Author Archive for Trisha Barua

Uncertainty about the Public Humanities

As the Mellon Public Scholars seminar comes to a close, I feel ambivalent about the public humanities. I’m simultaneously more confident in what I can accomplish over the summer and uncertain about what it means to be a scholar outside of a university setting.

Through this seminar, I refined my understanding of how to work collaboratively and develop time-bound projects that aren’t dissertations. I have thought through how to be accountable to people besides my advisors and institutions other than a university. I’ve been able to grasp the significance of my responsibilities as EastSide Art Alliance’s evaluation consultant for a research plan on building demand for contemporary performance among East Oakland’s communities of color. An intersection of my scholarly interests, Mellon Public Scholars’ mission, and EastSide’s existing work, this project presents an opportunity to creatively parse through and synthesize our different stakes. I study racial equity and cultural production in Oakland, and though this project is unrelated to my dissertation, the research questions overlap. The complexity of defining publics has emerged as a central concern in Mellon Public Scholars, and through this project, I’m helping EastSide define their public. I see this fellowship as a professional development opportunity and now have a chance to become adept in arts administration.

As I prepare to adapt my qualitative, interpretive research skills to arts administration, I’ve become concerned about what it means to be a public humanist. Though it’s nice to have a discrete job and not think about public scholarship as an abstraction, I’m wondering if there’s a conflation between public humanities and alt-ac career trajectories. The humanities already take place outside of university settings through arts and cultural organizations. While I’m okay with not spearheading a novel summer project as a public humanist, I worry that I’m applying my hard-earned research skills to fit into jobs that already exist. If alt-ac includes any jobs besides tenure-track positions, then this new form of professionalization revolves around doctoral students being overqualified in terms formal credentials yet perceived to be lacking in job skills. Mellon Public Scholars is a crash course on reconfiguring our existing skills to be legible outside of the academy.

I’m uncertain about what it means to have a public humanities praxis. I have a new set of questions: (How) can public scholarship remedy the precarity of humanists within the neoliberal university? If “public” refers to almost anything outside of the academy, does being a public humanist mean that one is funneled into non-academic jobs? What if a “public humanist” were similar to an “independent scholar,” and what types of non-university institutions can accommodate sustained humanistic inquiry? (How) are we attaching prestige to jobs for which we are overqualified to evade the shame of not wanting to pursue tenure-track positions? These questions, which point to the limits of the neoliberal university, resonate beyond the parameters of Mellon Public Scholars

What I can do over the Summer: A Month of Full-Time Work

We’re expected to work with our community partner for 20 hours per week over two months, which is equivalent to one month of full-time employment. Based on my previous full-time experiences, after I start a new job, it takes a month for me to find my bearings. While I would like to have high expectations for what I can accomplish over the summer, realistically speaking, I anticipate that the project will end soon after I feel confident in what I’m doing. Perhaps this should cause anxiety, but I’m more concerned with my community partner knowing how to handle a project that’s ultimately theirs, not mine.

I’ve been more focused on my community partner than a specific project. I entered Mellon Public Scholars having established a relationship with EastSide Arts Alliance, yet I only had the amorphous goal of helping them “build capacity.” In April, I emailed EastSide staff about my skillset (qualitative research, dialogue facilitation, event planning); academic interests (ethnic studies, visual culture, Oakland politics, gentrification); and public scholarship goals (engages public space, public art, EastSide’s constituents). I asked about their top three research needs, with the hopes that they would intersect with my skills and interests. I wanted to develop a project with a tangible deliverable (online archive, report, event, exhibit, interviews) that adds to their existing work. Based on informal conversations with staff, I knew that they had needs. Still, I couldn’t determine where I’d be most useful and hesitated to invent a project without explicit direction on what it means to complement their work.

I recently found out that I would be their consultant for a research and evaluation plan required by a funder. The plan centers on building demand for contemporary and experimental performance among people of color in East Oakland. Because EastSide plugged me into an existing project, there are already parameters established through the grant guidelines and EastSide’s programmatic goals. I don’t necessarily view this plan as “my project.” Instead, I am lending my skills and time to EastSide so they can progress with their research and evaluation objectives. Because I don’t “own” the project, I am absolved of accountability for the plan’s long-term sustainability.

When EastSide gave me the title of “evaluation consultant,” I realized that in addition to thinking about what I can do for them over the summer, I can consider what EastSide is doing for me. While I play the role of the “expert,” I am also gaining expertise. Because the plan necessitates working with other non-profits, I can expand my professional and community network. As I consider pursuing an alt-ac career, I will have a document that demonstrates arts administration experience. Yet I’m not sure if I would find this sort of administrative work fulfilling in the long run. If I don’t like it, I have at least supported an important community organization, and if I enjoy the work, I have a better sense of my employment prospects, which would surely be more expansive than one month’s full-time work.

Cultivating Transformative Relationships Alongside the Academic Industrial Complex

The academy is designed to fail women of color and domesticate the decolonial politics of ethnic studies. As a woman of color and critical ethnic studies scholar, I’m in a vexed position. Before I can situate my “public” in relation to the academy, I need to explore two ontological questions:

  1. Who am I in relation to the academy?
  2. Who am I in relation to my public?

My relationship to the academy has always been fraught. I have low expectations for institutional support and high expectations for myself in negotiating institutional barriers. I entered graduate school with the unfortunate assumption that I would be “presumed incompetent” and/or tokenized to represent diversity in otherwise majority white spaces. As an undergraduate, in coalition with my peers, graduate students, and faculty at the University of Michigan, I organized “Campus Lockdown: Women of Color Negotiating the Academic Industrial Complex,” a forum that responded to the systemic denial of tenure to women of color faculty in the neoliberal university. “Campus Lockdown” also highlighted the devaluation of sustained publicly-engaged scholarship that went beyond shallow service-learning courses meant for privileged students to experience diversity.

