Author Archive for Simon Abramowitsch


When I leave campus and head into the field, I will bring a trunk with me, the baggage of the academically trained, the baggage of all that I am.

This baggage contains useful tools and useless tools. Perhaps we’ve started to figure out which might be which, and that education will continue—and useful/useless will certainly change over time. But it is clear that the bags have, to a certain extent, been packed and sent ahead. As nice as it might be to clear out all the baggage we’d rather leave behind, it’s impossible.

Part of that baggage is institutional; part of it is personal. We are clothed in our own experiences, identities, and relationships to forms of knowledge, to the academy, to individuals and organizations within and without the academy. The way we speak, carry our selves, and interact; our gender, racial, sexual, and class identities: these all announce us and their traces follow in our wake.

The Public Scholars Seminar has provided us with the opportunity for reflection and discussion about the baggage we bring from academia. For some of us the academic in the field is the terrifying vision of the Hollywood archaeologist—white man, large trunks of scientific equipment, a gun, linen shirts, gin, vermouth, and a copy of some obscure book of romantic poetry, all of this carried by brown laborers who actually find the finds and do the work. But the work of the seminar has helped us to break up this vision and—perhaps this is a contradiction—take ownership of ourselves, our work, and our position in academia rather than simply making an escape.

But one thing that I think we might have done a better job of in the seminar is to more fully consider the baggage that each of us brought with us into academia—and that now accompanies us into the field. Those identities, experiences, and social locations that shape our place and work in the university will now take on new meaning and value. We’ve written and thought a bit about “why we are here”, but those reflections and conversations might have been even more personal and critical. “Why are we here?” is not simply an abstract ethical stance that arises from nowhere. And our place in the university–in the position to entertain such a question–is consequence of various personal pathways, challenges, and privileges.

The answers to the question “why are you really HERE?” are neither simple nor coincidental.

And all of those factors will shape the work that we do as public scholars in the field, though it is difficult to know beforehand exactly how they will shape that work. It is hard to know which personal and structural privileges, disadvantages, strengths, and weaknesses will prove useful tool or useless baggage, an advantage or a liability. It will be hard to know when advantages become liabilities, liabilities become advantages.

The bags are packed, and maybe our greatest strength is a critical self-awareness and flexibility, an ability to repack the bags as necessary. Share the gin; save the gin; use the gin to set things on fire.

Schooooool’s Out… For Summer!

School’s out for summer
School’s out forever
School’s been blown to pieces
-Alice Cooper

The Simpsons bart simpson season 17 episode 22 writing

The question of what can be accomplished in a project of public scholarship over a summer is like asking what can be accomplished in a project of public scholarship, period.

By that I mean that the answer can be and should be: something can be accomplished. This claim is both grand and humble. School’s out forever. School’s out for summer.

It is a grand claim in that engaging in the work of public scholarship—no matter how “successful” or “unsuccessful”—will certainly change the questions that were posed before the work began, and will change the practice of this work from an idea about how it might proceed to a sense of the reality of how the work actually happens, or a sense of the things that prevent it from happening. If the difference between public scholarship and public service is our attention as public scholars to the questions we ask and to a greater understanding of the publics and problems we engage, then our work, even at a small scale, can and should manifest as improved knowledge about those questions, publics, and problems. School’s out forever—the original questions changed forever.

Certainly, accomplishing something is also be a humble claim. It cannot be not everything. It is not a project completed, question answered, problem solved, or public tucked into bed and put to sleep with the lullaby of our excitement. A short project conducted over the summer can initiate relationships that shift the questions, plans, and expectations for future work. And in many ways this reflects the cycle of what we think of as “academic scholarship”—those written and published interventions into a field of knowledge. School’s out for summer—back to the drawing board again.

In my own case, in which I will be beginning an oral history project with editors and publisher of multi-ethnic literature in the San Francisco Bay Area in the 1970s, I aim to  research, plan, and conduct 4-5 interviews, each of which will take place over more than one day.

What do I hope to achieve? There are several questions I plan to begin to answer: what is the real scope of this project in terms of people to interview for a comprehensive community oral history? What is the value of the project for the interviewees? How much energy will their interest insert into the project? How might that interest shape the publics to which the project might be addressed? Is the project feasible in terms of interest and resources? What possibilities for presentation and distribution to the public might emerge from this work?

My project may well be one that has a longer life than this summer. If it turns out that my sense of the value and feasibility of the project is accurate, then it will certainly take me longer than the summer of 2016 to justice to the history I aim to document and historical actors whose stories I hope to record and share.

The Dream/Nightmare of the Public

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.

Why I Am Here: 3 Institutional Motivations for Public Scholarship

  1. Berkeley High School – When I graduated from Berkeley High School in the 1990s, it—like the other Berkeley public schools I attended—was still very much under the influence of 1960s and 70s activism around a whole host of issues, from ethnic and gender equity in curricula to environmental conservation. My education in ethnic studies classes in Black Studies and Chicano Studies Departments—established for me not only the unquestioned fact of such disciplines but also their power and the complexity of their existence: I would come to find that elsewhere this was not to be assumed. No, it was not common to develop analyses of racism in a Black Studies class in the first high school Black Studies Department in the country. No, not common for Sonia Sanchez to come to read a poem she wrote for Tupac Shakur’s funeral. But yes, the fact that black and Latino students still graduated and attended university at significantly lower rates than white students like myself was all too common. To learn how to understand this coexistence, the complexities and contradictions of activism institutionalized, the various realities in which we move…
  1. D.W. Griffith Middle School – At a middle school in Los Angeles with a name that honored a man whose work I found incredibly offensive but at which few others batted an eye, I struggled as a new 7th grade English teacher. One of my students could not sit still in class. The work bored him. Reading because someone said so, or because it was “good for him” was not motivation. But on a springtime field trip to UCLA—a “go-to-college” field trip—our task for the day was a scavenger hunt: to move, to search, to read, to learn. My didn’t-read-couldn’t-sit-still student was always in front, map in hand, leading the way. It would be flattering to say that this engagement was because of UCLA, a majestic, inspiring place. But it was the doing that moved this student, gave him context and purpose. To learn how to create together the doing…
  1. The Bancroft Library, UC Berkeley – As a Bancroft Library Fellow, I conducted archival research in Bancroft Reading Room for my dissertation, which examines the production of multi-ethnic literature in the San Francisco Bay Area. The Bancroft is a wonderful resource for scholars and my own research in particular: the library has fantastic holdings in social justice movement ephemera, small press literary publications, and the records of several local presses, such as Momo’s Press, a San Francisco-based press that published early work by Jessica Hagedorn, Ntozake Shange and Victor Hernandez Cruz. This work came out of a vibrant multi-ethnic poetry scene in the Bay Area in the 1970s—poets reading all over the place. Bubbling energy, and yet in the archive all of this—mimeographed literary magazines that cost a quarter, poetry chapbooks sold on the street, posters for poetry reading benefits in support of political causes—all of this was quiet, preserved in acid-free folders and boxes. Preservation is certainly an important endeavor, but I wanted to take all of this back outside the library, post things on telephone poles and put them in the hands of the young poets who read their poems from smartphone screens. To learn how to shoot the present through the archive and put it on street corners…