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 overlapping realities. Against this backdrop and following Maria Cotera’s brilliant provocation “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? 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 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.


Due to its sheer theoretical breadth, it is difficult to summarize Chantal Mouffe’s recent talk at the University of Michigan. I have only read short pieces by Mouffe, which include few focused interviews on pluralism and conflict, and participation and politics. As such, Mouffe’s keynote lecture at CLIFF entitled Agonistic Politics: Ethical or Political? was stimulating and challenging in equal measure. She grounded her paper in the conceptual distinction between “politics” and “the political” – wider notions that I continue to grapple with in my own work. In the notes below, I have attempted to outline a conceptual map of the terms and concepts she used, with a disclaimer that each of them warrants additional discussion.

Ontic/Ontological: Mouffe stated that there has been no agreement yet between the very many voices that observe the distinction between “politics” and “the political.” Her own take on these concepts is that the former remains constitutive of the practices and institutions through which a rational order is created, whereas the latter invokes the question of decision-making; it is about conflict for which no rational solution might exist. “Politics,” for Mouffe, operates at the ontic level, whilst “the political” takes form and shape at the ontological level.

Associative/Dissociative: Mouffe further explained that there are two ways in which the issue of “the political” has often been discussed in contemporary humanistic discourse. The first could be called the “associative” view of the political (Arendt and the followers of Arendt), whilst the second could be called the “dissociative” view of the political (her contribution). The associative view sees politics as acting in harmony; it firmly believes in the possibility of universal consensus (Habermas). Against this, the dissociative view is concerned with the dimension of conflict, of antagonism, of the differences between “us/them,” “we/they.”

Antagonistic/Agonistic: The role of democracy, therefore, is not to focus on “us” or “we” alone and assume/propagate universal consensus, but to try and manage the conflict between us/them, we/they, such that both part and counterpart are no longer mutually “antagonistic,” but rather “adversaries” in “agonistic” co-presence of one another, sharing a common symbolic space of group identification (emphasis mine). To manage conflict, therefore, … is to embrace “contingency,” such that neither “we” nor “they” are ever completely dominant or dominated. Contingency implies conflictual politics of active and continuous engagement, and carries with it the potential for transforming liberal democratic institutions. To Mouffe, this is the essence of “radical democracy,” always in flux, continuously producing newer articulations of hegemony.

Throughout the talk, I couldn’t help but connect Mouffe’s remarks on agonistic politics to Harvey’s take on “the right to the city” (not what we should do, but who we are), and her emphasis on contingency to Till’s view of architecture (as a contingent discipline). However, the question remains if a common symbolic and political space is easy to achieve and/or possible to sustain? How can we ensure that agonism never transforms back into antagonism? What role might contingency play in sustaining the proposed adversarial model? These are agonizing ruminations, but for now, I will scribble some more and try and discuss emerging thoughts with Jesús de Felipe Redondo,* who shared this piece with my students last semester.

*Jesús is a post-doctoral scholar in Modern History and a fellow Telluridian at the University of Michigan. His research interests include social movements, social citizenship, social states, and historiography. He was a wonderful addition to my class, especially at a time, when we were discussing notions of participation and social meaning in relation to politics and aesthetics, as politics of aesthetics.

Whilst thinking about Henri Lefebvre’s dialectical relationship between “abstract space” and “differential space,” I couldn’t help but recall our conversation with Edward Soja during his last visit to Michigan in Fall 2011. At the doctoral student forum, Soja spoke about “Spatial Justice” and made an intriguing distinction between the notions of equality and justice. “Equality,” he said, “assumes the possibility of being completely equal, whereas ‘Justice’ asks: what level of inequality is intolerable?”

I connect this recollection to the question that Jeremy Till posted on twitter last month: “Is design activism just bad design & bad activism?” To which, I replied, “Does activism seek equality or justice? The former seems utopian; is bad activism. The latter engages diff’ences; has design potential.” This may sound a bit self-referential, but having participated in debates on pluralism and inclusion on campus, Soja’s nuanced distinction continues to resonate with my previous and ongoing experiences with advocacy and awareness-raising programs in Ann Arbor. I wonder what form this preoccupation might assume in the future?

