Blog Post

Platform for Public Scholars: Beyond the Metropole

The Beyond the Metropole panel included presentations by Julie Sze, Professor of American Studies at UC Davis, and Ifeoma Kiddoe Nwankwo, Professor of English and American Studies at Vanderbilt. 


Julie is here to talk about environmental justice in the humanities, and the possibilities for environmental humanities grounded in specific people and places.  25 Stories is a traveling exhibit on female leaders in environmental justice, and it includes both a photography exhibit and pedagogical tools.  The exhibit focuses on the Central Valley in California, addressing issues of pollution in the air, water and land.  Poverty rates are also notably high here, and the valley is home to a rising movement to address the myriad of social, economic and environmental concerns in the region. 


Julie explains that the environmental humanities is a subset of public humanities, and that environmental justice matters for both environmentalism and human justice.  Environmentalism has really entered a global conversation about the state of the world, but it's important to remember that there are various environmentalisms being discussed.  Environmentalism interrupts the American teleological narrative of technological progress.  But this emergent field of knowledge is helping us to rethink how we tell our stories. 


Three questions then: Whose environment?  In what historical context?  And what is the relationship between cultural and political discussions of race and nature? 


Environmental justice, for Julie, is linked to environmental racism.  As a social movement, environmental racism addresses how minority communities have not been protected from environmental problems: toxic and chemical pollution, military pollution, occupational exposures, factories and farms, and poor housing and water quality.  Rates of asthma, for example, are higher in African American children largely due to environmental concerns.  Environmental justice is rooted in both social justice and environmentalism, looking at these as human rather than scientific problems. 


Lack of recognition of group difference is the source of much of this injustice.  What would cultural recognition mean?  For Julie, it's empathy: different ways of looking and knowing.  Literature and the arts are the best ways we have to put ourselves into disenfranchised points of view, and so the humanities are crucial to raising awareness and making change for environmental justice. 


Climate change is a global problem, for example, but there are differences in responsibility and impact that it's important to recognize.  In short, wealthy countries contribute more to climate change, and poorer countries are impacted more by climate change.  Activist groups are working to reframe this discussion of climate change to consider social impact and injustice.  Katrina is one example of how lack of cultural recognition led to an environmental disaster that instigated a social disaster; those without resources were incapable of leaving.  Stories allow us to reconsider these disenfranchised perspectives, and storytelling is the role that the humanities plays in making this social and environmental change. 


See for more information about environmental work at UC Davis.  Julies environmental justice initiative is the only non-science project affiliated with the institute.  Learn more about 25 Stories at  The project started with a masters thesis that included photography and oral histories, moving recently from an exhibit to an online space.  The website pitches itself as a teaching tool, for everything from womens studies classes to environmental science classes.  The site is 75% complete and will be finished in December.  The pictures and stories Julie showed were really powerful; water quality seems to be a dominant issue.  Julie also mentioned how these stories have been adapted for a theater event that will be presented in the valley.


The Art of Regional Change ( works to facilitate collaborations like these at UC Davis, linking scholars, students, artists, and community groups.  Julie raises issues of ownership and intellectual property that came up as the project became more collaborative.   On the issue of sustainability, Julie asks, We didn't burn any bridges, but is that enough? 


Environmental justice still has little impact on big science, Julie laments, but the projects are slowly gaining recognition.  Julie talks about forming relationships across disciplinary and cultural lines through the common ground of pursuing justice--projects like these help people and the environment, but they also help the humanities. 


Ifeoma is here to talk about Voices From Our America project, an international multi-site public scholarship project that links university, community, and k-12 education.  The goals for the project are to 1) generate new primary sources on American communities, especially African American and Caribbean/African diaspora communities, and 2) guide the use of these new primary resources for college students, k-12 students, and community organizers.  Questionnaires are collaboratively assembled by scholars and community partners, and the interviews are used for various educational purposes.  Since 1998, the project has initiated over 25 events and 100 interviews. 


