Ryan  Burns, phd
December 11, 2011

my take on public scholarship

As most of you know, I’m in my second year of a certificate program in “public scholarship”, organized by Miriam Bartha of the Simpson Center for the Humanities, and Bruce Burgett of UW-Bothell. The program has opened up lots of doors for professional and intellectual growth, but also has been instrumental in my thinking through my dissertation research.

Usually one of the first questions I’m asked with regard to this program is, “what is public scholarship?” This is a obviously reasonable question for laypeople and those unfamiliar with the field, but in the certificate program we’ve come to ask this question a little differently. Rather than asking what the field is, we’re building the vocabulary and conceptual tools necessary to show how what we do **is** public scholarship. This is an especially important task given the nascence of the field - we are, in a very real sense, forming the field as we go along. So my task is not to fit myself into a hard-fast box so much as to articulate my own identity as a public scholar - who is the public I’m interested in? how does my work improve their lot in life? what are the power relations between my position as a researcher and their own position? Having said that, my colleagues Chris and Amy and I co-authored a presentation this summer in which we identified two strands connecting different approaches to public scholarship: a core concern for ethics of research practice, and the crossing of either/both metaphorical or literal borders. For some public scholars this means community-based collaborative work\; for others it can take the form of experimental and inclusive research methods\; for me it means studying the flows of aid-capital that influence inequality.

I study the institutions who manage humanitarian aid, and the ways new mapping technologies influence their planning and decision-making following a disaster. The public in which I’m interested is, in this way, the humanitarian organizations I study. But I’d argue that “my public” is actually the people who are affected by flows of humanitarian aid after a disaster. These are the people most wrapped up in the flows of aid-capital, the ones who are most constrained or empowered on mapping technologies’ terms, and those who are most impacted by the resulting inequalities. On the other hand, to complicate things further, my public is also the audience I hope to foster in my writing - through this blog, through mapping organizations’ reports/communications, or through publications. I’m an academic, and that means that formal publications are a requirement for my continuation. My identity as a public scholar has been most influenced by Ananya Roy, who in her latest book researched the institutions who manage poverty as a “public scholarship” endeavor.

Since public scholarship is relatively new, we as public scholars must also articulate our activities in terms recognized by educational institutions. Scholarship-activism (a closely-related term/field) often does not directly result in traditional scholarly materials such as publications and presentations. In fact, our certificate program encourages us to develop a portfolio. So over the course of the program we discuss strategies for, on the one hand, convincing others of our work’s scholarly value, and on the other hand, thinking through ways of influencing and adapting the very values themselves. How, for instance, might we use a web-based portfolio to convince our peers of its tenure-value? Can we change the way we think of scholarly output, so that community-based work is “worth” more? This challenge is particularly important in the increasingly neoliberalized university.

The certificate program has opened up many professional opportunities for me. First, this year I organized a Graduate Interest Group (GIG) called “Making the University Public” in which we workshop and develop our ideas about public scholarship, and attract others to this praxis. We’ve held a couple events and have many more in the works, and thus far it has been incredibly productive. Second, this September I traveled to Minneapolis for the Imagining America conference, which tackles issues of public scholarship, digital humanities, and community-engaged research. The conference was a wonderful opportunity for me to hear the many emerging approaches to public research and to network the GIG and my own research interests. Third, Miriam Bartha has nominated me to the College of Arts & Sciences Dean’s Showcase event, where I will present my research assistantship work (which I’ve written on here) and how it connects to my public scholarship work. This isn’t final yet, I’ve only been nominated, but it’s still exciting! Fourth, I was recently interviewed by UW Today about the certificate program, and some excerpts will be published in the newspaper in the near future.

So the program has been incredibly helpful/useful for me, and I’m very glad I’m doing it. If you have any questions about my public scholarship work, or would like to hear more, please feel free to send me an email. As long as this post is, there’s only so much I can say here! :)

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