Public Scholarship, Why Now?

Blog Home    |     04.19.2017 by     |    


As a budding Black scholar, public and community-based scholarship, is not something that I think about, but more or less just do. While completing my M.A. thesis I had a critical moment in my development where I asked myself, “if my Nana can’t understand my work and its purpose, what am I doing?” Moreover, my entry into academia has been greatly influenced by radical social movements. Huey P. Newton’s assertion that his work (both organizing and academic) was for the “brothers on the block” propelled me to keep researching and producing scholarship for those in struggle. 

For me, being a Black queer scholar is inextricably linked to the public and community. Because of my multiple marginalized identities, I never feel as if I am in a position to produce knowledge and scholarship that is void of a purpose or that is inaccessible. What good is knowledge and scholarship that is not grounded in societal advancement and justice? And while I’ve read my fair share of “high theory,” cutting edge research, and can cite some of the most acclaimed scholars in my fields, it is often the work of “public scholars and intellectuals” that I find myself fawning over and seeking to emulate. 

I remember being introduced to the works of Cornell West and Micahel Eric Dyson early in high school. Race Matters was my “go to” book and West was the first public intellectual that I was able to recognize whenever he came on television. Since then, my recognition of public scholars and intellectuals has moved beyond those that have simply reached academic celebrity status, to associating the recently popularized term with those that consider themselves activist-scholars, those that organize within their locales, those that center social justice within their work, and are committed decolonizing the academy. 

I now turn to the work of Stacey Patton, Brittney Cooper, Bettina Love, Tricia Rose, Melina Abdullah, Rosa Clemente, Keeanga Yamahtta Taylor, Donna Murch, Alexis Pauline Gumbs, and others for direction on how to conduct community-based and social justice centered research for those on the margins of the margins. Their work illustrates how to navigate commitments to the public, community, and academia, while maintaining critical anti-hegemonic, anti-capitalist, and anti-oppressive messages. And simultaneously using their platform to call attention to current social movements and issues within their communities. 

These scholars rarely outright call themselves “public scholars.” But we have come to know that this type of work is expected of us as Black women. So there has never been a question of whether or not if my work is engaging the public or community, but how? Dwight Giles, “Understanding an Emerging Field of Scholarship: Toward a Research Agenda for Engaged, Public Scholarship,” is both insightful (in that public scholarship is being studied as a field) and concerning. While Giles argues that public scholarship existed prior to the recent interest in the field—more so as a form of “service learning,”a term akin to community service and does not fully capture the nature of public scholarship—they also begin to force the “field” to be beholden of the same rigid academic structures as traditional fields. What does it mean for public scholarship to be a field especially when scholars on the margins have been doing this work within traditional and interdisciplinary fields for decades, if not longer? What does it mean to now subject this “field” to some of the same hegemonic structures that govern existing fields? And finally, why now? Why now is this work being applauded, deemed interesting or even scholarship?