Author Archive for dtenoriog

Reflections From The Sea: What Does It Really Mean to Do Public Scholarship Abroad?

In the wake of Hurricane Irma, which has swept through the Caribbean basin this past week, I am thinking of environmental turmoil as a metaphor for political turmoil. If Irma has stirred all of this commotion because the lives of many around the Caribbean are put at risk; political causes are just as dangerous as environmental threats to the lives of activists and grassroots organizers.

During the month of July, I had the opportunity and privilege of collaborating with a fabulous group of trans women in Cuba whose political agendas, employment status and even approaches to daily life differed greatly from one another. My summer project involved traveling to Cuba, mainly Havana, Matanzas, Varadero and Santa Clara, where I connected with LGBT grassroots organizations and official institutions. I was set to aid in the creation of 5 digital stories. We were able to accomplish the creation of 3 of those in spite of the difficulty of accessing digital media and internet content. But through our collaboration, I was constantly reminded of one incisive question that is pivotal for public scholars:

For whom is this research being done?

It seemed a little contradictory to build digital stories in a country where the dissemination of all things digital is extremely limited and difficult. The project of creating digital stories had as one main objective to bring visibility and voice the concerns of trans community members in certain parts of Cuba. I was proposing that, through digital storytelling, their voice could be heard at large and abroad.

But from my regular interactions with these women, I came to realize that their voices were already resonating and sounding strong. And, in many instances, that voice also remained silent. The politics of silence is a tactic for survival within the transgender community in Cuba, a set of politics that marks the difference between life and death. And, yet, in spite of the risks and consequences, these women go into the streets of the capital city and resist through their daily interactions with their own reality.

This reflection about for whom we, as public scholars, speak brings me to question my own methods. Digital storytelling’s whole premise relies on the incorporation of marginal voices into mainstream discourses, in my case the academic discourse. But recognizing that a voice needs to be incorporated also speaks to the power dynamics associated with issues of visibility, empowerment, and marginalization.

The trans women I collaborated with already had a voice and at times they decided not to use it but not because they didn’t want to be political or visible, but because their life depended on it. As I bring back their stories into the US academy, I wonder whether their voice will have an impact on their way of life. And, in that sense, the question remains:

For whom am I doing this research?

A summer to think about…

There are many tasks that can be accomplished during this summer for my Mellon Scholarship. As the quarter swiftly moves to an end, the task of organizing a collaborative research agenda can be daunting and overwhelming, especially when we also have other responsibilities on campus, such as teaching, research, etc. For my project, I have decided to adopt a Project Framework that will allow arranging visually deadlines and objectives.
The collaboration I am trying to foster with my community partner remains unclear, however. The means of communication in Cuba are limited due to a lack of a digital infrastructure and a high cost associated with internet access. In that sense, my community partner, TransCuba, has not replied to my initial contact. Under the current circumstances, I have already made some adaptions to my project that will affect who my community partner will be. Given the often politicized nature of community organization in Cuba, it is difficult to determine right now what ideology this group represents. This is important because my project precisely seeks to problematize the political implications of absorbing the transgender community into the official discourse of sexual diversity in Cuba. I argue that such promises and advances with the transgender community are not unilateral and are possible through a process of mediation, negotiation, and appropriation of transgender bodies. Access to health services, such as hormone treatment, sex reassignment surgery, legal rights, etc., come not as legal and human rights victories but rather as political concessions that compromise differing ideologies and agendas articulated from the transgender community.
So far, my proposed project remains unchanged (i.e. the development of a community partner’s website and the assemblage of 2-5 digital stories of Afro-Cuban transgender community members.) Identifying concrete goals and objectives, at this point, is crucial to developing a realistic timeline in place to guide the accomplishment of those goals at the end of the funding period. Thinking about deliverables and a final outcome also constitute a site for contention, especially when there might be adaptations and variations between the envisioned project and the actual one.

