Author Archive for jetinonga

Moving Forward (But Not Alone)

As I move from discussing and theorizing my specific project and community-engaged scholarship, I expect to keep learning. I anticipate discovering a lot about the type of research I’m going to do (techniques for gathering data, strategies for finding difficult-to-find organizations, skills for using map and database tools) as well as knowledge about working in a scholarly context and organization that is different from my day-to-day work as an instructor. Alongside learning about the people who I will collaborate with at California Humanities and the publics that they engage with, I look forward to finding out more about the landscape of humanities projects in our state.

To this project, I will bring with me the background I have gained in our seminar and in the other preparation activities and conversations I have had to gear up for this project. Through a wide variety of articles and speakers, I’ve developed a better understanding of what public humanities can look like and the controversies and movements that gave shape (and are still continuing to give shape) to them.

I will carry a sense of camaraderie and a sense of my place in a community of others doing public scholarship—whether they call it by that name or not. Bolstered by the support of my faculty mentor, other individuals at UC Davis and Davis Humanities Institute, other Mellon Public Scholars (past and present), and my developing relationship with my community partner, this project already feels like a collaborative undertaking.

Also coming along with me is a developing sense of clarity: clarity about my goals and methodology for this project and clarity about how this project relates to my own research and interests. After being asked to describe my project at almost every seminar meeting, I’ve also got a pretty clear elevator pitch that I can carry among my other take-aways from this experience!

What can I do over a summer?

This is a tough question to answer, especially since I think the central question for me is: what can we do over a summer? Our readings have emphasized the idea of collaboration and exchange in community-engaged work, so while I can set goals for myself, I don’t want to lose sight of the fact that this project will involve a host of other people–and communicating with them will be a big part of the project. I’m thinking here of people at my partner organization, with whom I’ll be working to agree on guidelines, strategies and tools and from whom I’ll be learning information about resources and getting feedback on the different components of the project. There’s also the organizations that our map will represent that I may need to contact to verify information and, possibly, to point me towards local humanities projects that have thus far flown under the radar, especially those that are not represented on the internet. There’s also the technical support people who I’ll be interacting with to find out about database maintenance, mapping software, and technical issues with using a (most likely) digital mapping tool to create a useful map. I’m sure once I get started I will find out that the “we” for this project is much bigger, even, than this.


Another person, who will be and is an important part of this process, is my faculty mentor, Professor Greg Downs. I talked with him about my MOU, project framework and concerns I had about time constraints, especially figuring out what I could actually get done during the summer. We worked through two conceptions of the way the work could turn out:

  1. After working on definitions and categories for the project, I could spend the majority of my time gathering the most inclusive and accurate data possible–getting coordinates together, verifying everything, following every lead. Then getting a prototype for the map together.
  2. After working on definitions and categories for the project, I could set a deadline for data gathering and verification with the expectation that the set might be incomplete, something that would need to be added to and built up in the future (an inevitability, anyway). Then, after the allotted data-gathering time, turning my attention to getting a functioning digital map up with a fair number of these data points on it.

For both options, we also talked a good deal about the importance of leaving clear and comprehensive maintenance instructions so that others could edit or add to the project/database map when I’m unavailable to make those changes and add data.

Given this discussion, it seems like an important question for making these projections about summer is: what would be the best way to leave the project, for yourself to return to it or for others to work on it, at the end of the summer? What is its most useful, achievable form for you, your community partner and your public?

Finding my way to Public Scholarship

Because of its “outward-facing” approach, I think that public scholarship makes you a better teacher. Its emphasis on building community and exchanging ideas aligns with the classroom environment I want to build with my students and will help me cultivate a greater awareness of the issues they may be facing outside of it. The prospect of involving work in the community or encouraging my students to take action inspired by the coursework in our class, mentioned in several of our articles, also seems really inspiring. (I’m still not entirely sure how to implement it, but I feel like this type of work could help answer the “Why do I have to take a literature class?” question in some way.) I’ve done a small amount of this type of work and noticed that students seemed to feel empowered by it: for a writing class I was teaching, students had to write a letter about a specific problem that they had first-hand experience with to someone who could effect change. For many of them it was just an exercise, but I offered extra credit if they chose to actually send the letter. Students who did this were often excited and shocked when the people in positions of power that they wrote to took their letters seriously and responded to them. Numerous discussions about the power of writing couldn’t demonstrate that reality in the way that that experience could.

In addition to these teaching contexts, in my experience as a Mellon public scholar I hope to broaden my knowledge and help my community partner generate awareness about what the humanities and arts can do. For me, this learning began when I started perusing California Humanities’ website and found out about the programs they supported alongside terrific resources for undertaking work with the community. I’m excited by the idea of making a (small) contribution to my community partner’s work in representing the humanities in California through our mapping project. As a longtime participant in small but meaningful visual arts, performing arts and humanities projects with a variety of community groups, I’m motivated by the prospect of bringing awareness to smaller groups that aren’t on many people’s radar. This goal aligns nicely with my dissertation research which also focuses on recognizing alternative approaches to making, collaborative craft, and amateur creative work that is undervalued.

