Public Scholarship

Recently, I have been thinking about ways to translate my research into public forms of writing. I wrote two essays – both of which drew directly from my research. The goal of each was to use the history of student activism in the 1960s as a lens onto contemporary campus protest today. I tried two different frameworks. For the “The Philosophy of a Young Activist,” I used Mario Savio’s little-known 1993 lecture as a way to shift the focus from free speech to deeper moral questions about the university. After some reflection, I decided it didn’t work. So, I tried again, this time emphasizing the relationship between sixties activism and service learning. The goal here was to resurrect the ideas of sixties activities and demonstrate that their ideas (and actions) have positively impacted American colleges and universities.

Unfortunately, neither got published. One lesson that I draw from both attempts: the moral argument is still unclear. When rooted in the scholarship and directed to more narrow audiences, the argument is much easier to write. The challenge going forward is how to more effectively ground the moral argument and (hopefully) provide my readers with a different lens to think about higher education and student activism today.

Despite the fact that neither articles were accepted for publication, I found the writing process useful and will try again (perhaps next Spring). Until then, I wanted to share these drafts with you. Happy Reading!

  1. The Philosophy of a Young Activist 
  2. Moral Politics and the University


Digital Update

A quick (and long-overdue) update on my digital project:

Still working on my databases, in particular, the database on volunteer backgrounds that includes home locations, universities, racial identity, and gender). Currently, I am at 475 volunteers out of 970 (roughly). I also began to contact former volunteers and have had some fascinating and enriching conversations with Heather Booth, Gail Falk, and others. Much of this is preliminary. For this winter, I hope to digitize a couple of the post-summer movements of the volunteers. The long-term goal is to make this part – the post-summer networks and post-sixties work of the volunteers – the main draw of the digital project. But, before I can do that, I need to finish the back story – hence the databases.

And, I added another database…

In late summer, I decided to map the WATs line from Freedom Summer.  Prior to, during, and after the summer, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) used the WATs line to communicate eyewitness accounts on the ground. By identifying and mapping these accounts, I hope to a) convey the violence during the summer and contextualize volunteer and staff experiences b) analyze the locations of violent acts in relation to voter registration, mass meetings, and freedom schools c) analyze the location of violent acts in relation to the grouping analysis map. Along with locating the various events during the summer, I have also linked the events directly to the WATs line (Thank you to Bruce Hartford, who has does some amazing work with digitizing movement documents).

If all goes as planned, I hope to have the first iteration of the summer map and site up and running by January. Check back then to see how the project has evolved since my earlier updates.

A Short Reflection on DH

I just returned from Victoria, British Columbia, where I attended my first Digital Humanities Summer Institute (DHSI) at the University of Victoria. I found the workshops thought provoking, engaging, and useful, especially as I work to define myself as a scholar within the Digital Humanities. My workshops exposed me to a range of new tools useful not only to my research, but also to my teaching. I am happy I went and it laid a solid foundation as I think about finding the right balance between my research, digital interests, and community engagement.

With that said, I found myself concerned throughout the conference with what Brian Greenspan has rightly identified as utopian thinking within the DH community. The assumption at the conference was that DH held the potential to not only save the humanities but also to radically transform the modern university. Open source, big data, visualizations – DH instructors, scholars, and presenters explained – would forge new bridges, redefine the classroom, and bring about a new age of interdisciplinarity. I couldn’t help but think that these views reflected more the ethos of Silicon Valley, Google workplaces and the “creative disruption”/innovation discourse permeating American higher education, rather than the broader ideals and critical approaches at the center of humanistic inquiry.

I was happy to see that Digital Humanities Now just made David Golumba’s the editors’ choice for June. His critique points to the concerns I had throughout the conference. Like Golumba, I want to emphasize: I am neither defending the traditional humanities as defined, nor am I against technology (I hope my project makes that clear). In fact, I am all for dreaming big and rethinking higher education and the ways technology can be used in the classroom. But the idea that the digital humanities will be that change-agent for American higher education ignores powerful political and economic interests at play as well as the tensions within the humanities as an academic discipline.

