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.

Work Cited

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.

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8 thoughts on “Public Pedagogies in Practice

  1. I really enjoyed watching “Visualizing the US-Mexico Border” (Maybe include a link? Googling is easy enough anyway). Having just arrived in the country, the perception of the south border astounds me. Even though Brazil shares borders with countries in civil unrest and poverty, the protection of the borders are not nearly as thorough and extreme as in the US (mainly due to lack of resources and the geography of the country itself, with many rivers and forests). It is estimated that only 4% of Brazilian borders are monitored, even so the preoccupation within Mercosul focuses mainly on illegal drugs and arms, not people. In sum, audiovisual material, as well as art in general, plays a great part in conveying a point of view and prompting discussion, and pedagogy should absolutely take advantage of such pieces, especially when dealing with a young population that is becoming increasingly accustomed to absorbing/appropriating new technological media and tools. The format of vertical education grows obsolete by the minute.

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  2. I was thinking about your questions regarding new pedagogies for public scholarship and new communications strategies and immediately I thought about Twitter. I have found that Twitter has been a fruitful place for me to learn new things not only about the scholars/writers/intellectuals in which I’m interested, but also about their works and the folks they’re in conversation with. Though other social media may do this as well, I find that a limited-character format forces a translation from denser academic-speak into a more generally understandable wording, and even a long thread of tweets can allow for segmentation of ideas that makes them easier to digest.

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  3. Having worked in museums and galleries for the past ten years I can also appreciate the role of the curator and museum exhibition. Indeed, curators are masters of using objects as primary sources and all other documentation seems to be secondary material they rely on. Starting with an object, like a confederate monument and working backwards is a great approach and I agree something that #syllabi might be able to learn from in regard to translating or transforming academic language into palatable presentations of information.

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  4. I was interested in your comments on the “staying power” of popular culture. I also agree with the implication: that those of us studying the popular should/must to a certain extent consider ourselves public scholars, particularly in terms of revealing the underlying ideologies of cultural products and processes. But what, then, of the means by which we make these interventions? My personal feeling—justified or not—is to urge caution. In a sphere that is saturated with information, analysis and interpretation become valuable skills that can, in turn be monetized (e.g. being paid to write op-eds). How do we avoid, as you hint, being compromised by capitalistic regimes in the process of becoming public figures without losing, say, our ability to carry on a livelihood? In a related vein, academic publishing—however niche its audience may be—nevertheless contains its own legitimizing discourses (“If it’s good enough to be published, then it must be worth reading”). Although there may be faulty quality to this viewpoint, academic voices are perceived as valuable not merely for the content of their enunciations, but also for the structures that surround those enunciations. How are these selfsame structures transferred to digital spaces, and how are they changed in the transfer? I raise these questions without any particular conclusion of my own, but rather to suggest the need of further discussions on frameworks or rubrics for digital academic presences.

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  5. Your approach to the #Syllabus project using a curatorial perspective works really well in that it focuses on how the material is conveyed rather than the material itself. You state that “one of the pressing tasks for all of us as young academics is to develop skills related to public dissemination of our scholarship,” which is a point I hadn’t considered as much as I should have; no matter how important we think our research is, it must still be presented in such a way as to engage the audience. Though amassing weeks worth of readings on a specific topic on a single web-page is useful in theory, the need for curation that allows public understanding and engagement is essential for its success.

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    1. Sarah, I really appreciate how your post offers specific art objects that help us to think through this material. Two thoughts on resources that might help your inquiries continue…

      1. W.J.T. Mitchell’s “What Do Pictures Want” builds on this question of framing (how the material is conveyed vs. the material itself). Mitchell provides a framework for thinking through iconoclastic images, but also creates a more general conversation for thinking through the relationship between object and spectator’s interpretation of object.

      2. Nina Simon’s book, “The Art of Relevance.” Simon is the executive director of the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History, and in this book, she grapples with questions of community engagement, participatory art, and societal relevance. It’s one of those books that’s born out of so much research and life experience that you have to read it slowly; it almost reads like museum version of life coaching. I’m in the process of reading it now – book club?

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  6. I appreciated when you said, “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.” because it demonstrates the multiple lens one can wear to analyze content. This is the part education and of #syllabi that interest me most; what tools do/should we give our students- or the masses more broadly- for analyzing such content? Do you think that #syllabi should have address this? You mention the pedagogy of curators, but what about their theory and methods of praxis? Which might they recommend?

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  7. I was interested in your connection between scholarly interest groups on Facebook and the Hashtag Syllabi. Your argument that both serve to build communities was on point. I had not made this connection before and I am part of several groups. As you mentioned, syllabi discussions come up all the time and folks in the group are more than happy to share resources and experiences. I wonder if a similar type of exchange could happen with the hashtag syllabi, creating a space (maybe of the websites?) for people to share their experiences once they have used them.

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