Publics and Academics

This week’s readings all deal in some dimension with the relationship between the academy and the public.  In short, all of them advocate for a new (or a return to, depending) collaboration between the work done in universities and colleges and issues relevant to communities in which these schools are located.

John Seely Brown, Ann Pendleton-Jullian, and Richard Adler, “From Engagment to Ecotone”: this piece studies the place of the 21st century land grant university, specifically looking at North Carolina.  The authors argue that a partnership between the academy and local businesses—a partnership in which they actually share space—leads to innovation and collaboration and moves the university back in line with the original charter of a land grant school.

Jeremy Cohen, “A Laboratory for Public Scholarship and Democracy”: as an introduction to a special issue of New Directions for Teaching and Learning, this article sets up the arguments for connecting public work with scholarship that appear in later articles.  Specifically, Cohen argues that there is a difference between public scholarship and service, and he concludes that there is a constitutional mandate for education, and education of a certain kind.

Rosa A. Eberly, “Rhetorics of Public Scholarship”: Building on the arguments of Habermas and Arendt, Eberly’s article argues that the university needs “a curriculum of consequence that connects learning to the common problems of shared democracy.”

Lakshman Yapa, “Public Scholarship in the Postmodern University”:  This article uses postmodern theory in its epistemological sense to argue against metanarratives.  Further, Yapa believes that structural ways of understanding the world create some of the problems that they would combat, even as they rob individuals of agency.

Joshua Gunn & John Louis Lucaites, “The Contest of Faculties: On Discerning the Politics of Social Engagement in the Academy”: These two communications professors explore the perceived divide between the civil, the political, and the public.  As other authors in this week’s readings, they argue the benefits of doing public scholarship, yet they also trace the shortcomings of the academy in counting such public work as legitimate scholarship.  They argue that such engaged scholarship is unavoidably political, and they invite more discussion on ways of quantifying engaged scholarship.

Questions for discussion:

On some level, all of these articles (with the possible exception of the “Ecotone” one) argue that one of the main goals of the academy should be to shore up democracy.  True?

If so, what kind of democracy should the university be strengthening?  (i.e. A popular democracy?  A Constitutional democracy?  Local, direct democracy?)

One of the topics that many of our discussions have danced around is interdisciplinarity.  Jacoby’s idea of a public intellectual seems to necessitate a blending of disciplines; Fish’s article is more skeptical of such work.  Several of the articles for this week (particularly Cohen) view interdisciplinarity positively.  Should we?

I’m interested in reading these articles against Flemming’s argument that there is something gained by having the classroom as a space carved out from a larger public.  How do Flemming’s thoughts change how we read these pieces?

The Centennial Campus at North Carolina is an interesting case study.  How do we feel about such blending of the university with business?  How benefits?  Is something lost in such collaboration?

Most of the scholars we read this week cite Dewey, who is basing his theories of American pragmatism (and education more broadly) partially on Enlightenment models of thought.  If we are building a university for the 21st century, does it make sense to use 18th century philosophy as a guide?  What might be left off the table with such an approach?


Notes on Stephen Schneider’s You Can’t Chain an Idea

These excerpts from Stephen Schneider’s You Can’t Chain an Idea provide a strong, detailed analysis of the rhetorical functions of the Highlander Folk School in Monteagle, Tennessee. Functioning as a residential adult education center, the school worked with southern laborers, farmers, African Americans, and civil rights activists to educate the community with the goal of furthering the plight of workers and the civil rights movement. Specifically, Schneider argues, the Highlander school used four programs—labor drama, labor journalism, music, and citizenship education—to promote social change. This is why he writes of Highlander as being a halfway house for social movements: the school is not in itself a social movement, but rather it serves as a space in which social movements can be furthered, or at least take a nice nap.

Important to Schneider’s study is the concept of frames, which (according to sociologists Snow, Benford, and Zald) are “interpretive schemata that allow individuals to organize, respond to, and transform experience.” These frames help structure beliefs and allow paths of agency: in short, they work towards forming collective identity.

The work done at Highlander was most effective when it designed its programs around areas that already had cultural resonance: to wit, drama, certain kinds of journalism, and music. This makes perfect sense to me, as a meet-students-where-they-are style of pedagogy has long been a staple of my classroom. However, as Schneider notes, the work done by the Highlander school was not political neutral: there was a definite agenda to the program. And while as a leftist, I generally find the program and its political agenda agreeable, I can see how the school could raise questions of cultural appropriation. To put it differently, at what point does it become less a case of meeting students where they are, using elements from their culture to further the students’ own positions and more a case of cultural hijacking for one’s own political purpose?

