Kohl-Arenas, Eric and Robyn Magalit Rodriguez. "Public Scholarship, Place, and Proximity: Imagining America at the University of California at Davis." PUBLIC: Arts, Design, Humanities 5, no. 1 (2018). http://public.imaginingamerica.org/blog/article/public-scholarship-place-and-proximity-imagining-america-at-the-university-of-california-at-davis/.
Public Scholarship, Place, and Proximity: Imagining America at the University of California at Davis
Occupy UC Davis, November 21, 2011. Image by the Public Laboratory for Open Technology and Science (PLOTS)

With renewed political protest in response to the election of President Donald Trump, public scholarship has taken center stage. Academics like Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, author of From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation (2016), and George Ciccariello-Maher, author of Decolonizing Dialectics (2017), gained national attention for receiving death threats after public statements against white supremacy. Activist scholars, like Rebecca Solnit and Bill McKibben, are frequently called upon to speak for the respective #MeToo and climate justice movements. Community-engaged scholars are facilitating dialogue to address rising political divisions on campuses and in communities across the country.

The lines of distinction between “public,” “activist,” and “community-engaged” scholarship are often drawn in stark and competing ways. As represented in UCLA professor Robin Kelley’s (2017) intervention on the contentious debate between social critic-activist Cornel West and journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates about the role of the public Black intellectual today, Kelley invites us to embrace both scholars whose aim is to simply reveal enduring structures of oppression (Coates) and others who reactivate the prophetic dreams of the radical democratic tradition alongside movement activists (West).

The debate about approaches to public scholarship has been echoed, if somewhat differently, within Imagining America: Artists and Scholars in Public Life (IA). As captured in IA’s journal Public, following a debate at the 2014 IA Conference, Erica Kohl-Arenas engaged Harry Boyte and Carleton Turner in a dialogue about the viability of public scholarship in the context of academic institutions that increasingly fail to serve the public good, as evidenced by market-driven imperatives that produce onerous student debt, precarious faculty labor, and overly professionalized academic cultures. Turner implicates universities in perpetuating inequality and proposes that community-based institutions that produce knowledge and cultural practice must be resourced and recognized, while Boyte calls for efforts to re-democratize and humanize the university through what he calls building civic agency for “public work” (2015).

Clearly articulated by Matthew Hartley and John Saltmarsh (2016), the political divide between these diverse approaches to public scholarship runs deep. Whereas activist scholars often view the university as an institution of oppression, the civic-engagement movement sees the civic mission of the university as something that had once existed and requires retrieval. Distancing themselves from one another, activist-scholars often claim a subversive relationship to institutions of higher education while civic-engagement advocates often operate as hopeful reformers. IA’s move to the West Coast comes at a particularly opportune moment to bring together, perhaps sometimes in tension, the disparate approaches to holding academic institutions accountable to serving the public good in a time marked by urgent social, economic, political, and ecological challenges. By linking questions of student success, diversity, inclusion, and equity with the necessity to support publicly engaged scholarship, IA’s “full-participation” scholarship (Strum et al. 2011) has begun to bridge these divides. In this special issue, we move this conversation forward by bringing together, and investigating the tensions between, condoned, insurgent, student, faculty, community, and institutional approaches to public scholarship in one place—the University of California, Davis—IA’s new home.

Volume 5, Issue 1 of Public investigates the opportunities and tensions involved in producing public scholarship at the intersection of a specific regional setting—California’s Central Valley. Simultaneously home to some of the most profitable agricultural producers in the world and poorest congressional districts in the United States, often described as representing a “poverty amidst plenty,” the Central Valley contains many of the tensions broadcast nationally. Not unlike Appalachia, Detroit, or other struggling (post) industrial places across the country, people are engaged in debates about belonging, insecurity and precariousness, and equitable access to housing, education, land, water, and livelihoods. Also, not unlike Appalachia and Detroit, the Central Valley is home to generations of inspiring cultural workers, teachers, students, scholars, and community media producers determined to bring diverse groups of people together to imagine, believe in, and create a better future.

UC Davis has played a central role in addressing the issues facing the Central Valley due in part to its land-grant status, which requires that it be attentive to regional concerns. This is also due to UC Davis’s status as the most well-resourced institution of higher learning and the second largest employer in the region. In the context of public and community-engaged scholarship, UC Davis houses some of the country’s original ethnic studies programs, and hosts enumerable creative, cultural, public-scholarship, environmental-justice, participatory-design, and community-development projects. UC Davis has even earned the Carnegie Foundation’s “community engagement” classification and has been awarded Mellon Foundation grants to support, train, and reward faculty and students devoted to public humanities. UC Davis’s history, however, is also marked by contradictions. Inasmuch as its status as a land-grant university endows UC Davis with a mission to serve the public good, it is implicated in Native American dispossession. Meanwhile, serving the public good has sometimes meant the bolstering of the agricultural industry while the region continues to be defined by migrant farmworker poverty. Though it is home to one of the country’s first ethnic studies programs as a result of student-led third-world liberation movements, engaged scholarship in these programs is often under-recognized as compared to more well-resourced projects. We propose that this rich and complicated history within a specific place offers an important lens from which to interrogate the role of public scholarship during a historical moment when fundamental issues of equity and inclusion are at stake.