I’m also here because I want to learn new frameworks and approaches for work both within and outside academia. By expanding my point of view and professional relationships outside the university, I’ll be challenged to think about issues and work on problems that haven’t occurred to me. I hope to think about questions I wouldn’t normally ask or be able to address in “typical research.” I spend a lot of time sequestered behind a computer screen, a large pile of books or papers and I’d like to widen the scope of my ideas to see beyond the very specific research I do as well as enriching that research through experiences in the program. I’m here because I want to hear from people who work in a different area from me (outside my discipline, outside the university, etc.). I want to use this experience to build a better understanding of community-engaged work through experience and to become part of the larger movement towards public scholarship.

Finding a Place for Public Scholarship

This week our readings and discussion have turned my thoughts to the position of the public scholar and public scholarship in universities. Questions about how and whether community-engaged work and activism should connect with work in academic institutions seem to generate a variety of answers—and more questions. Is it a failure to separate our academic scholarship from our activism/work with a community? Will bringing them together damage them by undermining the credibility of one and “professionalizing or institutionalizing” the other (Bhattacharyya and Murji 1366)? Why do they seem so separate (for many of us) to begin with? Is working from an “objective” academic position limited by privileged point of view or is working in community that you are invested in limited by personal bias? Can public scholarship only happen “in the margins” and, if so, is that the ideal place for it?

In our readings, discussions of these issues around the place of community-engaged scholarship in the academy focused attention on existing power structures and on changes in the philosophy and structure of higher education systems. “Privatization,” “corporatization” and “marketization” adopted by some colleges and universities in the last few years has created an environment that forces community-based projects to work harder to justify their value, defend “radical spaces” and create lasting (rather than instrumental) partnerships with communities and community partners.

Pondering this situation, my mind kept returning to the news storm around the proposed revisions of the University of Wisconsin mission statement, known as the “Wisconsin Idea,” in 2015 as neatly embodying the tension between public scholarship work and some reformist visions for higher education. The revision of the statute was made by the state budget office, not the university, and it removed phrases like “serve and stimulate society,” “beyond the boundaries of its campuses,” “public service,” “the human condition” and “the search for truth” from the mission statement. The excised text was replaced by the single phrase “to meet the state’s workforce needs.”  These changes were hastily abandoned after a public outcry, but they also seem revealing in their specific shift from a focus on “public good” to generating profitable workers for the state.

Although the wording of the “Wisconsin Idea” is sometimes a little unidirectional in its relationship to groups outside the campus, as though knowledge will only flow outward from the university, a little cursory research into the projects this Idea has inspired seems to indicate that it has encouraged an exchange of knowledge with surrounding communities that has had a significant political impact. This interaction and outcome have a lot in common with the models for public scholarship that we have been forming and reading about as well. Reflecting on how the goals of the Wisconsin Idea actually extend to the “society” it refers to leads to more general questions about what exactly academic labor makes and does/should make and do. What is the divide between “thinking and doing” and “awareness and action” (Sudbury 12)? As Bhattacharyya and Murji ask, “What outcome or impact does academic labour have? Who does it reach or who is it intended to reach?” And how will we and our institutions measure this?

Public Scholarship: Defining Boundaries

This has been a week of reflecting on definitions and their larger implications: “Scholarship”? “Public”? “Community”? “Humanities”? “Engagement”? Our discussions, writings and reading have all pondered over the problem and opportunity of words and their meanings. More gradually than I would care to admit, it dawned on me that definitions make boundaries, they define the limits of meaning for the words we use to describe and build our world. But when something is more clearly defined that also means that we can see it more lucidly, more intimately and, hopefully, with greater understanding. Surely this is the power of definitions: they delineate distinct ideas and they can accommodate expansive possible meanings. These concerns caught my attention because that are central not only to work as a public scholar generally but also to my specific project with California Humanities, which will grapple with crafting definitions of the humanities that are meant to be inclusive and to create limits.

This focus on definitions and terminology drew my attention to two terms that recur as a pair in our readings: “art” and “scholarship.” A couple of our articles make a distinction between the arts and humanities (scholarship) that suggests that the arts are much more comfortable in public, in collaboration and in the community. Steven Lubar’s blog post argues that calling something “art” rather than “scholarship” is “freeing,” but I wonder if we also need to work on expanding the definition of “scholarship” rather than having to replace it with “art” (5). As someone who researches handicraft, I think it’s important to remember the “art” is a term carrying its own controversies and connotations. Gregory Jay’s article also takes up the position that art is already associated with community engagement, adding that digital media may make it more possible to share typical humanities materials, which are often composed of writing rather than more outward-facing performances and visually-arresting images, with the new “public” of the internet (54). Since language is elastic, malleable and shapes the way we think, maybe we need redevelop our definition of “scholarship” to reflect this changing field. Or maybe, as Giles’s article suggests, we are still in the process of trying on new terms to encompass all these issues?

The idea of boundaries recurred in another way in my thinking and reading this week through considering the “end” of our Public Scholar projects. The NEH’s Criteria for Public Humanities Projects require digital or curricular materials that will expand the range of public scholarship and, ideally, help it survive even after the project or its funding has ended. In “The Engaged Humanities: Principles and Practices for Public Scholarship and Teaching,” Gregory Jay also suggests that successful projects should evolve into partnerships that are mutually sustaining rather than “drive by” engagement (59). These ideas make a lot of sense and I would like to hear more about how these extended partnerships develop. As the NEH’s requirements suggest, it seems important to begin projects with a sense of what they are building towards—an ending, a continuation, a beginning. It would be great to have further guidelines or suggestions for planning and moving beyond the limits of a completed project to a longer collaboration, if it is beneficial for our community partners.