To be clear, I don’t think this is the case with Highlander, and there isn’t to my eye anything unethical about their programs. But I can see instances in which a people’s culture is appropriated and used as an instructive tool in ways that work against that people’s best interests. On an unrelated note, I’m also interested in the way the physical space of the Highlander school affected its success in teaching folks to agitate. Specifically, some of the effects of the Highlander program that Schneider outlines—the development of collective action frames, the movement from those frames to direct action, the use of education itself as an agency for social change—are similar to some of the goals of the Occupy movement. That is, the Highlander school organizes, educates, and agitates through local community, and Occupy aims for the same. Yet without a permanent physical space within which to perform this work, the rhetorical functions of Occupy are markedly different than Highlander.


Notes on Russell Jacoby’s The Last Intellectuals

Jacoby’s The Last Intellectuals is written in a very accessible style. This is largely by design, as Jacoby wishes to perform the kind of public intellectual work that he argues is largely missing from the post-World War II generation. Indeed, this thesis, represented in the title, and the act of tracing the disappearance of public intellectuals occupies much of the book.

Jacoby paints in broad strokes, but the portrayal of the missing American public intellectual is largely convincing. As the author argues, economic conditions (the financial failing and subsequent disappearance of the small press, the inability of the public intellectual to sustain herself outside of the academy) and structural conditions (the disappearance of urban bohemia due to gentrification and flight to the suburbs) have resulted in public intellectuals being contained almost exclusively in the academy. The result of this institutionalization of the intellectual is a retreat from the public sphere: with intellectuals firmly entrenched in the silo of their specific discipline, intellectual discourse that might have reflected upon the public sphere became more and more detached from concerns outside the academy.

There’s a line at the end of the chapter on “New York, Jewish, and Other Intellectuals” that stood out to me. Jacoby paraphrases a point from Harold Rosenberg, who believed that intellectuals did not disappear as much as change their manifestation. That is, they assume disguises and show up in other places, other media, even after having been consigned to the historical dustbin (111).

This point, 50 years later, seems somewhat prophetic, as one could argue that the definitions of what counts as a public intellectual have changed out of necessity. Hell, the definition of what constitutes public has changed as well. I can think of several figures (such as Judith Butler, Cornell West, Noam Chomsky, Christopher Hitchens) who perform intellectual work publicly. Yet then again, when I read the writing of these thinkers (or even hear them speaking), it is clear that many of them are still assuming an academic audience.


Chasing Democracy: Occupy Lexington’s Use of Public and Private Urban Space

There has been a considerable amount of attention paid in the past six months to the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations/protests/encampments. In particular, many writers have focused on the process of decision making that takes place at occasionally heavily populated general assembly meetings, often giving much consideration to the at times ragged, slow process of communicating via specialized hand signals and “the human microphone.” The reasons for such a mode of communication are varied, partially having to do with material circumstances—such as the ban on megaphones at many occupy encampments—and partially to do with the radically democratic nature of the general assemblies: while ideally occupations reach a uniform consensus, offering a unified program, more often than not they reach some kind of compromise amongst differing viewpoints and factions.

This method of conducting a general assembly can be viewed as a seeming paradox. Even though one of the Occupy movement’s most powerful slogans is “We are the 99%,” a slogan that for many foregrounds solidarity and oneness, the movement is often criticized for being amorphous, for not having set demands standard across each encampment. Nevertheless, as I will argue, one of the movement’s major strengths has been its refusal to be pigeonholed, to be defined by one static cause or demographic.

In my paper, I will look at the way in which the Occupation movement more closely enacts Danielle Allen’s conception of “wholeness,” as opposed to “oneness.” I will also zero in on a specific Occupy group—the one in Lexington, Kentucky—to show how public discourse at general assemblies can differ vastly from that of the best known Occupy encampment at Zuccotti Park. These encampments function as a kind of critical public sphere, each with its own particular issues and modes of discourse, but all seem to share this goal of wholeness and shared sacrifice.


Arendt Discussion Questions

Let’s start by defining some terms germane to Arendt’s work. Vita active. Labor. Work. Action. Public. Private. Social. Political.

I want to look at the passage concerning the location of freedom on page 31. Like Calhoun (?), Arendt associates freedom with the public sphere and the political realm. How does this compare/contrast with other writers’ we have read thus far?

Where is subjectivity located for Arendt?

One passage that caught my eye was the bit on 52 in which Arendt writes that “the public realm may be great, [but] it cannot harbor the irrelevant.” I’d like to spend some time unpacking this phrase. What is meant by irrelevant here? Who decides?

Arendt consistently asserts that it is plurality that enables action, that it is because the world is made up of diverse individuals that the world is called into being. Does this ring true?

Labor for Arendt is a very private thing. On one hand, this makes sense; what goes into sustaining me is by definition not what goes into sustaining you. But on the other hand, I wonder if this is a reasonable distinction. That is, are we bound in a network of mutuality, even on the very basic level of self-production?


