Vertical Tabs

Jeanne Lieberman, who was featured in a blog post earlier this year, is currently working with program director Chris Skrable to restructure and reorient Chicago Studies’ ideals, mission, and goals. As the academic year winds down, Lieberman took time to reflect on the direction of the program, as well as on how her journey as a University of Chicago undergraduate informed the new vision for the program.

Lieberman’s reflections are featured in a two-part blog post series, which describe 1) what a “community of praxis” looks like for Chicago Studies, and 2) Lieberman’s experiences in two Community Service RSOs (CSRSOs). This is the first in this series, defining a Chicago Studies “community of praxis.”

This year and in years past, Chicago Studies (CS) programming has introduced students to methodologies and practices that strengthen their ability to do engaged scholarship or research with a purposeful, positive impact on Chicago residents who are not a part of the academic community. Many of the resources I have developed to support the certificate program aim to equip undergraduates with the tools and frameworks to engage in more accountable and reciprocal ways with their diverse collaborators embedded in communities outside the University. While this is important work that should—and will—be continued, my projects have also sought to lay the groundwork for CS to develop internally into a community of young engaged-scholars, one that fosters collective problem-solving and relationship-building between likeminded  undergraduates and academic mentors. CS Director Chris Skrable and I often talk about this idea as a “community of praxis.”

The emphasis we are placing on forming such an internal community is not just about ensuring that students have support to make engaged work sustainable for them over the long term.It is also about reflecting, in the very structure and form of our programs and practices—not just our content or discourse—on the core commitment that we espouse to dialogue, collaboration, and co-creation as the heart of more just knowledge creation. While there are best practices that we can expose students to, developing a praxis of engaged scholarship remains inherently aspirational: the tools to undo the colonial, exclusionary, and exploitative dynamics that are intertwined in the histories of most of our disciplines are still emerging. CS exists so that students who hunger to participate in knowledge production that furthers projects of freedom/liberation rather than domination don’t reinvent the wheel, but rather can find their own entry points into a lively process of forging and refining these tools, to which we all—and not least the newest generation of scholars—are obliged to bring our full creativity.

For that reason, and in good UChicago style, such a community will be anchored in shared questions and debate, rather than in shared answers. But, in opposition to a singular emphasis on theory, these questions materialize. These questions go beyond what are our shared principles, or what kinds of relationships between scholars and non-academic community members might be more ethical and less exploitative or voyeuristic than those that have been critiqued in the past? Rather, they encompass the often much more contentious processes of mapping our concepts and ideals onto our lives and actions. I believe that this is where the most transformative debate often lies.

For an example, how does a commitment to horizontal rather than hierarchical decision-making manifest itself when working with a CBO, their staff, and their various constituents? When we map this question onto concrete scenarios in research and direct engagement practices, horizontal decision-making becomes even less clear. When discussing a specific situation that one or more CS participants have experienced, we can much more meaningfully parce whether refusing to impose a structure for a decision-making process allows us to avoid imposing culturally-inappropriate procedures or actually leads to replicating power dynamics whereby those who “yell the loudest” and who already have the most power in the local community are again the most heard, with the most marginalized remaining so. And if someone believes it is the latter, what ways around this might participants try? It’s in bringing to bear our various critical frameworks and understandings of how contemporary structures reproduce various ism’s and axes of marginalization, in order to animate debate about the concrete scenarios where these questions arise, that these critical frameworks gain meaning and sticking power in our lives outside the Reg and that both theoretical and methodological creativity is sparked.

This year in the new CS Core for Certificate students, we brought to life debate about these kinds of questions using case studies and role play. In the future, I hope that a new Chicago Studies working group, where students share and debate real-life challenges of these sorts as they are unfolding in members’ various ongoing direct-engagement and research projects, will become the heart of the CS program.

May 29, 2018