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Home » Discover Rackham » Learning with Detroit: Place, Politics, and Pedagogies

Teaching initiatives in Detroit are often framed as opportunities for strengthening our institution’s connection with the city, for moving curricular revisions onto a more critical and equitable terrain, and for building skills that are necessary for engaging with people and forms of knowledge across race, gender, class, and place-based difference. Might these initiatives also promote a sustained reflection of our disciplinary and interdisciplinary approaches to community-based learning, an understanding of our individual and collective capacities to support community engaged pursuits in higher education? What are the lived histories, contributions, and legacies of pedagogical innovations in the context of Detroit’s everyday life? And how might these initiatives continue to expand the experiences of students, faculty, and community partners toward structural as well as personal transformation?

My 2016 Rackham-Mellon Public Humanities Summer Fellowship with the U-M Detroit Center allowed me to raise these questions with the aim of clarifying the center’s educational and outreach mission, and to develop a proposal for an upcoming exhibition and symposium on community engaged pedagogies in the city as part of the center’s contribution to the 2017 bicentennial. Concurrent with the final phase of my doctoral dissertation, this 10-week fellowship helped me to build upon my interconnected training in public scholarship with Arts of Citizenship (now, Rackham Program in Public Scholarship or RPPS), CEAL, and Imagining America, as well as hone my career goals at the nexus of campus-community partnerships by working on issues of place, politics, and power from within the outreach center’s own capacities and location in Detroit. Therefore, I want to position this reflection not as a culminating experience of my graduate student career, but as a prelude to the next step in this process, highlighting the importance of relationships that we build and sustain through public scholarship and teaching.

Among several Detroit-based initiatives, consider the “Semester in Detroit” (SiD) program, conceptualized by students in 2006, and instituted under the mentorship of Stephen Ward (Residential College and the department of Afroamerican and African Studies) in the College of LSA in 2009. Consider the engaged learning “Spanish Language Internship Project,” coordinated by Teresa Sanchez-Snell in the Residential College, and run in partnership with Latinx communities in Washtenaw County and Southwest Detroit since 2004. Consider the recent connection between the School of Music, Theatre, and Dance and the nationally recognized Sphinx Organization in Detroit around concerns of diversity and access in the arts, particularly as those concerns relate to engagements in and with the world. Consider the Michigan-Mellon design fellows program, co-directed by Milton S.F. Curry (Architecture) and Matthew Biro (Art History), and developed in collaboration with Detroit Public Schools in 2014.

When we consider engaged pedagogical innovations in the humanities, arts, and design programs on campus, we realize that those innovations articulate a shared commitment to establishing deep, meaningful ties with Detroit’s communities. In order to examine this commitment and its intersection with questions of equity and change through my fellowship, I developed a structuring principle for the exhibit (or “The Big Idea” as described by Beverly Serrell) that could provide us an important pause to reflect on how educators and administrators modified their programs to define depth and reciprocity in partnerships; how they restructured curricular and co-curricular training to advance strategies for change related to community issues; and how they consciously worked on power and privilege differences between and within communities in Ann Arbor and Detroit to sustain mutually transformative goals.

My disciplinary slant for this project followed general recommendations in the 2015-16 capstone report produced by students of the Museum Studies Graduate Certificate Program. The report, entitled “Re-creating a Thriving Gallery Space at the U-M Detroit Center,” suggested four successive slots of history, visual arts, education, and a traveling show to complement and organize the center’s yearlong programming. However, instead of viewing those slots as self-contained categories, I worked on their mutual affinities and unified them around a single theme of engaged pedagogy in the humanities, arts, and design. Alongside this proposal, I designed the agenda for a public symposium at the center that would focus on graduate students’ professional development for publicly engaged careers in academia. In coordination with co-curricular units on campus such as CEAL and RPPS, I identified the symposium’s “publics” as U-M students, faculty, staff, and their Detroit-based community partners.

Throughout my summer fellowship, the people, location, and infrastructure of the U-M Detroit Center helped me to access community-wide resources in the city, as well as connect those resources to programs led by faculty and groups in Ann Arbor. For example, SiD, the Taubman College, Ginsberg Center, and the U-M Library, each has an office at the center. Furthermore, the Michigan-Mellon program’s research and design studio is located just a block north of the center, along Woodward Avenue, in the heart of the city. Internally, the center’s inclusive and transparent organizational structure, facilitated by my supervisor and program director Dr. Addell Anderson, allowed me to work collaboratively on our learning goals. Most importantly, those honest and open relations enabled me to participate fully in the center’s programming and sharpen the project’s equity and educational focus through our weekly meetings.

The experience of this fellowship traveled with me. At the recently concluded Imagining America conference in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, I co-led a roundtable discussion (with John Saltmarsh, Director of the New England Resource Center for Higher Education at the University of Massachusetts Boston, and Malcolm Tariq, Ph.D. Candidate in English at U-M) entitled, “Re-Envisioning Graduate Education for Public Work Inside and Outside the University.” In this session, we explored the kinds of programmatic changes that are required to prepare students for publicly engaged careers within higher education and in community-based organizations. I spoke about my role and responsibilities as a Rackham-Mellon Public Humanities Fellow at the U-M Detroit Center. More specifically, I discussed my fellowship experience in the context of the center’s educational and public mission. But, the questions that fellow participant Carol Bebelle (co-founder and Executive Director of Ashé Cultural Arts Center, New Orleans) raised at this meeting remained only partially answered: “What does engaged work look like from the perspective of the communities with whom you are collaborating? How do we create space for reciprocal and transformative exchanges between campus and community groups?”

My fellowship project is enriched with these core questions in publicly engaged work. After developing the “big idea” for the exhibit last summer and successfully defending my dissertation at the end of the fellowship period in August 2016, I elected to participate in the project’s execution this year to focus on its relevance and timeliness for the center and its communities on the one hand and realize my scholarly and professional goals on the other hand. I am excited about the next step in this process, about my continuing partnership with the U-M Detroit Center and the potential to work with interested faculty, staff, and their community partners, including, but not limited to, those listed in this written piece. I am excited about learning from Detroit residents and their experiences with campus-community partnerships. I am excited about the promise that this event holds out for addressing questions (such as those raised by Carol Bebelle), as well as for organizing around and reflecting on the political and ethical implications of pedagogies in Detroit and the world in these troubled times. I am excited about “Learning with Detroit: Place, Politics, and Pedagogies,” the title of our upcoming exhibition and symposium for the university’s 2017 bicentennial and beyond.

I want to acknowledge the tremendous support of Rackham Graduate School throughout this experience. I want to thank Associate Dean, Deborah Keller-Cohen, and Director of Professional and Academic Development, Laura N. Schram, for coordinating this fellowship program and facilitating parallel dialogues on publicly engaged humanities work across professional contexts with an equally inspiring set of 2016 graduate student fellows. Together, these exchanges enabled us to connect with each other and learn from our experiences on the ground. Jointly, these opportunities reinforced the role and importance of ongoing, equitable, and collaborative work within academia, and between academia and wider communities.

Kush Patel is a postdoctoral fellow in humanities research administration at the Institute for the Humanities and the Michigan Humanities Collaboratory. He recently completed his Ph.D. in Architecture from the Taubman College, where he focused on issues of participatory politics and the social production of space in the radical French architectural works of the “post-68” period. The commitment to engaged and collaborative education at the intersection of the humanities, arts, and design unite his academic and administrative work. Follow him on Twitter @kshpatel.