try to state the relationship for such “public” work: alt-ac, post-ac, activist scholar, community scholar—these simply present in different or new configurations these questions, with varying degrees of loyalties to the individual, the university, business, or a community.

The history and public I address have long been involved in the these problems. They persist: we can draw lines to and between a current hunger strike by the #Frisco5 to fire SFPD Chief Suhr and a current hunger strike at SFSU to prevent cuts and increase the budget for the College of Ethnic Studies.

The very practices of the editors and publishers such as Alejandro Murguia, Janice Mirikitani, Ishmael Reed, Judy Grahn, and others are the consequence of these conflicts: multi-ethnic and women’s publishing and media made space, and this was not without complexity.

Now, my own interest in documenting and making alive the history and impact of multi-ethnic media work confronts the same problem: the instincts of the university are archival, autonomous, controlled—such is what a scholarly oral history project for the Oral History Office at the Bancroft Library can look like. The instincts of hunger strikes against police racism and for ethnic studies are communal, responsible, resistant—such is what work with and for (among?) a public can look like.

Perhaps the most fruitful way to consider the “public” and the “public scholar” is not as ambitions or dreams but opportunities for exposing the problems we confront.

In a short poem in her 1971 poetry chapbook Child of Myself, poet Pat Parker wondered the relation, the nightmare:

In English Lit.,
they told me
Kafka was good
because he created
the best nightmares ever-
I think I should
go find that professor
& ask why
we didn’t study
the S.F. Police Dept.