Feminist Scholarship and Public Engagement

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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 audience member who self-identified as male in a room full of faculty and students from various academic programs. In some ways, this brought to surface the bigger challenge of involving individuals across the gender and sexual orientation spectrum 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.

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