Before reading this week’s articles about the Hashtag Syllabus projects and going through the syllabi, I noted that I had seen this kind of collective scholarly organizing on Facebook. I belong to several groups for SCMS (Society for Cinema and Media Studies) scholarly interest groups as well as a Teaching Film and Media Studies group. Since the election, I’ve noticed an increase in the number of requests from professors and scholars for group considerations of what to include on course syllabi, both for topics related to current political events and for topics that are somewhat separate from them. At the same time, colleges and universities are instituting more programs that ask scholars to be public intellectuals. Often these calls request more community visibility and legibility. An example from our own university is the Interdisciplinary Humanities Project “Community Matters,” which funds projects for scholars interacting with the local neighborhood. One of the most prominent themes that emerge from the syllabi projects and the public scholar programs, even though they originate in different places (syllabi from scholars and program calls from administrators) is a kind of collective learning and pedagogy that translates to the community. I fully support scholars sharing their academic endeavors with the public in ways that are accessible and engaging, yet I do worry a little bit about calls for public scholars in that government funding for universities like the UC system can then be filtered through governmental measures of how well the university meets these calls. Certain highly specialized topics are not easily translatable to a twenty-minute talk or an especially lively public discussion for those outside of a given field. This does not make the topic less important. It does mean that one of the pressing tasks for all of us as young academics is to develop skills related to public dissemination of our scholarship. As I thought about the syllabus projects as well as my own scholarship, I began to think about the different ways we, as scholars at the beginning of our careers, can participate in and thoughtfully consider some ways public scholarship is constituted and how it appears in the readings from this week.
Lately, I’ve been mulling over ways to make my own scholarship more readily accessible to different publics. As a Film and Media Studies scholar, I have an advantage over other disciplines in terms of communicating my work: film and media are popular culture artifacts and popular culture has staying power, not to mention a broader appeal than, say, pure mathematics. Over the summer, I worked at the San Jose Museum of Art in the curatorial department where I witnessed public scholarship in action. I was a research assistant to the curator and one of my tasks was to take academic material related to American lithography around the time of the Great Depression and relay it to two different publics—gallery docents and the general public for exhibition wall text. The task itself involved absorbing new information from art historians and curators about a specific historical moment and recreating it so that it was accessible to both parties. In this respect, academics have something important to learn from curators, for one of the most central tasks of a curator’s job is communicating information to many publics in various media formats. From live-streamed gallery walk-throughs to exhibition catalogues and donor meetings, curators must be able to effectively communicate about art and its contemporary resonance with sensitivity to a large public. Curators, on the whole, are public scholars par excellence.
I was especially struck by the article “Learning in Public: An Open Letter on Sam Durant’s Scaffold,” written by Olga Viso who serves as the curator of the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden at the Walker Art Center. Not only does this article (and others on the syllabus related to the exhibition) demonstrate what happens when a public institution (and a curator) fails to properly account for the local community, it also addresses the shortsightedness of the artist’s work in his neglect of a perspective other than his own as he attempted to enact the very opposite position in his work. The account hits especially close to home. I grew up in Minnesota where the exhibition was situated and I currently reside in California where the exhibition originated. I went through the public education system and regularly visited the Walker Art Center and the sculpture garden. While the public education system cursorily addressed some of the ways that white settlers displaced and stole land from the Native American people (oddly enough, this was addressed at my elementary school rather than at my middle or high school) and invited members from local tribes to talk with students in class, I think my school was the exception much more than the rule. Further, the public education system failed to address the ways the local community was and still is imbricated in settler colonialism. In fact, it was only last night that I learned about the Mankato Massacre in detail and that Fort Snelling—the military base turned popular historical tourist site—was the location where relatives of the Mankato Massacre were interned. That is the extent to which Minnesota has overlooked its own part in colonialism as it plays out in the public education system. I have visited Fort Snelling many times and the fact that it partook in the internment of Native Americans is downplayed, if not entirely overlooked.
In another syllabus piece that concerns artwork, a digital media video entitled “Visualizing the US-Mexico Border,” The Intercept allows the public to experience the border region while also asserting to border wall supporters, “good luck with the wall.” The artwork begins in California and speeds east, tracing the lines and curves, mountain ranges and valleys of the border region. The camera moves along the border, occasionally slowing down to trace significant curves or bodies of water that separate the US from Mexico. The images of the border region often recall the structural materialist films of the avant-garde. The land becomes striated, marled, and as grainy as film stock. This is border art that is immersive, mesmerizing, and in a sense, durational. Once the image starts speeding east, your eyes cannot help but follow the border (or at times, the apparent disappearance of the border) and its mutations. For the given speed of the images, the duration of the artwork is surprising. It calls attention to the sheer length of territory that the US and Mexico share as the repetitive soundtrack induces a meditative stare at the flashing screen. Yet, read differently, this piece recalls the lens of surveillance technology. I am not sure this is a reading The Intercept anticipated—it says that a physical wall may be very difficult to execute, yet digital surveillance technology, another kind of wall, is already in use. It made the smooth tracking of the border in the artwork possible. Taken together, the issue at the Walker and the two readings of The Intercept piece illustrate the multiple meanings that can reside in artwork and the importance of considering how the work reads for different communities.
Finally, I’ve also been thinking about the how of public scholarship—how can academics find new pedagogies that speak to broader publics than those they routinely encounter at their home institutions or through the traditional route of academic publishing? What new ways of communicating does this entail? Perhaps a start is to look to curators whose job depends on the ability to simplify academic terms for an audience while conveying a narrative and retaining complexity. Might public scholarship also require new pedagogies? Maybe, a set of digital pedagogies and best practices are becoming increasingly important for the work we do.
Olga Viso, “Learning in Public: An Open Letter About Sam Durant’s Scaffold,” The Walker Art Center, May 26, 2017.
Josh Begley, “Visualizing the US-Mexico Border,” The Intercept, October 26, 2017.