With two of my exceptional colleagues, Matthew Countryman and Laura Schram, I am excited to coordinate the 2015 Arts of Citizenship Institute for Social Change at Rackham this summer. For more information about the Institute and application, click on the poster, or visit the Arts of Citizenship website at: http://artsofcitizenship.umich.edu/institute/ The deadline for applications is May 7, 2015.
The month of August marked the end of my spring-summer work as the coordinator and co-planner* of the 2014 Arts of Citizenship Institute for Social Change at Rackham. The goal of the four-day institute was to introduce socially motivated graduate students in the humanities and humanistic social sciences at Michigan to the conceptual and practical dimensions of engaged public scholarship. The institute comprised thematic panels, public engagement workshops, and site visits with scholars, practitioners, community members, and relevant public officials—all structured around such questions as: What does it mean to practice engaged public scholarship within the academy? What are the politics of producing work in public and for a public audience? How might we integrate community work over the arc of our lives as academics and as professionals?
The 22 students at the Institute came from 15 graduate units on campus. The four faculty-student engagement groups that emerged from their letters of interests were: arts and culture collaborations; community-based research; engaged pedagogy; and public narratives. I have curated highlights from the Institute into a Twitter collection entitled, ACISC2014. My involvement in this project and its ongoing life will continue through F14 and W15 semesters. For more information on the Arts of Citizenship program at the University of Michigan, see: http://artsofcitizenship.umich.edu/
* With Matthew Countryman, Faculty Director of Arts of Citizenship and Associate Professor of History and American Culture at U-M.
Exploring Theoretical and Methodological Frameworks of Environmental Design Research for Advancing Social Change
Last week, I was in New Orleans to present at the 45th annual conference of Environmental Design Research Association (EDRA). The theme of this year’s meeting was “Building with Change” and my symposium responded to the conference sub-track #7 titled: Democratic Design Praxis with Community. In this session, my co-presenters David Seamon, Julia Robinson, and I raised concerns about the diminishing stature of environmental design research and practice within the contemporary discourse on architecture and social change. Specifically, we asked: How might distinct theoretical and methodological frameworks, already well-developed within environmental design research, prompt re-conceptualization of the formal, programmatic, and/or spatial considerations of architectural design towards desired social change? At what scales do these frameworks operate? How might this session be introspective as well as projective to keep alive the transformative commitment of EDRA?
Each of the presenters built upon an important tradition within environmental design scholarship—broadly, phenomenology, structuralism, and critical theory—to evaluate a cultural phenomenon of significance. Jointly, we saw each of our frameworks operate at the level of what Groat and Wang refer to as “schools of thought” (2013) – conceptual systems that not only guide how distinct social needs are framed, but also suggest relevant strategies and tactics for addressing those needs. Additionally, we concluded that design experimentations in the absence of broader theoretical perspectives or schools of thought are likely to produce change that is idiosyncratic, short-term, and unsustained. Conversely, critical frameworks that do not engage questions of space, politics, and aesthetics risk perpetuating an oversimplified dichotomy of “objective” methods and “subjective” experiences. The session and the conference at large offered us a valuable moment to pause and reflect on the limits and potentials of our operative frameworks to participate in progressive social transformation.
A massive thank you to Mallika Bose, Paula Horrigan, Rula Awwad-Rafferty for organizing this umbrella track, and to David Seamon and Julia Robinson, again, for their brilliant papers.
Image: The Engaged Pedagogy Syllabus Writing Workshop (April 10, 2014): In conversation with Dr. Megan Sweeney, Group Facilitator & Associate Professor in English, DAAS, and Women’s Studies at U-M (source: Arts of Citizenship photo stream)
The Engaged Pedagogy Syllabus Writing Workshop at the beginning of this month brought together doctoral students from across diverse disciplines to explore how engaged pedagogical experiments might expand our understanding and communication of concerns aimed at changing social structures, directly or indirectly. Engagement has long constituted interdisciplinary work, one attentive to multiple constituencies and polyvocal realities. Against this backdrop, how might we situate our individual pursuits and develop course contents of reciprocal value to both the academy and the partnering community? How might we create a heterogeneous and complex understanding of contexts and community practices? Following Maria Cotera’s brilliant provocation, how might we demystify knowledge production and prepare ourselves for vulnerabilities in online, classroom, and fieldwork learning? The workshop, and our group discussion in particular, explored some of these issues. Together, they called into question our received methods of coursework design and teaching in academic fields, including those that have traditionally produced engaged work, such as art/design and architecture.
