Making Scholarship Tangible: Syracuse University & Imagining America

In a recent column in the New York Times, Nicholas Kristof laments that scholars are too often unimportant and “irrelevant,” producing “gobbledygook . . . hidden in obscure journals.” Kristof goes on to say that “over all, there are, I think, fewer public intellectuals on American university campuses today than a generation ago.” Whether real or perceived, the sentiment that scholars are disengaged is shared by many. However, on a number of fronts, higher education is enjoying a renewed commitment by scholars to community-centered research and teaching. The Kettering Foundation and many others have referred to this as “public scholarship.” The term “public scholarship” may strike you as a little funny: we don’t typically think of scholarship as public or even publicly accessible. So what’s this all about? Imagining America: Artists and Scholars in Public Life (IA), a national consortium of publicly engaged scholars headquartered at Syracuse University, has for many years drawn attention to these challenges. The program was launched in 1999 at the White House. The founding partners were the University of Michigan, the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, and the White House Millennium Council, led by Hillary Clinton. Today, IA has more than 100 member institutions. Timothy Eatman serves as codirector of IA and holds a faculty appointment at Syracuse University’s School of Education in the department of Higher Education. He also serves as an affiliate faculty member in the Communications and Rhetorical Studies Department. Jack Becker recently sat down with him for a couple of discussions before and after the 2013 Imagining America National Conference, which brought together several hundred participants from across the country and around the world to ask the powerful question, “How do we catalyze artists, designers, and humanists, and tap the power that their fields represent, to open us up to innovative, 21st century ways of demonstrating the relevance of the academy and of impacting our pipeline of young adults?”

Jack Becker: What kind of space does the Imagining America annual conference open up for thinking about democratic engagement?

Tim Eatman: It’s the space being used for over a dozen years to affirm this work. It helps connect graduate students and scholars to a conversation around civic engagement that they might not be able to have at their university or at their disciplinary conference. We need a space to just be able to air some of these issues, particularly in the academy. Particularly in Research-One institutions. This is a traditional space. We think we are stimulating and catalyzing a community that sees room for scholarly research to thrive, but also feels that in the 21st century we can have a larger continuum of knowledge creation. This supports the idea of academic freedom and agency. Part of the challenge is encouraging faculty to think of their pedagogy differently, in ways that harness the knowledge and thinking of students as colearners and colleagues; this orientation changes the dynamic of the classroom. We’re pushing for that as well. What does it look like when we position students as colearners? A lot gets left on the floor in terms of possibilities when we don’t engage students more deeply.

Promoting “publicly engaged scholarship” is one of Imagining America’s core activities. What is publicly engaged scholarship, and is it in tension with conventional forms of scholarship?

Publically engaged scholarship has an emphasis on the reciprocal dynamic of knowledge making. An orientation of the campus that values the knowledge-making capabilities of the community; a posture that values community-located knowledge in ways that we don’t tend to do much of in the Ivory Tower. It also includes larger efforts to transform the culture of higher education. So, the key question is, what is the impact our scholarship has on our community? It’s good to have ways to champion each other (faculty and scholarship), but what is the impact? There has to be space for scholars who want to be engaged in clinical esoteric research and advance knowledge, and there has to be space for those that want to work with teachers, not as, to channel Harry Boyte here, not as experts on top but as experts on tap. When I go into a teacher’s classroom, I can’t tell them anything much about that environment; they know that environment. So it’s a different posture when you go into an environment and say, “you know what, I have some things to learn, I have some things to teach, yes, but how can we think together about what the consequence of our work is and can be?” The challenge from a policy standpoint is, faculty are going to do some of that anyway, but not in a way they could if that work were valued in the rewards system. On that note, the Tenure Team Initiative has been an important program of IA that focuses on improving the rewards system in academe for faculty who practice engaged scholarship in the cultural disciplines and seeks to develop a broad understanding of the university’s public mission and its impact on changing scholarly and creative practices. Issues of faculty rewards are among the most traditionally treated issues in the academy. Trying to create space to value something other than traditional forms of knowledge making is difficult work—look I don’t have any argument with that—I too was a master’s and doctoral student stationed with an assigned carrel in the stacks immersed in reading and rigorous theoretical and analytic work. But our relevance in the 21st century requires that we have to have more sophisticated options than collecting and discussing things; we have to engage that work, we have to be able to demonstrate the verity and impact of that work for purposes of societal amelioration. So, we need our bench chemist, but there’s also space within the continuum of knowledge creation and practice for the engaged chemist that takes students into the community to examine homes with lead paint and analyze samples to explore the scientific principles that that analysis affords, but also takes the next step to connect with policymakers and community leaders to bring the kind of energy to bear that will make that situation better.