The Politics of Activist Scholarship

A central proposition in understanding the political engagement behind the project of public humanities resides in the teasing out “the unavoidable paradox,” as Lisa Lowe puts it, brought on by producing knowledge in social institutions that perpetuate an imbalance in power relations while unsettling such status quo through practices of community engagement. This week’s readings discuss the theoretical, methodological and political facets of assuming the role of a public scholar, be it as a community-engaged researcher, an activist scholar, or a “specific” intellectual in Western universities. Although each reading sheds light on the various ways of embodying community-engaged scholarship, all authors converge in one theoretical aspect that shapes their role as knowledge workers: radical feminism. For this week’s blog entry, I would like to comment briefly on how the study of power relations resonates with the ideas inspiring radical feminist movements as projects of emancipation, liberation, and reconciliation. Moreover, it is paramount to continue to reflect on the ethical dimensions of assuming the role of and engaging in public scholarship.

Third World Feminism was a key movement in the development and inclusion of a radical politics of liberation and emancipation that was infused into the western university. It meant the creation of ethnic studies departments in some institutions of higher education across North America. This inclusion did not happen smoothly and without contradictions. On the contrary, the radical politics of feminism and other civil rights movements challenge the elitist, exclusionary vision and mission of the university as a site of privilege and power. As such, the university continues to be a metaphor for structural contradictions of North American society today. With the advent of globalization in a technological era, the university has become a site more concerned with the professionalization of individuals than the development of critical minds that challenge the status quo. Similarly, many of the authors of this week’s reading caution against the professionalization of public scholarship skills as a response to the revival of humanistic inquiry. What resonated more pointedly from the reading was the level of vulnerability radical activist scholars occupy when bringing power to account. I wonder, then, how much freedom of critique public scholars truly have without having to compromise their role as knowledge workers. In an ethical sense, how can this “unavoidable paradox” be reconciled, or is it that we need to find spaces of hope within all contractions?

On Archives of Feeling

The second set of readings on archival power and normative technologies of absorption place racial and social minority groups as examples of how liberatory grassroots movements become, to a degree, depoliticized by their inclusion into archiving institutions of the nation-state. In doing so, a genealogy of power within American universities is presented as an articulation of a new form of coloniality. The piece by Ferguson is provocative and further problematizes the role of the archive in the development of area studies departments, such as Native American Studies, African American Studies, Asian American Studies, Chicano Studies, and Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies among others. Ferguson’s arguments tease out the complexities of power in academia and the power’s fine attunements within neoliberal and postindustrial structures that shape practices of knowledge production and consumption.

In an allusion to the work of Lisa Lowe, Ferguson reminds the reader of the “inevitable paradox” contained in the scholarship of area studies departments: speaking of/about difference while being part of a larger structure of neocolonial power that attempts to depoliticize by absorbing and including otherness. Ferguson reflection on the space “the subaltern” occupies within the archival tactics and strategies of empire calls into question the ethical engagement of knowledge workers. More concretely, what does it mean then to produce knowledge from the archival practices of Empire? What archives or other technologies of power are enacted and activated to produce the inscription of heterogeneity into public scholarship?

Newfield’s article on the erosion of the public university waged by conservative groups through economic practices synthesizes this “inevitable paradox”. Newfield’s historiography also resonates with Ferguson’s notion of archival tactics of power reproduced at universities. I read Newfield’s interpretation of the public university as an archival site that needs to be defended because, in spite of its tactics of power, the mission of the public university seeks to restructure the power dynamics and social relations that continue to permeate a hierarchal model of knowledge production. Conversely, Ferguson shed a critical light on the mission of the university as a technology of the nation-state and its transition into the neoliberal era of globalization and neocolonial expansion through cybernetics. Both authors, however, question the role of the academy and the university as a place of empire.

From these readings, the following questions came to mind: if the public university after WWII emerged as a site of empowerment, to embody the ideals of a renewed humanity invested in diversity, to what extent absorption and inclusion into institutions of knowledge production are necessary to contest the normativity and universality of the university as a site of empire. To what extent are public humanities contributing to the technocratization of the humanities in an ever-changing neoliberal market that requires technical public scholars to ensure its development?