Ifeoma's research focuses on the relationship between black and Latino communities in the US.  Moving through the tenure process, she became frustrated by limiting her scholarly work to the written word, and Ifeoma began exploring other ways of sharing her research.  She first went to Panama in 1998, and being reminded of childhood stories from her grandmother, she saw an opportunity to do something different. 


Voices From Our America was born: Ifeoma began collecting stories of women in Panama, aiming to give voice to individual people.  She started an interdisciplinary project that "reverses the close reading process," generating autobiography with an awareness of what silences might be happening.  Ifeomas goal is to really promote a different kind of methodology: what does field work look like in literary studies?  How do people choose to tell stories about themselves?  And how do the questions we ask shape how they tell that story? 


Interviews began in 2007.  The West Indian community in Panama was created by the US, as West Indians were sent to construct the Panama Canal in the first two decades of the 20th century.  Older generations speak English, middle generations are bilingual, and younger generations speak only Spanish.  Ifeoma's project aims to capture the stories of these older generations who came to Panama from the West Indies, and who talk about their experiences as being neither American nor Panamanian.  Excluded by white and Latino communities in Panama, this community of people in Panama of African descent faced challenges of injustice and crises of identity, and (until now) their stories are largely undocumented.  Ifeoma talks about balancing the goals of the community (genealogy and historical preservation), the demands of the university (methodology and analysis) and the interests of funding institutions (collaborative productions of text), and asks us to consider how we articulate projects differently to these different groups.


During the Q&A, we started by thinking about the question of archiving as an ends versus a means; Ifeoma emphasizes the need for both.  She has felt pressure to analyze the stories she collected, but since she didn't tell the people she interviewed that she would be analyzing their stories, she resists this pressure.  Julie raises the troubling issue of where and how the archives should be held.  Hard copy or online?  In the community or in the university?  These decisions can be difficult to negotiate, especially when were working with real people and very personal stories. 


We also discussed how we insert ourselves as scholars, how we insert our own voices, in these public projects. 


Julie Ellison latched onto this idea of reversing close reading practices by collecting stories.  How do we integrate this work into our scholarship?  Julie promises, It'll happen, but you may not know when!  Dee Morris asks if, by reversing close reading practices, these projects also reverse university values?  And how might these new values relate to the collaborative justice that Linda Bolton talked about last night? 


Carolyn Colvin asks about IRB concerns at play in projects with human subjects.  In reply, Julie again raises the issue of who owns the stories: the storyteller or the story collector?  She recommends being explicit about IRB concerns, with both the university and the participants, rather than just hoping issues won't arise. 


Anne Davis Basting says that a community partner once reported that junior faculty are  better collaborative partners, because they agree to a long-term commitment "without knowing any better."  She asks about possibilities of housing projects in organizations or nonprofits outside the university as a way to avoid a lot of the complications that arise when academic institutions host these projects. 


What is the difference between archive/preservation and storage?  Electronic platforms are changing, and we need to budget for technological alterations to make sure that these archives continue to be accessible in the future. 


George Sanchez spoke to the issue of tenure versus full professor promotion.  How do we document the work we do in a portfolio process to prepare for full professor promotion?  Should Imagining America invest in workshops and mentoring to help associate professors document public scholarship?  (An MLA pre-conference session on digital portfolios seems to be a model for how we might document public scholarship).  How can we categorize this work as not only service but also research? 


The university sends mixed messages here, Tim Lenoir adds: were encouraged to be interdisciplinary and collaborative to get funding, but this work doesn't necessarily lead to promotion and tenure.  To be evaluated properly, we have to have two separate careers.  Julie agreed that we all have our bifurcated selves--and that weve internalized this division.  Kathleen Woodward suggests we should start presenting portfolios that include this work, and seeing what happens; we might be surprised.  


Teresa Mangum suggested that facilitation is another intellectual and creative act that is under-evaluated.  Mediation is an important part of what we do as scholars and teachers, but it's hard to measure.  Resisting direct response might be a methodology we should affirm in academia.


Returning to IRB issues, Julie Ellison talked about the need to have senior staff input with human subject research projects.  Internal coalitions between faculty and administrators are essential preconditions for good community collaborations. 



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