We explore how specific forms of public scholarship are established in proximities; strategic regional emplacement is central to understanding the work of the public researcher and practitioner. Through invited articles and creative submissions from the UC Davis region, the featured authors describe their community-engaged work and public scholarship within the context of some of the tensions described above. Across the collection of stories told in this issue, several important themes emerged.


Negotiating the Public Good and the Land-Grant University in an Agricultural Region

One theme relates to the specific land-grant status of UC Davis, and the tensions inherent in serving the public good in a major agricultural region. As a land-grant university, various stakeholders within and outside UC Davis have contended over how that public charge is to be understood and enacted within the context of the Central Valley. Land is central to UC Davis’s identity and mission. It is both a land-grant institution and the agriculture industry dominates the region in which the university is situated. This has led to competing visions of public scholarship as different interests, with unequal access to economic and political power, constitute the publics within the university’s ambit.

Michael Rios, David Campbell, and Hannah Adamy’s essay “Engaged Scholarship and Learning” provides a review of UC Davis’s history since its establishment as a “farm school” in 1905, reflecting critically on the university’s land-grant status and the varying models of publicly engaged scholarship that have coexisted, perhaps sometimes uncomfortably, over the past 30 years. They pay special attention to the role the university has played in supporting both the agricultural industry and public scholarship that aims to address regional inequalities partially produced by that industry. Scott Tsuchitani's audio story “Isao Fujimoto—Bouncing Back” highlights professor Isao Fujimoto’s nearly 50-year history at UC Davis, which in many ways provides a counter-narrative to Rios, Campbell, and Adamy. While Rios, Campbell, and Adamy tell the story of the institution, Tsuchitani provides a first-person narrative about the contestations over public scholarship in the life of one faculty member. Never gaining full-professor status, Fujimoto began his many years at UC Davis as an action researcher during the historic California farmworker movement. Over his many years at Davis, Fujimoto inspired the founding of key institutions, including the Department of Asian American Studies, the Food Co-op, and the Farmers Market, and brought generations of students off campus to explore rural (migrant farmworker camps) and international (Japan exchange program) environments. Fujimoto’s story reveals an important tension: the university can both make engaged faculty work possible and halt efforts that are deemed too politically risky at particular historical moments in time.

Carlos Jackson, similarly to Tsuchitani and Fujimoto, provides an account of how TANA (Taller Arte Del Nuevo Amanecer), a community-based arts workshop in the nearby city of Woodland that is connected with the Chicana and Chicano Studies Department, is, despite powerful and transformative results, not represented in formal university rewards and recognition frameworks. Jackson makes the case that even when a university embraces “community-engaged” work, well-funded and quantifiable forms of research and training are more commonly rewarded. Aside from the prominent question of recognition and rewards, Jackson offers a moving illustration of cultural and creative practice that changes the lives of students and regional youth and families. Tracing the lineage of TANA back to the third-world liberation and ethnic studies movements of the 1960s, Jackson illustrates why UC Davis’s community-engaged work can and should take place in the predominantly Latino and farmworker communities often underserved by an academic institution that has made major investments in the agricultural industry.


Negotiating the Neoliberal University and Regional Economic Inequality

Another theme that emerged is the public scholar’s own negotiation with the university system. Blu Buchanan, a PhD student in sociology at UC Davis, and Kush Patel, IA’s PAGE Fellows Program Codirector and Digital Pedagogy Librarian at the University of Michigan, take up debates related to public scholarship within the context of the “neoliberal university” in “Dodgy Scholars: Resisting the Neoliberal Academy.” From their positionalities as a graduate student and a nonacademic university worker, as well as based on reflections on their specific identities, Patel and Buchanan discuss how public scholarship is also about political engagement with the university itself. They offer concrete examples of how they’ve used their classrooms, programs, and research to challenge neoliberal institutional arrangements (shrinking public budgets, rising costs, and increases in contingent faculty and staff) in university operations and governance. Their perspectives are especially vital as they face a future where tenure-track jobs have increasingly contracted while, paradoxically, universities have embraced community-engaged scholarship and public humanities. Importantly, they show how they have worked to grow the university “undercommons” (Moten and Harney 2004), a space of possibility from which graduate students might negotiate these contradictions and challenges. Mayra Sánchez Barba, Roy Taggueg, and Alana Haynes Stein, all UC Davis Mellon Public Scholars, similarly reflect on their roles as doctoral students committed to working across university-community lines on the pressing issues of immigrant insecurity, pesticide poisoning, and homelessness in “Public Scholarship in a Time of Crisis: A Reflection.” In “Cultural Keepers as Movement Makers,” contributor Vajra Watson reveals similar professional and personal tensions as she navigates her roles as a UC Davis research director, founder and leader of Sacramento Area Youth Speaks, and participant in protests in the wake of the murder of Stephon Clark.