So much of the democratic engagement on our college campuses seems to pivot out of the liberal arts. Imagining America has broadened this focus to look at the humanities, arts, and design, among other areas. Particularly, how do the arts enter into the realm of democratic engagement?

One of our key questions is, how does art awaken that sense of civic agency? If we are a consortium that pivots on the arts, then we need some kind of expression of that. The D.R.E.A.M. Freedom Revival, led by IA associate director, Kevin Bott, is one avenue for this expression. Periodically, the Freedom Revival comes together to hold engaged musical performances where audience members are asked to join in; they might come on stage to testify to their dreams for their community as well as their struggles. We focus on all kinds of issues: education, healthcare, democracy, among others. In these performances we believe we are contributing to a broader democratic revival that encourages community members to commit to this revival. Thinking about the idea of a revival of civic agency is powerful. We are trying to harness the notion that the oldest democracy in the world was here in Syracuse, the Onondaga Nation. In these performances, we use a community-engaged model to stimulate participants in an awakening of that history and connecting it to contemporary issues. This is one way IA is operating to connect to our understanding of the power of artistic expression, in addition to our work around tenure and other initiatives. I think of IA’s work in the arts as creating spaces where hearts and spirits meet minds for deep, sustained, impactful, knowledge creation and healing. And we use words like spirit, heart, and healing because those things are achieved with the arts in a way that other disciplines don’t; art stimulates things that other disciplines don’t and creates spaces that aren’t otherwise there.

Syracuse University has worked very hard to strengthen ties with the broader community. For former chancellor Nancy Cantor, this investment in the community went well beyond the push to extend teaching and learning into the community, but to invest in physical infrastructure—buildings and pathways that connected the university and community, what she referred to as “third spaces of interaction.” How should this fit into our thinking about the spaces our campuses occupy?

This whole Connective Corridor and The Warehouse is developing a district that supports thinking about space—how we occupy space and how that space opens us up to the community. It’s one thing to understand the value of this, it’s another thing to get the resources. One of former Syracuse chancellor Nancy Cantor’s approaches has been to invest in space. Things that are attached to the ground mean something to the community. The Warehouse, in downtown Syracuse, was an eyesore in this community. As I understand it, there was a financial bond that Syracuse owed New York State from a residence hall they had built. So instead of paying the state through the bond, Syracuse University built a space to improve the community. This is leveraging resources and shifting mindsets and discourses. People begin to talk and think about what it means to be a Syracuse citizen and have their space and city expressed through the eyes of artists and citizens. The Connective Corridor and Near Westside Initiative, [initiatives started by Syracuse University as a means of bolstering the community-university relationship and investing in space] means nothing without important partnerships in the area. They get grants to invest in community, and Syracuse doesn’t have total control of the money. Nancy Cantor understood a deeper commitment was needed. When you empower the community, it makes a difference. It’s a different way of thinking about institutions of higher education and creating third spaces, between the university and the community. Building relationship with strength and a sense of cohesion is difficult. The point here is that there is something very important about the nexus between higher education institutions and the community that can be leveraged for good or for ill. I want to be part of a nexus of individuals that embolden the disciplines in a way that will expand knowledge creation and helps develop solutions to pressing public problems.

Jack Becker is a former research assistant at the Kettering Foundation and currently a graduate student at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. He can be reached at jackabecker@gmail.com.