(The following notes summarize the 2011 Raoul Wallenberg lecture* delivered by architect, urbanist, and sociologist Richard Sennett at the University of Michigan this semester.)

Last night, Sennett discussed urban edge conditions and their role and meaning for the public realm. Specifically, he distinguished between two kinds of urban edges — “boundaries” that segregate and establish social closure, and “borders,” which facilitate selective, but active exchange between and among communities. “Boundaries,” he explained, “are akin to cell walls, rigid and impermeable, while borders are similar to cell membranes, at once resistant and porous.” Sennett supported this theoretical distinction with examples and further qualified boundaries as immovable limits (e.g. Israeli security walls, “protecting” Israeli civilians from their West Bank counterparts); defined by motion (e.g. traffic intensive super highways in Caracas, Venezeula separating the affluent subdivisions from the poor favelas, one race from other); vertical in form (e.g. tall residential towers employing verticality as means of withdrawal from horizontal connections with the landscape in which they sit); and absolute in character (e.g. severely policed housing for the rich in Sao Paolo dramatizing the difference between poverty and wealth).

In contrast, he described borders as urban edges defined by rituals and social norms — active, alive, and changeable (e.g. Dharavi – at once blurring everyday distinctions between living and working, mixing complex activities and differentiating space, temporally); resistant to outsiders (e.g. parking lot in East London transformed by neighbourhood residents into a beach during day); typically informal (e.g. open spaces in Johannesburg temporarily colonized by vendors and food sellers); local (e.g. pavement schools in Bombay repurposing compound walls and transforming the space by giving it a new life); and often acting as places of refuge for the disenfranchised (e.g. Avignon, S. France).

“The 20th century planning motion has served as an instrument for making boundaries rather than borders.”

Between boundaries and borders, Sennett suggested that architects and urbanists should emulate the properties of borders and create urban conditions that encourage a dialectical and dialogical relationship between different community groups. He criticized the 20th century urban models that privileged centres over edges and led urbanists to concentrate activities at the centre of cities and neighbourhoods. Sennett gave the example of his own professional involvement in locating La Marqueta right in the middle of Spanish Harlem in NYC. In retrospect he realized that they had planned wrongly. They were (mis)guided by the singular objective of serving the resident Hispanic community. Had the market been located at the edge of this neighbourhood–where it could have interfaced with other social groups–they could have helped create border-like porous conditions, one facilitating greater interaction and connectivity with the rest of the city. In closing, Sennett stated that if the history of 20th century cities was all about boundaries, the present and future of cities—particularly those of the western world—should all be about borders.

I couldn’t help but connect Sennett’s urban place-making argument to the broader question of interdisciplinary scholarship, that is, how might we go beyond the limitations of disciplinary boundaries and create borders of active and engaged scholarship involving wider communities? How might we realize this ambition from within the specific practice and pedagogy of architecture and urban design? How might we create frameworks that keep alive both disciplinary and inter-community concerns with regards to their respective boundaries and shifting borders? Sennett’s understanding of boundaries and borders ended on high inspiration. I will continue to post stories on this blog that help advance some of these questions in directions useful for my current and future work.

Related post: “Producing Goodness,” March 2010 (2010 Raoul Wallenberg Lecture)

*Raoul Wallenberg Lecture is dedicated to the memory of Raoul Wallenberg, a 1935 graduate of the University of Michigan College of Architecture and Urban Planning, and one of the outstanding heroes of this century. As First Secretary of the Swedish delegation in Budapest in 1944, Wallenberg is credited with saving more than 100,000 Jews from death at the hands of the Nazis. During the WWII, he created shutzpasses (or “protective passports”) to save thousands from the concentration camps. The following year, he was captured by the Russians. Wallenberg’s fate remains unknown to this day. The Raoul Wallenberg Lecture was initiated in 1971 by Sol King, a former classmate of Wallenberg’s. For more on the Wallenberg theme and invited lecturers, visit The Taubman College Wallenberg Lectures. For more information on his family’s search for him, read: The Wallenberg Curse – The Search for the Missing Holocaust Hero Began in 1945. The Unending Quest Tore His Family Apart (WSJ Europe, February 28, 2009) / Source: The Taubman College