Ryan  Burns, phd
October 18, 2011

Imagining America conference update

Almost a month after returning from Minneapolis, I finally (fiiiinally!!!) wrote up my field notes from the Imagining America conference. In the notes I wrote a very brief summary of the overarching themes and strengths of the conference before the more detailed descriptions of each session. This is what I briefly had to say about the conference:

One of the strongest assets of the Imagining America program is that you are able to connect with large networks of people who do work similar to yours. This has the benefit on the one hand of supporting and encouraging public scholars, but also provides a space in which new and creative ideas and approaches emerge and spread. This is encouraged further by the highly interdisciplinary nature of the conference. While other people are concerned with the same questions or intellectual challenges, they approach these in diverse ways. It’s also very inspiring to see the increasing attention paid to communities, to public engagement, and to the political potential of intellectual - or, in my case, academic - work.

I think, though, that this diversity presents a challenge to the IA conference, and to us as public scholars more broadly, and this challenge is one of language, terms, and concepts that motivate us and provide our conceptual thrust. For instance, “mapping” emerged as a buzzword early on in the conference, and it almost seemed to snowball, with the term eventually being used in every session by both speaker and questioners. As a geographer I fully recognize the rich complexity afforded by a  ”mapping” metaphor (I even tweeted at one point “…thought: what’s given to us by shifting between map (n.) & map (v.)?”) and think it could be very useful to push us as public scholars forward; however, going back to my tweet, I can’t help but recoil from the lack of nuance at times - mapping how, why, and by whom? And when we say “map”, it’s important to understand mapping not only as a positioning and delineating, but also an enrolling of power relations and representational strategies. Here’s the epitomy of this challenge as it relates to “community”, also in the form of a tweet that was published at the conference: “…trustees should be looked at as allies. they are *in* the community and want the university involved in external work.” All this to say that interdisciplinarity is awesome but presents unique challenges - and opportunities!

What I’m pointing to here is the productive interstitial space between disciplines. Within the academic division of labor there is a tendency to become more and more erudite but also more and more esoteric and - dare I say it - closed-circuited. For people like David Harvey, this has led to the firmly established “bourgeois social scientist” that resists “revolutionary theory”. But more broadly, it’s hard to see/think outside the box when you’re carving an ever-smaller niche for yourself; this danger is even worse for grad students and pre-/non-tenured faculty (there’s something to say here for the corporatization of the academy, but that’s another post!). What I’ve found very useful in the Simpson Center’s Certificate in Public Scholarship program is the rich interdisciplinary nature of the program.

So when I say that coalescing around a language or common analytical vehicle is a challenge, what I’m describing sounds more like an incredible opportunity. And it’s not entirely out of reach. I broke through an intellectual barrier the other day that smoothed out this “challenge” a little for me: I realized that - much as a musician makes music that reflects influences but pushes boundaries and moves the genre forward - I am simultaneously formulating evidence for my own identity as a public scholar while still shaping the field. In other words, there’s not so much a mold into which I must fit, but rather I’m becoming and shaping the mold itself. This is very important when we as public scholars begin to wonder “is what I do public scholarship?” This is totally the wrong question to ask. Rather, the question to ask is, “while working within an ethic of political activism, collaborative/participatory research (however defined), and the crossing of boundaries, how can I provide evidence that what I do is public scholarship?”.

Again, I’m encouraged by this opportunity. The field of public scholarship’s nascence leads to conflicts with university structures, but that’s really what shows we’re on track with something great. Growing interest in public scholarship will, in the coming years, play out in interesting institutional ways, and I’m excited to be part of that. Formulating a common language is only one of these opportunities, yet will influence the development of the field.

Anyway, it’s late at night and so this rambles a little, and is certainly not my best writing. For one, it fails to account for the ways disciplines already cross-pollinate, so to speak. But I was suddenly struck by a flicker of hope, and had to “report” on that via blogging; this hope comes at sporadic moments for grad students. Let me know if you have any thoughts or interest in public scholarship. There’s lots to say! :)

blog comments powered by Disqus