Kohl-Arenas, Erica. "The Work of Imagining: Notes from IA’s Faculty Director." PUBLIC: Arts, Design, Humanities 5, no. 1 (2018). http://public.imaginingamerica.org/blog/article/the-work-of-imagining-notes-from-ias-faculty-director/.
The Work of Imagining: Notes from IA’s Faculty Director

“The Work of Imagining” is a new Public column from the Faculty Director of Imagining America. In this issue, Erica Kohl-Arenas (Faculty Director and Associate Professor of American Studies, UC Davis) reflects on her journey to IA and hints at what is to come in the months and years ahead.


When I started my first academic job I had what now seems like a naive epiphany. The work of the tenure-track professor is solitary. Our only boss is tenure. Success depends upon one’s ability to fiercely guard time and say no to most invitations to help others. While I was warmly welcomed and generously supported by my colleagues at The New School, I was coached to guard against my generous nature. “Maybe spend less time with your students,” “You don’t always have to be the best citizen,” and “Your peer-reviewed scholarship is your only currency here,” were well-intended messages delivered in a variety of ways.

While lonely at first, I relished the idea that I was paid to “hide out” and write. Without the precious resource of time, I would not have published my book. Without the luxury of a full-time university position, academic freedom, and the support of an institution like The New School (built as it was upon a history of protecting radical scholars in exile), I may not have written the critique of private philanthropy and the so-called “Nonprofit Industrial Complex” that eventually appeared on the pages of The Self-Help Myth: How Philanthropy Fails to Alleviate Poverty (2016).

Yet, I learned to divide myself into the three categories: teaching, service, and scholarship, upon which I would be evaluated. The second naive epiphany came when I realized that the “service” category did not mean service to a community, movement, or individuals struggling with the patterns of poverty and oppression that I wrote about. It meant service to the university in the form of administrative committees. This was an honest and now embarrassing surprise. I have enjoyed my time on university committees, with people I respect and admire. But I began to marvel at my increasingly disconnected roles and divided selves.

I found my “community” (and my third self) in the teaching category. I owe this blessing to my first program chair and then dean, Mary Watson. During graduate school at UC Berkeley, I slowly shed my practitioner self for a newfound but now seemingly always-present love of teaching and critical cultural studies. Though I was excited about my new loves, my compartmentalized selves began to take shape. In a troubling, yet all too common refrain that I now hear from graduate students from across the country, my experiential knowledge from over a decade of work as a community development practitioner was seldom welcome in the classroom. Through in-depth readings of theoretical texts and fierce debate in doctoral seminars, I became a master critic. When Mary asked me to teach a class on community-engagement practice (and not critical theory) I was initially reluctant, as I wanted to stretch the muscles I worked hard to build as a scholar.

Mary’s challenge forced me to reconcile the divide between my practitioner and scholar selves. By creating a class to teach the practical skills required in facilitating community change processes through projects with New York City nonprofits, while simultaneously critiquing participatory practices through readings of critical theory and ethnographic cases, I was able to reconcile my critical scholarship with a recommitment to serious practice in the world. Teaching this class, awkwardly named Participatory Community Engagement, would ultimately build six deeply bonded cohorts of critical yet hopeful scholar-activists (most of whom also had jobs working in nonprofit organizations) that I now consider family. Together, we created a community that is critical and honest, fiercely committed to open listening, collective inquiry, and to using the wide range of tools of human expression and imagination (from critical theory to poetry, theater, drawing, photography, food, protest, and political engagement) to explore our own identities, hopes, and dreams. I began to call the class a “fellowship” because this is what we were: a fellowship of people committed to imagining and embodying a better world as we explored the most troubling problems of our time. The teaching eventually bled into my scholarship, as we discussed how to broker institutional relationships as social change agents. My students’ ideas and lived experiences crept onto my pages. The class blended with service as I joined a learning community of engaged teacher-scholars from across The New School. Teaching the last cohort during the tragic illness and then death of my mother was one of life’s unique blessings, as the comradery and human connections we created carried me and, as Grace Lee Boggs would say, grew my soul.

The embodied experience of teaching Participatory Community Engagement stitched back together my divided scholar, teacher, administrator selves. I learned that reading, writing, culture, community, art, empathic human relationships, marching, and imagining together in public is necessary in our pursuit of a more equitable and liberatory democracy. When preparing my tenure dossier, I was emboldened by Imagining America’s 2008 report, Scholarship in Public: Knowledge Creation and Tenure Policy in the Engaged University (http://imaginingamerica.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/07/ScholarshipinPublicKnowledge.pdf) to frame my own contributions in blurred lines across the teaching, service, and scholarship categories without diminishing any of the three areas. Thankfully the university listened.

My experience is not unique. As Julie Ellison, founding Faculty Director of IA, proposed in 2012, there is commonly a two-cultures problem in higher education. There is the “dominant” departmental culture, and the “counter-culture” of insurgent faculty and staff committed to community-engaged teaching and public scholarship, who struggle with the false divides between evaluation categories. As George Sanchez later noted, a third culture of predominantly faculty of color experience a more difficult context where they are “pulled between the commitments to communities of color almost all bring with them to the academy and the departmental culture which tells them either directly or mostly indirectly to abandon those ties or risk professional suicide” (2004) (http://imaginingamerica.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/08/Foreseeable-Futures-4-Sanchez.pdf). Robin Kelley’s Freedom Dreams (2002); Vicki Ruiz’s Unequal Sisters (2008); Charles Hale’s Engaging Contradictions (2008); and Amanda Gilvin, Georgia Roberts, and Craig Martin’s Collaborative Futures (2012) which features multiple stories from the IA network, all show in different ways that faculty of color and public scholars negotiate these kinds of precarious positions.

