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’ (CS) 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 second in this series, focusing on how Lieberman's experiences helped drive formative questions and practices for CS.
My dream for Chicago Studies is that it can become a “community of praxis.” This would be a place where students, who are doing intellectual work that they hope will have impact outside the academy, can gather to explore how they want to undertake that work, and specifically how theory and practice inform each other. It is this dialectical relationship between theory/reflection and action that transforms our social worlds - the constant, conscious, iterative movement back and forth from one to the other - that defines praxis and that we want to encourage in Chicago Studies students as a research practice, and also a life practice that is applicable beyond the boundaries of the academy. The hope is that the program will help students flesh out their frameworks for reflecting on and theorizing out of experiences of direct engagement/service, while giving students concrete skills and new methods for doing research that is participatory and applicable outside the academy in meaningful ways.
In my own undergraduate experience at UChicago, at least until I started the Comparative Race and Ethnic Studies BA seminar my fourth year, I often felt that I lacked a community of peers with whom to debate the frameworks and approaches that we brought to the academic work that we spend so much of our time on. I was lucky to find this kind of intellectual community on a certain level through two RSO experiences, but I craved a space to reflect on how these experiences informed and were informed by my academic work. Nonetheless I’m extremely grateful for those RSO experiences.
One came through GlobeMed and the debates that we had around developing principles and a model of partnership in that group. The basic premise of GlobeMed is to partner as a group of college students in the Global North, with a grassroots health organization in the Global South, in a way that is ethical and attempts not to reproduce colonial or imperialist power dynamics. There was a deep and shared commitment to that idea while I was in the UChicago chapter. However, what self-determination or dependence, mutual accountability, “ethical resource redistribution,” and other concepts actually look like in practice—or how by taking certain actions we were or weren’t enacting any of these dynamics—were subjects of prolonged debate within our chapter while I was active. Often, we were not all in agreement, but we agreed on actions to take collectively and continued to support each other and take responsibility for those actions, even if they were not what we would have chosen individually. While on the one hand that is a basic lesson in teamwork, since my time in GlobeMed I have realized how unique it is to be a part of a group where such reflexivity is encouraged and room is made to constantly rehash differences of opinion and reiterate the “why” behind the “how” of our work towards shared goals. While hierarchy and choke points in communication did emerge, it generally felt like debate and realignment of our shared ideals and actions was constantly held open. And it was because of internal diversity in the group and the ability to process together, that I became able to see the complexity of the challenges we were facing, develop an appreciation for the many valid positions that can be attempted in the face of these challenges, and begin to develop a language and frameworks for discussing core dilemmas in partnership building.
My second experience with a “community of praxis” in college was South Side in Focus (SSiF). In the weeks leading up to our exhibitions, we would often get caught up in late-night debates about details like how to present transcripts from oral history interviews to the diverse audiences who came to the community arts exhibitions that we regularly organized at CBO partners across the South Side. What constituted “cleaning up a transcript” and was an appropriate, respectful way to translate speech to written form, knowing that all of us speak with non-sequiturs and expressions that are jarring in written text and accentuating any mannerism can read as a caricature? At the same time, when were our edits rather a reflection for our own biases for a particular dialect (so tellingly called “Standard American English”) and a way to negate or further stigmatize other dialects? We had a shared desire to portray our participants in the most dignifying way possible, but almost never reached a consensus about what choices would best realize this.
By the time I had a leadership role in South Side in Focus, during the latter half of my college career, I was more actively conscious of the connections between such debates and my own academic work. The convergence of my extracurricular and academic work (which became increasingly focused on cultural organizing and urban development) enriched both. I had a language and set of theories from classes and my BA on the politics of narrative construction and representation that helped me think through my choices as a curator for these community-based exhibitions. At the same time, navigating the politics of representation in situations where they were directly connected to friends, mentors, and mentees to whom I very directly felt a responsibility, brought both clarity and urgency to my academic work, especially my BA thesis. And very concretely, a number of my fellow RSO members (with whom I had the deepest disagreements about SSiF methodology) became my closest thought-partners in my BA work, and those who continually challenged me in important ways.
The types of debate and conversation that I had in GlobeMed and South Side in Focus are the kinds of discussions that Chris Skrable and I want to reproduce in CS. We are aware that the sense of community and the many individual relationships that make these debates come alive cannot fully be institutionalized. But we are striving to make CS a place where like-minded students can immerse themselves in a concentration of like-minded peers and mentors, where hopefully the seeds of those relationships can be planted. And CS will provide consistent resources to support students across their four years as they flesh out connections between their in-classroom and out-of-classroom educational experiences and attempt to apply them reflexively.
June 4, 2018