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Platform for Public Scholars: Bridging Distances Panel

The Bridging Distances panel included presentations by UI Professor of English and Associate Provost Barbara Eckstein and University of Michigan Professor of American Culture, English, and Art and Design Julie Ellison.

The Iowa River was ranked #3 on America's most endangered rivers list a few years ago, and Barbara wondered what she has an English professor could do about it.  Bioregionalism provided an opportunity for her to think about a different jurisdictionhow can a local community achieve what big government can't?  Barbara has worked to form a Citizen Protections Agency made of a community of citizens who were unified by the river.   Organizing three bus tours to key sites of the river, and making visits to local communities to host public discussions, Barbara worked to spread awareness about the condition of the river and create a community of citizens unified by their concern.  The next summer, the Iowa River flooded, which changed the course of Barbara's project.  Now in an administrative position, she is working to make sustainability more institutionalized at the University of Iowa. 

The question she and student Chris Vinsonhaler raised for us is how the arts and humanities can contribute to challenges like environmental sustainability.  Oftentimes we see issues like these as problems for scientists and politicians.  The solution, they suggest, is creating a community of engaged citizen diplomacy, and making people fall in love with the land.


Julie Ellison began her presentation by thinking about organizations: how are we seeing the effects of organizational implications in scholarship?  Local, public, cultural organizing is beginning to be endorsed by scholarly discourse, and she offers several examples.  Equality, power over knowledge, and sites of conscience are democratic ideals that can be promoted through this kind of organization-based scholarship. 

The Isithunzi Writing Workshop Ellison is talking about today combines the forces of Artist Proof Studio, the University Writing Center, and a cluster of faculty and student representatives from the University of Michigan who were committed to public scholarship.  The partnership between universities in Ann Arbor and Johannesburg worked to help participants write their way into educational and employment opportunities.  The workshop sessions focused on writing artist statements, letters of application, and other professional documents as a way of helping artists from various language backgrounds gain access to the art community at the university in Johannesburg. 

Writing Centers can be shifters of power in Africa--how does agency work in/through these mediating organizations?  How can these organizations help break down barriers of race and class that "keep people out" through language?  Ubuntu, I am because we are, is a concept that can lead to organizational restructuring that will lead to this change.  Empowerment discourses of NGOs and the civic engagement movement in higher education informed the discourse of agency that motivated the writing workshop. 

Julie explains that an organization is a site of conscience, and its value as a site of conscience is based on how its programs respond to its place, history, and memory.  College and university campuses can be sites of conscience if we are willing to recognize our own relation to, say, historical violence and discrimination, and use programs to address this history. 

Isithunzi is a term that has mixed meanings: it can mean shadow, influencing one another, substantial self identity.  But for the workings of this project, it combines these many definitions to mean the finding of one's essence through the influence and co-presence of a community.  In short, Peter Elbow meets cultural democracy. 

Application letters are complex sites of altruistic expressions, cultural agency, identity struggle and empowerment discourse--and Julie concludes with a heartening confidence in the opportunities made possible through a transcontinental network like this one.  Organizations, when they promote these ideals of agency and empowerment, can really be bigger than the sum of their parts. 

In the Q&A, Teresa Mangum picked up on the concept of shadows in public scholarship and asked how these projects are shadows of our lives.  These projects can tend to be add-on activities to our traditional research.  How do we merge these two facets of our scholarship? 

As a secondary issue, there are different systems at play for interdisciplinary versus community collaboration--how do we begin to make connections outside our departments and outside our institutions?  How do we find the resources to make these connections possible?

And finally, how do we measure sustainability?  How can we value the sustainability created by relationships rather than just financial sustainability?





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