Notes on Pezzullo’s Toxic Tourism

In addition to having the coolest name of any author we’ve read this semester, Phaedra Pezzullo has written one of my favorite books we’ve read and discussed.  It’s not that I always find myself agreeing with her, but rather I find the upfront, all-cards-on-the-table political approach of Pezzullo’s writing refreshing.

The main focus of her argument, as the book’s title indicates, is a type of tourism called toxic tourism, a kind of environmental justice activism that puts tourists in direct contact with the places and faces affected by pollution.  The author argues that these tours can “serve as embodied rhetorics of resistance aimed at mobilizing public sentiment and dissent against material and symbolic toxic patterns” (3).

As such a definition indicates, a large part of Pezzullo’s work intersects with theory of performance studies.  In particular, following other performance studies scholars such as Dwight Conquergood, Pezzullo consistently argues throughout the work that there is a certain knowledge one gathers from embodied participation that really cannot be achieved any other way.  It’s not that one cannot experience affect or be moved to political action without embodied performativity:  On the contrary, one chapter examines the effects of the North American Free Trade Agreement on Mexico-US border towns, and is based not on a tour in which Pezzullo participated but on a documentary produced by the Sierra Club.  Pezzullo does an impressive job of analyzing the affective responses invoked by the video that could not be produced any other way, even as she notes the embodied performative elements that could not be reproduced in a documentary.

One point that interested me in the text was the way Pezzullo embraces radical political positions yet espouses neo-liberal solutions to problems.  For example, she takes many of the trends within National Breast Cancer Awareness Month to task for focusing on early detection and treating symptoms of breast cancer rather than going to the root of the problem and addressing underlying causes of the cancer.  This is the radical question that needs to be asked: Is it possible we do more harm than good by treating symptoms rather than root causes? –and Pezzullo levels this question thoughtfully, admirably.  Yet in other instances, the use of toxic tourism as an embodied, political activism—as counterhegemonic as it might be—seems reactionary neo-liberal reformism.  That is, we educate individuals who then may or may not decide on their own to change their actions in a way that has an impact on the issue.  Now, don’t get me wrong: I’m all for this kind of reformism, and I honestly believe in the cumulative historical impact of generating such discourse—if I didn’t, I wouldn’t teach.  But even within myself I feel the conflict that appears now and again in Toxic Tourism—can you use the master’s tools to take down the master’s house?


Notes: the Public Turn in Rhetoric and Writing Studies

Notes on David Jolliffe’s “The Community Literacy Advocacy Project: Civic Revival through Rhetorical Activity in Rural Arkansas”

This article documents some of the work that Jolliffe has been doing since being appointed to the Brown Chair in English Literacy at the University of Arkansas in 2005.  The main focus is the Community Literacy Advocacy Project that the author helped facilitate in Augusta, Arkansas, a city in decline in the delta region of western Arkansas.  The idea behind the project was simple enough: by celebrating reading and writing, the town of Augusta could build community pride as well as help create opportunity for residents.  Jolliffe writes that the goal was to “bring students, parents, government officials, church leaders, business owners, and not-for-profit workers together…to emphasize the roles that reading and writing play in the 21st century” (274).  The project seems to have been successful, and while it could be a while before the material benefits of the project are quantifiable, Jolliffe argues that such projects can be analyzed using a hybrid of three different approaches: a classical Aristotelian approach that analyzes the persuasive argument presented; an approach based on the work of David Procter, who argues that discourse patterns create a sense of shared community; and Eleanor Long’s five-element “point of comparison model,” in which tropes and contexts work together to call a “local public” into being.

–It is interesting in this model how Jolliffe pulls together multiple publics into a larger public sphere built around the concept of literacy.  Jolliffe acknowledges some potential ideological tensions within this model, but bracketing that issue for a moment, I’m interested in the way promoting literacy in this way might produce a metalanguage.  That is, might blending of rhetorical traditions from the realm of work, religion, and education produce a new literacy?  A new way of navigating the public sphere?


Notes on David Fleming’s “Finding a Place for School in Rhetoric’s Public Turn”

In this essay, Fleming argues that some curricula might have thrown the proverbial baby out with the bathwater in an attempt to make their writing instruction more public.  To put it differently, he focuses much of the essay on examining what might be lost when teachers insist that all major projects have a component that immediately connects with the world outside the classroom.  Specifically, the two things he argues that schools traditionally do well are teach facts and abstract theories.  In the end, Fleming argues that writing instruction should be Janus-faced and promote the best of both worlds, giving students practical, public writing experience while still doing what schools do best.

–Connections to WRD’s C&C curriculum.