Blog Post

Platform for Public Scholars: Bridging Differences Panel

Saturday morning's first panel, Bridging Differences, included presentations by conference organizer and Professor of English and International Programs Teresa Mangum and USC Professor of American Studies, Ethnicity, and History George Sanchez. 


Teresa's talk is titled "Doing Dickens in Different Voices: Intergenerational Audiences and the Dickens Project.She starts by talking about investing in a hermeneutics of suspicion.  How is literature part of a system of oppression and injustice?  We need to think about how literature works, especially in its everyday uses: knowledge, pleasure, or escape.  These reasons for reading often make academics squirm.  19th c. literature is sometimes homophobic, xenophobic, racist, classist and misogynistic.  But imperialist and racist literature, for example, can serve to open conversation about these issues, and teach us the dangers and the pleasures of aesthetic seduction.  Here is the key question Teresa raises: how and why did 19th c. audiences find pleasure in literature that now offends?  Rather than avoiding offensive literature, we can use it for teachable moments.


If we are going to be public scholars rather than just academic critics, we need to think carefully about how we use this potentially offensive literature.  Teresa asks us to think about how handling offensive literature matters not only in our scholarship and pedagogy but also in how we present this work to the public. 


This is where The Dickens Project comes in.  The consortium has been around since 1981, and though it was originally intended for scholars, it quickly turned into a collaborative research center that drew the interest of the public.  More digital and collaborative than most humanities projects, The Dickens Project offers a model for how we might cater traditional academic activities to much broader audiences. 


Dickens Universe is a yearly conference on Charles Dickens in Santa Cruz that came out of The Dickens Project that includes both "those who study literature for a living and those who find their lives enriched by literature.High school teachers, retirees and book lovers join the faculty and graduate students each summer for a week-long conference that celebrates the possibilities of intergenerational, collective reading.  Focusing on one Dickens novel each year, the conference includes everything from talks by professors to tea parties; there are workshops, classes, faculty seminars, small group activities, discussion groups, and even a Victorian dance.


One of the best things about the conference is that there is no shame, Teresa says--group singing, performing a play, and dancing are not things we usually get to do at academic conferences.  Dickens Universe is both intellectual and social, and she explains how talking about who reads Dickens, why, and what they liked about it is a more valuable activity than we might give it credit for.  What makes the universe so amazing to me, Teresa says, is the effect different groups have on each other.  The faculty, she says, benefit most: appealing to a great range of people, without relying on technical or specialized language, is a challenging but helpful exercise that leads many professors to rethink how they write and why.  The audience members, Teresa says, value faculty lectures and expertise.  We CAN have a public audience beyond the university. 


So often, graduate school can strip the pleasure of reading and discussion--Teresa also reminds us how refreshing a conference like this can be for graduate students, too.  Teresa, how do I apply? 


Teresa reminds us, in her stories about Dickens Universe, of the value of "finding pleasure in literature and good conversation.


George Sanchez starts by talking about an exhibit at the Japanese American National Museum that was a collaborative initiative in Boyle Heights including both university and community expertise.  The principal Jewish community in Los Angeles 40 years ago, Boyle Heights is now almost entirely Latino.  George talked about bringing together these two groups that called Boyle Heights home to exchange stories, mixing former and current residents to discuss the neighborhood they shared in common.  "This was historical research, but also historical exchange," George says.  Making history literally come alive, this project created both intercultural and intergenerational interaction. 


In addition, Roosevelt High School in Boyle Heights had Japanese-American students removed during WWII for internment camps.  Talking about the role of government and real estate in restructuring California by race after the war, Georges scholarship confronts the memories that shape Boyle Heights history.  The residents regularly ask George, Where's my book? Where's my book?  Where's my book?, so his work, now in progress, already has a waiting audience outside the university. 


History Day at a local middle school has sparked young students to confront these memories, too--eleven-year-old students, for example, sewed what they imagined clothing would look like in concentration camps for an exhibit.  Civic engagement has really benefited both academic scholarship and the local community in the case of Boyle Heights, where George was born, and he offers an example of the mutually enriching relationships forged between a variety of cultures and generations in this community. 