The workshop was organized by the Arts of Citizenship’s Student Leadership Committee led by Meagan Elliot (Sociology and Urban Planning) and Caitlin Townsend (History and Museum Studies), with support from Matthew Countryman (AoC Faculty Director) and Elizabeth Werbe (AoC Associate Director). Thank you all for a fantastic session! It was wonderful to rekindle connections from last summer’s Institute for Social Change and think about future directions. For more information about this event, see Joseph Ciladella’s helpful recap, Rackham Graduate School blog, April 22, 2014.
Image: Lori Brown’s Feminist Practices Panel, Van Alen Bookstore (March 2012) / Source: Van Alen Institute, NYC
Towards the end of the Fall semester in December 2013, I attended a panel discussion on feminist scholarship and public engagement organized by the Women’s Studies Department at U-M. The panel entitled, “Feminist Scholars Engaging the Public” brought together four participants from within and outside of Michigan. Namely, Jennifer Berdahl, Professor of Organizational Behavior from the Rotman School of Business, U-Toronto; Maria Cotera, Assoc. Professor of American Culture and Women’s Studies, U-M; Anna Kirkland, Assoc. Professor of Women’s Studies and Political Science, U-M; and Sari van Anders, Asst. Professor of Women’s Studies, Psychology, and Neuroscience, U-M. The session was chaired by Lilia Cortina, Assoc. Professor of Psychology and Women’s Studies, U-M.
Each of the four panelists presented their work in relation to non-traditional venues of dissemination and engagement of feminist concerns. From collaborative blogs on the intersection of feminism and science (van Anders) to a public humanities digital project on Chicana feminist thought during the civil rights era (Cotera); from Op-eds and appearances in the news media (Berdahl) to providing expert witness testimonies on special cases in the courts of law (Kirkland), the panelists spoke about their multifaceted and multivariant approaches towards engaging wider audiences. Despite significant variations among methods, all presenters had one thing in common. They were tenured faculty in their respective units, pursuing projects from within the safety of their permanent positions within academia. How might a junior faculty member navigate these social ambitions alongside traditional requirements of a tenure-track position? This question remained only partially answered.
I was particularly interested in exploring how some of these vehicles might establish sustained ties with other social movements and politics of exclusion. But this concern too remained at the margins of the given discussion. Besides, the panel was primarily Caucasian with the exception of one presenter, who identified herself as Chicana. Intersectionality of race, class, and gender came up only during the post-presentation Q/A session. Furthermore, I was the only male audience member in a room full of faculty and students from various academic programs. In some ways, this brought to surface the bigger challenge of involving men and women together in a conversation on feminist politics.
Despite these limitations, there seemed to be a shared understanding among the presenters and attendees that feminist theoretical tools should not only respond to, but also be drawn from the practices of social change on the ground. That is, to think about vehicles of dissemination and public engagement is to reevaluate the relationship between theory and practice in our respective fields as well as to establish dialogic ties between conceptual polemics and the realm of everyday life. In this direction, and from within architecture and urbanism, the recent roundtable discussions led by architect-academic, Lori Brown on “Feminist Practice Series” at the Van Alen Institute (2012); the co-founding of “Women in Architecture” initiative through a crowdfunding effort (2013); as well as Brown’s latest scholarly work on the spatial politics of abortion clinics and women’s shelters (2013) are inspiring. A related piece by Despina Stratigakos on “Why Architects Need Feminism” (Places, September 2012) is a recommended reading as well.
For me, the need for public discourse and critical scholarship echoes and re-articulates Fraser’s call for “publicist orientation” in critical communication and formulation of concerns, subaltern or otherwise (1992). I’m looking forward to moving this conversation, forward.
Last month, my colleague and friend, E. Keslacye invited me to deliver a guest lecture in her graduate seminar on architectural research methods at LTU, Southfield. The title of my talk was “Fieldwork: Human Factors and Social Research.” I devoted the bulk of this presentation to discuss my selection of field tactics for examining the two case studies of my dissertation, in particular, the respective manifestations of Kroll and Tschumi’s design-polemical theories. Prior to my lecture, however, I had circulated two sets of readings that jointly addressed the humanistic discourse of environmental design studies. The first set laid out some of the ways of conceiving our field and fieldwork in epistemological terms. The second set discussed the qualitative and case study research strategies for engaging the field and its ground conditions. The talk and readings together raised some very good questions among those interested in pursuing empirical research. Thanks for the opportunity, EK!