Romeo Guzman’s piece reflects on the very notion of what constitutes an archive, what subjects are seen as positioned as legitimate voices of official history, and how to find sites of ethical engagement in archives. What seemed to hover over Guzman’s interpretation of the archive was an affective charge in the inscription of history, one that turns writing and archiving history as a personal, intimate and relational act. In this sense, I question to what degree out intimate archives of the world serve as strategies to decolonize and dynamite the very notion of canonical archives for the sake of nation-states. Moreover, what alternative possibilities of archiving emotion and affect exist, particularly when subjugated stories of trauma, ostracism, or violence occlude the telling of difference. I further question what lies behind archival silences and whether those silences are also considered sites of knowledge production.

Scholars in Crisis

After completing the readings for week 1, I have a clearer understanding of the objectives, goals, and purposes of public humanities and scholarship of engagement. Although the authors stress the importance of thinking of conceptual definitions as a process rather than monolithic theoretical structures, they insist on developing a new epistemology that combines humanistic inquiry and community-based practices for knowledge production. These authors, all coming from different disciplines and adopting different working definitions, advocate for a paradigm shift, an epistemic bridge that links traditionally conceived centers of power and knowledge, such as universities or institutes, with a larger “public.”

On this notion of the “public”, I have a couple of reservations mainly associated with the idea of the public as a consumer of knowledge that circulates around and is part of an intricate market system. An idea of the “public” needs to also address issues of intersectionality, such as class, gender, race, sexual orientation, etc. because the public is neither a homogenous group nor responds to similar codes, motives, and needs. In this sense, I question the investment of universities in bridging a knowledge gap between “knowledge experts” and “publics.” Many of the authors question that same endeavor and call out to redesign the curricula, research agendas, and institutions’ missions to respond to a complex social reality that continues to become closely enmeshed with digital tools of sociality and communication.

For my own research and engaged scholarship, I am teasing out the following questions and by doing that I hope to be critical of my own positionality and the methodology I am developing in collaboration with community members to better equip myself to approach our community project. These questions are: who benefits from dong public humanities scholarship? What type of power relations are at stake when building community liaisons? How do we begin to think of ourselves as scholars in expansive ways of producing knowledge outside of academia? How do we integrate affective dimensions into the scholarship of engagement? How do we position ourselves within such structures of feeling when mediating different spaces, and also becoming mediatized through the deployment of new media?

These questions stem from a personal conundrum. I do find extremely difficult, at times, to think and feel outside the traditional terms associated with research practices, such as research variables, working theory, of the names that research partners receive informant, subjects of study, or other terminological denominators that dispossess to a certain degree the agency, expertise, and knowledge other collaborators bring to the research table. This brings up the possibility of reflecting upon the crisis of the scholar. I am not resorting to the sense of crisis here as an apocalyptic one, but rather, as a mode of critical hope that signals that our methodologies, theories, and epistemologies are rendered insufficient in approaching the complex realities that abound around us.

In a very recent conversation I sustained with a very-well established scholar in my field, I recall intervening with a comment during the Q&A session of a panel of transnational writers. In my comment, I was arguing that perhaps we need to think about the “organic intellectual” more than just the “public intellectual.” It seems to me that some artists or writers are well aware of their public, one that is undoubtedly middle-class, White, or that is an international public that responds to a similar identity of privilege. As is very “common” within my field, this scholar “corrected” my intervention and argued that to think of an “organic intellectual” was an anachronism in a Gramscian sense. It is perhaps out of place and time to think of the “organic intellectual” as a valid category of analysis within the scholarship of engagement. What remains relevant is, however, the need to integrate an ethical paradigm to graduate student research curricula and methodology to bring questions of privilege and power into our own conceptualizations of the scholar. In this sense, I am resorting to a crisis of the scholar so that in our community intervention with the public, we are informed and respond sensibly to the struggles that some of these communities face on a daily basis.