Today, many young public scholars are compelled by Fred Moten’s idea of the undercommons, which proposes that the role of the activist or antiestablishment scholar necessarily involves refuge and dissent in the margins of the dominant system. Some remain committed to holding institutions accountable to spoken commitments to the public good, and others negotiate change agendas from both the bottom and the top of the administrative structure. Within this context, tenure-track jobs are a very small and rapidly shrinking portion of the academic labor force. A growing number of center directors, part-time faculty, student-success and community-engagement staff, PI’s on projects and initiatives, and hybrid, oftentimes insecure and changing, combinations of all of the above are the most committed to creating and doggedly negotiating spaces for community-engaged teaching and learning within and beyond the university walls. As a scholar of organizations and movements, I think of Erving Goffman and C. Wright Mills’s analysis of how power plays through the complicated performance of our identities, hopes, and dreams in everyday institutional and bureaucratic life. Not unlike the foundation program officers, whom in my research I describe as delicately brokering between the grassroots organizations they aim to support and the institutions of wealth they manage, the institutional negotiations of a community-engaged scholar are sometimes brilliantly effective and sometimes exhaustingly hard to bear.

Just as I found my center as a community-engaged scholar, brokering and building alliances across scholarly, teaching, and institutional spaces, I was compelled to apply for the position to lead Imagining America. This job would challenge me to advocate for students, staff, faculty, university leaders, and the community-based knowledge producers and cultural organizers who often lack access to the resources of the academy yet who, through their own scholarly, political, embodied, and historical knowledge, often hold the key to solving society’s most pressing problems. It would also offer me the opportunity to learn from, support, connect, and promote a brilliant national network engaging in the bold work of producing public scholarship and collective imagination in a time when both are desperately needed.

I tell my story here to both share a small slice of my journey, and more importantly to emphasize the most fundamental values of Imagining America: that the production of public knowledge and collective imagination most essentially requires whole people, the hard work of building authentic human connection, and a deep understanding that public knowledge is produced in relationships beyond the university’s walls. Imagining America’s vision to catalyze a national network of publicly engaged artists, designers, scholars, and community cultural producers towards a more equitable, engaged, and human democratic culture requires that we take the work of imagining seriously. We must imagine more caring, people-powered, collaborative, holistic, sustainable, and liberatory ways of working and living with one another. As many in the IA community have demonstrated, the production of public knowledge and imagination towards a better world produces new relationships of empathy, power, and even joy. Today we need all three of those things more than ever.

With Imagining America recently arriving at its first West Coast home in California’s Central Valley, at once one of the wealthiest agricultural-producing regions in the world and home to some of the poorest people in the United States, in a political moment when we may feel far from realizing the potential of a truly equitable democracy, the challenges are many and the stakes are high. With a minority majority student population in public colleges and universities in the state of California, increasing food insecurity and homelessness among our college-age population, and historically low levels of funding for public higher education, the concerns of communities are increasingly the concerns of the university. As George Sanchez warned in his Imagining America Foreseeable Futures essay, “The Tangled Web of Diversity and Democracy” (2004), we see that “breaking down the boundaries between the academy and the community needs to be a critical goal of any successful program.” Otherwise, higher education’s rhetoric concerning civic and democratic responsibility will be “judged by the communities in which we reside to be full of empty promises and selfish motives.”

The opportunities are also many! California is now the world’s fifth largest economy and UC Davis is the second largest employer in the surrounding Sacramento Valley region. As you will see in this special issue of Public, there is no shortage of good work being done by UC Davis students, faculty, staff, and community-based institutions and neighbors. From the Arboretum’s innovative participatory landscape, to the transformative print workshop at TANA, to CIRS’s Cal Ag Roots digital storytelling that brings scientists, farmers, and food advocates together, to fototestimonios (a community-building pedagogy using photo narrative) projects, Mellon Public Scholars, digital and on-the-ground organizing, and many more stories from across the region, this special issue is a beautiful example of the ways people committed to a more just, equitable, and sustainable life in California’s Central Valley are producing critical public knowledge through deep engagement with the world. We know that this important work is also taking place across the national Imagining America consortium.

As the ground shifts during these politically turbulent times, it is hard to predict what is to come in the years ahead. I do know that Imagining America’s future will involve focused efforts to promote, produce, and support cultural organizing and community-engaged scholarship, and catalyze connections among artists, scholars, students, teachers, activists, and organizers who can imagine and are ready to build a better “America.”

In community,

Erica Kohl-Arenas


Work Cited

Ellison, Julie, and Timothy K. Eatman. 2008. Scholarship in Public: Knowledge Creation and Tenure Policy in the Engaged University. Syracuse, NY: Imagining America. http://imaginingamerica.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/07/ScholarshipinPublicKnowledge.pdf.

Gilvin, Amanda, Georgia M. Roberts, and Craig Martin, eds. 2012. Collaborative Futures: Critical Reflections on Publicly Active Graduate Education. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press.

Hale, Charles R. 2008. Engaging Contradictions: Theory, Politics, and Methods of Activist Scholarship. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Kelley, Robin D. G. 2002. Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination. Boston: Beacon Press.

Kohl-Arenas, Erica. 2016. The Self-Help Myth: How Philanthropy Fails to Alleviate Poverty. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Ruiz, Vicki L., ed. 2008. Unequal Sisters: An Inclusive Reader in U.S. Women’s History. New York: Routledge.

Sanchez, George J. 2004. “The Tangled Web of Diversity and Democracy.” Foreseeable Futures #4. Imagining America. http://imaginingamerica.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/08/Foreseeable-Futures-4-Sanchez.pdf.

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