Natalia Deeb-Sossa and Xabi Martinez provide an account of how marginalized communities contend with neoliberalism beyond the university walls in “Las Ramonas’ Fototestimonios.” As state support for public resources has contracted (a process especially accelerated for poorer communities), rural Latino families witness a sharp decline in access to education, public safety, clean water, and health care. Through the story of organized residents in the nearby unincorporated town of Knights Landing, Deeb-Sossa and Martinez highlight how art and action research can catalyze community-based contestation with the withdrawal of the state in rural Central Valley communities. Similarly, the Mellon Public Scholars, Barba, Taggueg, and Stein, explore what it means to be public scholars in times of political and regional crisis. They suggest that “crisis” for the marginalized populations that they work with has a longer temporal frame beyond this particular political moment. For undocumented farmworkers and their families who are intergenerationally subjected to agrotoxicants, “crisis” is an endemic feature of everyday life. This is also shown as true for homeless populations whose experience of housing insecurity long-predates the current moment and is rooted in broader transformations in the regional economy. The wealth of Silicon Valley, which has been growing over the last few decades, though several hours from Davis, has caused internal migration into the Greater Sacramento and Central Valley regions creating pressure that has made housing access less secure. Indeed, Sacramento’s own aspiration to become a new Silicon Valley has worsened the housing crisis.


Connecting Communities through Multimedia Storytelling and Participatory Design

Yet, as contributors Carlisle-Cummins (“Confessions of an Accidental Researcher”) and Drew and Drew (“Stories of Solidarity”) show, technology can also be harnessed for the public good. Audio producer and reluctant researcher Ildi Carlisle-Cummins inspires hope that public scholarship can bring people together through the power of multidimensional storytelling. Carlisle-Cummins’s "There’s Nothing More Californian than Ketchup" podcast juxtaposes the voices of farmers, scientists, environmental activists, farmworkers, and consumers bringing seemingly opposed actors together in dialogue. Media makers Glenda Drew and Jesse Drew’s Stories of Solidarity (SOS) project is an example of how technology can be harnessed as a means for labor organizing. Their interactive SOS platform provides an example of how participatory design can lift and connect the stories of workers that suffer from low wages, poor health care, citizenship status challenges, employment insecurity, and other key structures of the new economy. Harnessing the human technology of people-driven landscape design, the conversation between Kathleen Socolofsky of the UC Davis Arboretum and Bob Segar of Campus Planning and Environmental Stewardship (“Reimagining the Campus of the Future”) powerfully illustrates how people can be designed into the landscape, inspiring new collaborative modes of campus planning and lifelong stewardship of particular places as climate change threatens to alter the very way we live.


Proximity, Fragmentation, and Possibility

In addition to the narrative and audio contributions in this special issue, we are excited to draw your attention to the Gallery. Here you will find additional examples of inspiring public scholarship and community-engaged teaching and learning, including participatory projects that bring faculty, students, artists, and designers into relationship with the environmental landscapes of Northern California. Together the collection of articles and Gallery projects reveal how a place like UC Davis is densely populated with a wide range of community-engaged initiatives serving the same region. It is noteworthy to us as editors how many of these projects operate in isolation from one another, especially within a context of shrinking resources and competition for internal and external funding, rewards, and recognition. As proximate as the individuals involved in these various projects are (sometimes working within the very same buildings!) they seldom cross paths or collaborate. It is our hunch however, that proximal relationships and connective threads are woven across these projects, if not by faculty and staff, by the students and community members who participate in multiple UC Davis projects and platforms each academic year. We are inspired to imagine the possibilities that might emerge from conversation, collaboration, and co-conspiring across the diverse projects featured in this issue and the many more that coexist in close proximity across the campus and region.

We look forward to the conversations and connections spurred by the stories told here, and to Imagining America and UC Davis’s shared work to promote community-based learning and scholarship for the public good. Like the activist scholar, we recognize that universities are complicit in reproducing patterns of inequality. Yet like the civic organizer, we also believe that public scholarship can play an important role in building a more engaged and more equitable culture of democracy. Beyond the examples featured here, many public scholars are fiercely committed to addressing pressing issues within and beyond the university walls, such as environmental, economic, and racial justice; health access; housing insecurity; immigrant rights; misogyny; and transphobia. Like Robin Kelley, we share an expansive view and embrace both those who simply aim to shed light on enduring patterns of inequality and those who aim to revive movement organizing towards a better world. We also include the important work of humanities councils, public historians, and museums, and projects that build dialogue, connection, and hope in politically divisive times. It is our hope that readers find inspiration in the UC Davis region, and for those committed to channeling university resources toward social justice, a sense of affirmation, resolve, and community.

Cover image: Field Day at Russell Ranch
Used under creative commons license.
Occupy UC Davis image courtesy of Public Laboratory for Open Technology and Science (PLOTS)
Used under creative commons license.


Work Cited

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