I was not naive about limits of the academy as I entered a the doctoral program in Cultural Studies at UC Davis. In Michigan, I used “Academic Industrial Complex” as a cheekily polemical epithet for the privatized university. Little did I know that UC Davis would become the archetype of the Academic Industrial Complex. Since I started graduate school, the UC Davis administration has become infamous for police violence against students, mismanagement of public funds, and expansion of for-profit models of education. I am deeply ambivalent about seeking legitimization from (and positioning myself as a representative of) this institution that has a tenuous reputation in working for the public good. As Roderick Ferguson states in The Reorder of Things, academics of color with decolonial politics can “be in the institution but not of it.”

How does my disavowal of the academy shape how I relate to “the public” in a bridge-building position between the university and the community? “The Public,” an abstract, catch-all designation for people and institutions outside of the academy, can include almost anyone and anything. For Mellon Public Scholars, I am working with EastSide Arts Alliance, an artist-led organization that forefronts cultural work as political work. EastSide uses public art derived from the Black and Chicano Arts Movements to organize East Oakland residents, challenge systemic racism, and resist gentrification. I write about EastSide in my dissertation, which is on representations of contemporary Oakland, and in my public humanities praxis, I seek to generate a shared cultural critique with artists and activists that has resonance within and outside of the academy. Working with the public means cultivating relationships that are mutually transformative. Rather than seeing public scholarship as an extractive transaction between university representatives (and their resources) and non-academics, I see myself as strategically leveraging my position within the academy to appropriate and redistribute its resources (including my labor) to push forward politically urgent work.

In “Seven Rules for the Public Humanities,” Steven Luber suggests that “we need to be more than academic.” Instead of merely “studying” EastSide’s cultural work with critical distance, I aim to approach public scholarship as an empathetic, collaborative, and critical practice. Public scholarship can enable humanists to reconnect with our humanity. Our institutions often alienate us from ourselves. Our (de)valuation is contingent on individualized intellectual labor. Many of us desperately need to know our intellectual curiosity shouldn’t be ignited or extinguished by the job market. In the words of consummate public scholar Grace Lee Boggs, who had a PhD in Philosophy but was not a professor, “These are the times to grow our souls. Each of us is called upon to embrace the conviction that despite the powers and principalities bent on commodifying all our human relationships, we have the power within us to create the world anew.” As we transform ourselves, we transform the world around us on a local scale. Given the intense privatization of the academy, cultivating relationships alongside the ivory tower can transform how we, as academics, view ourselves and how we’re viewed by the public.

Why I Am Here: Grappling with Public Humanities Praxis

I’m in Mellon Public Scholars because of an unrelenting curiosity on the possibilities of connecting humanistic research with the initiatives of community organizations. I’ve attempted to negotiate the boundaries between academic and public life since I entered the university, and this program is an opportunity to meet colleagues who share similar goals.

In college, academic and public work spilled into each other. As I earned a degree in American Culture, with a focus on Asian / Pacific Islander American Studies, I mobilized the Asian American community around racial justice at the University of Michigan. Soon after completing a senior thesis on gender in South Asian American cinema, I started working at an organization that supported South Asian survivors of domestic violence in Seattle. Through this non-profit, I coordinated a South Asian women’s political collective for undergraduate and graduate students at the University of Washington. Even though I was unaffiliated with the academy, I bridged university and public life.

In graduate school, this fluidity between academic and public spaces started to wane. As an inter/non-disciplinary field, Cultural Studies has few fixed tenets. At UC Davis, students grapple with what it means to be a Cultural Studies scholar. Even though our research spans a range of methods and topics, we have a common principle: Cultural Studies is a political project. Despite this principle, I feel like my graduate training abstracted the meaning of political work. Previously, this work emerged through collaborations outside of the academy. Sometimes my academic goals don’t seem to have significance beyond a dissertation. It feels odd to see political work as driven by individualized research, especially given that my academic interests have always stemmed from local conditions.

I study representations of contemporary Oakland, the city in which I live. I thrive when collaborating with others, so I’ve started to bridge research and community through public-facing projects. I co-convene a group of graduate students who study Oakland. We’re sponsoring a roundtable discussion, “Expanding the Frame: Multiple Perspectives on Gentrification in Oakland,” at Oakland Public Library on Saturday, May 7. This event centers activists who mobilize around prison abolition, public health, sustainable housing, and indigenous critiques of settler colonialism. Because we aren’t conducting research with our community partners, I hesitate to claim that this collaboration is public scholarship. Still, we think through the ethics of what it means to be scholars out/alongside the academy.

If either political or public scholarship is meant to have long-term resonance, they need to be seen as inseparable. I’m in Mellon Public Scholars to explore these questions: What is the public purchase of academic cultural critique? How do we negotiate the contradictions of attempting to do public, political scholarship using resources from a privatized, inequitable university? How do we balance between being accountable to our academic institutions and community partners? (How) can public scholarship transform the ivory tower?

I don’t intend to resolve these questions. Instead, I hope we collectively grapple with scholarly praxis in the public humanities.