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Home » Discover Rackham » The Arts of Citizenship Institute for Social Change: Questioning Boundaries, Engaging Communities

Rackham’s Arts of Citizenship Institute for Social Change constitutes a multidisciplinary venue for exploring the conceptual and practical dimensions of public scholarship. The Institute provides socially motivated graduate students an opportunity to raise questions and to discuss possibilities in the context of community-centered research, pedagogy, and practice. I see my doctoral work and my involvement with the Institute as one of mutuality and integration. Such a formulation establishes an understanding of engaged, public scholarship as a continuous arc through which we build relationships across sites, experiences, and types of expertise. It also enlarges the potential relevance of one’s dissertation for a range of meaningful careers, both within and outside the academy. In this reflection, therefore, I would like to position the Institute not as an exclusive moment in graduate education, but as a supportive and critical framework that affords multiple engagements with communities, as well as locations of scholarly activity.

In Fall 2012, I was awarded an opportunity to plan and offer my own course—a graduate seminar on agency, agenda, and social space—at the Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning. This course interconnected late twentieth century writings in urban social theory with concurrent explorations of social space in architecture with a focus on five themes: everyday life, agency, voice, participation, and program. The thematic slant followed my own scholarly research on questions of space and social meaning within architectural modernism’s wider traditions, in particular, the way those traditions instituted projects with reference to democracy and community participation in post-1968 Europe. The specific goal of my course was to have students develop a framework for architectural criticism by systematically stringing together the work of a spatial theorist (or a theme) and a cultural setting of their own selection in some compelling interrelationship. Throughout the emphasis was on examining the social and political meanings of space in conceptual and critical terms.

The experience of teaching an elective seminar was transformative. On the one hand, it allowed me to enlarge the intellectual dimensions of my doctoral work through engagement with other graduate students and their individual subject positions. On the other hand, and following my interactions with student-participants, it reminded me of the broader stakes of my scholarship: Where else might this conversation be taking place? How might these critical frameworks respond to, and evolve with, the experiences of distinct communities on the ground? What would a more publicly engaged structure of this course look like?

The call for applications for the 2013 Institute for Social Change presented itself at this opportune moment. In my reflections on engaged research and teaching, I had long struggled with issues of power and expertise, and how they intersect with spaces of inequality and social difference. I had received training in devising strategies and tactics to study these spaces, and to disclose their inherent social and political contradictions (as inscribed in my doctoral dissertation), but I knew little about how to further this research with, and through, impactful community-oriented pedagogies.

For those of us who come from disciplines traditionally understood as “socially engaged,” such concerns may assume several academic forms, including, but not limited to, independent seminars, design studios, capstone projects, or charrettes. Given that transformative learning must fundamentally and continuously challenge boundaries of knowledge, identity, and privilege among diverse constituencies, engaged courses cannot just remain at the level of independent practices. They need systematic evaluation in dialogue with interdisciplinary, co-curricular programs that help strengthen campus-community partnerships. Therefore, the questions that the students in my class had raised about how to advance issues of politics and change across domains, times, and expectations were important ones; those questions demanded ongoing reflection on practices of engaged knowledge production in academia. More importantly, they suggested that this required a collective endeavor, with broader institutional support and mentorship.

The Institute for Social Change provided me with the space to create, as well as to develop from within, a supportive community of scholars, professionals, and peers interested in publicly engaged scholarship and practice. From receiving feedback on my proposal for a collaborative blog on civic engagement and architecture to exploring ideas on engaged pedagogy with experienced facilitators, I was able to reflect on my goals as a public scholar and educator, as well as find others with similar motivations at the Institute. But our conversations did not end there. Many of us continued to exchange notes on our projects, and subsequently, reconvened as participants in an engaged pedagogy syllabus writing workshop, at the end of the academic year, in April 2014. The workshop was led by Meagan Elliott (Sociology and Urban Planning) and Caitlin Townsend (History and Museum Studies)—colleagues and friends from the Institute.

For me, the experience of participating in the 2013 Institute for Social Change was an important start to strengthening my doctoral education and its public focus. Since then, I have maintained continued involvement in the Arts of Citizenship program at Rackham, and participated actively in affiliated opportunities such as the Engaged Pedagogy Initiative Fellowship with LSA’s Center for Engaged Academic Learning (CEAL). Through coordination between my academic unit and these venues, I have been able to sharpen my skills for engaged, transformative learning across communities and cultures of knowledge. Furthermore, by co-organizing the various Arts of Citizenship programs on campus, I have been able to explore ways to strengthen connections between graduate education and engaged, public scholarship at Michigan. Finally, through excellent mentoring and peer support, I have gained renewed clarity on how to address the gaps between inequality and educational privilege with interrelated practices of research, teaching, and design advocacy.

In the 2015 Institute for Social Change, we will continue to develop these conversations around our overlapping and individual interests in public scholarship. As a group, we will reflect on the complexities and contradictions inherent in engaged public work, both within and beyond academia. In facilitated settings, as well as on foot, we will examine the roles that scholars and professionals in public might play and the kind of change that they hope to bring with their elected approaches. In coordinating this year’s Institute with two of my exceptional colleagues, Matthew Countryman and Laura Schram, this is what I would offer as my reflection and my commitment to the program.