By providing a history of segregation in California, George also confronts our current struggles for racial equality, both in academic institutions and local communities.  Goerge reminds us that while many disciplines are just discovering public scholarship, ethnic studies scholarship has a strong history of civic engagement.  As more colleges make a commitment to public scholarship, we need to recognize that minority faculty can offer untraditional but essential perspectives on how to confront these memories of injustice and oppression.  George ends with some advice.  Minority communities in the United States don't need to be romanticized; we need partnerships, and not overblown rhetoric.  Don't over homogenize our communities.  Sustain long-term partnerships to effect real change, and be willing to work even after your article is published; building trust takes years.  Take on difficult issues.  Be willing to teach and to learn.  Tackling inter-racial tensions requires listening to grievances.  Encourage our students to think about their unique contribution to civic engagement, and be willing to consider what our individual skill sets have to offer. 


The Q&A began with a request for Teresa to recommend a Dickens novel--start with Great Expectations, she says, then try Bleak House. 


In addition to finding traditional internal and external funding sources, George raises the idea of asking alums to support programs like these.  He's found minority alums to make sustainable contributions to his project.  Julie Ellison brought up other ways we might engage alumni, especially those who still live near the campus community, by asking them to help strategize about partnerships with the university.  By asking What do we need?, we discover a very different set of fundraising and public scholarship possibilities.  George says that while he is still one of a handful of Latino faculty at USC, there is a growing body of undergraduate alums that will be the source of a long-term future.  If you create an increasingly diverse alumni base, that-s a source of real change and movement, he explains, because it will create demand for minority faculty. 


One commenter seconded George's claim that the structure of public engagement discourse really is rooted in ethnic studies and how people of color conceptualize academic work.  How, then, do we fold this engagement back into the institution?  George says that both minority status and public engagement used to be suspect by the university, and he tells stories of minority faculty who performed public scholarship but didn't include it in their CV, effectively hiding this work from tenure and promotion committees.  It feeds into this concept of living a double life.  This system is changing, but more change needs to happen.  George puts these issues on the table with a boldness and frank honesty that is really refreshing.  We can departmentally be a model of civic engagement, and George reminds us that we have a duty to make change in our departments that universities know they need but are hesitant to enact. 


Carolyn Colvin asked George for advice on pursuing civic engagement when funds are tight and promotion is on the line.  George suggested that we must be able to talk about the value that this work brings to the university.  We have to be able to show why civic engagement is important, even fundamental to our institutions. 


Another commenter raised the idea of how new media might factor into George's work, particularly in mapping the housing trends, demographic changes, and oral histories.  There are a lot of possibilities here, but George brings up the issue of having enormous wealth and enormous poverty elbow to elbow, both inside and outside the university--some projects don't have enough funding to even transcribe the oral histories they collect.  George asks us to think about how we can aspire to do civic engagement projects with little funding.


Again in the vein of new media, Teresa brings up the idea of framing Dickens Universe more around storytelling, and opening the conversation to a wider online community. 


Scott McLemee asks, who are the predecessors or ancestors for this civic engagement work?  George expands on a few of the role models hed mentioned in his talk, whose names I fear how to spell.  He says that the issues that confront the public in terms of prejudice and privilege don't disappear in the university system, and it's important to tell the stories of scholars who have confronted injustices in their institutions, in teaching, publishing, hiring or promotion.  It's the stories, George says, sharing a few of his own, that remind us that these problems still exist and that initiate change. 


Julie Ellison ended the session by making a call for papers in the counter-genealogy of civic engagement.  I'm sure shed be open to talking to you, dear reader, if this sparks your interest! 


To follow Teresa's lead of talking about what is not only intellectually stimulating but also aesthetically enjoyable--I must say that this panel has really been the highlight of the conference for me so far.  It was not only challenging and inspiring; it was moving.



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