I am in full agreement that the Digital Humanities offers scholars a new tool and method for humanistic inquiry. As a graduate student exploring the possibilities of GIS mapping, I am excited to see the ways visual mapping can bring out new insights in my research. But, to truly confront the problems facing American higher education and the humanities in the 21st century will take more than a fancy visualization or a new digital tool in the classroom.

The Liberal Arts and the 21st Century

I recently attended a small conference on the idea of the university and the role of the liberal arts in the 21st century. The conference was thought-provoking and illuminating, especially because it brought together scholars from a range of disciplines and made me acutely aware of my position within the university. At the same time that I found the conference enriching, I was troubled by a common theme at the conference. In identifying and critiquing the various trends of neo-liberalism, a common rejoinder among scholars is a nostalgic defense of the mythic past. At this conference, such nostalgia included a return the to the Trivium, an embrace of Jeremy Bentham’s educational ideas, the need for more public intellectuals, or making the university classroom like the Greek Agora. As a fellow doctoral student noted, we academics (and I include myself here) love “bacon-wrapped” nostalgia.

While an appreciation of the past and the important texts of the “liberal arts” are vital to discussion for the role of the liberal arts in the 21st century, I think the challenge of the future is re-imagining the very frameworks of the “liberal arts.” I am reminded here of the famous debate between Robert Maynard Hutchins and John Dewey in the first part of the 20th century. Hutchins garnered fame as president of University of Chicago when he implemented the Great Books curriculum, believing it to be a more effective form of liberal arts for a democracy. Progressive thinkers like John Dewey, however, believed that the Great Books and other liberal arts traditions rested upon particular assumptions that maintained class distinctions. He explained in 1944 in The American Scholar: “The distinction between ‘liberal’ and ‘useful’ arts is a product of the time when those engaged in industrial production were mechanics and artisans who occupied a servile social status. The meaning attached to the traditional doctrine of liberal arts cannot be understood except in connection with the social fact of division between free men and slaves and serfs and the fact that only the former received an ‘intellectual’ education.”

The maintenance of traditional liberal arts seemed, at least to Dewey, antithetical to American democracy. I find his critique important to consider when discussing the vision of the liberal arts for the 21st century. In some regards, I believe the problem the liberal arts are facing is a direct result of the cloistering of academia, especially the assumed belief that ideas only can emerge through a separation from society. Here I am inspired by the work of Robin D.G. Kelley. In Freedom Dreams, Kelley argues that black radical intellectuals reshaped such ideas as Marxism, Surrealism, Feminism, and other “isms” thought their collective and direct involvement in communities and movements for social change. He writes: “The most powerful, visionary dreams of a new society don’t come from little think tanks of smart people or out of the atomized, individualistic world of consumer capitalism where raging against the status quo is simply the hip thing to do. Revolutionary dreams erupt out of political engagement; collective social movements are incubators of new knowledge.”

I put my faith in not rediscovering some lost moment of public intellectualism or reintegrating the beauty of particular texts, but rather in the willingness of scholars and students to step down from academic places and involve themselves in the community as equal partners, willing to learn from the world. It’s not that I believe that important texts play no part – they do – but I am more interested in how the experiences of meetings and day-to-day dialogue can begin to enable humanities scholars and student to imagine a new liberal arts future for the 21st century.

Digital Update

Since my last update, I have been learning more about Esri’s Arc GIS and the different ways to use census data within the software. Recently, I accessed 1960s county-level census data on income level and “nonwhite” populations (an unfortunate, postwar descriptor of racial identity). Using Arc Gis, I visualized demographic geography of the early 1960s. See below, or follow this link:



One could surmise from maps 1 and 2 that high poverty rates at the county level mapped onto counties with higher “nonwhite” populations. Map 3 combined these two data sets to better understand the racial outlines of America poverty in the 1960s. These groupings created two distinct categories relevant to the Mississippi project, one that identified areas with a low “nonwhite” population and a higher poverty rate, and a second one that identified areas with a higher “nonwhite” population and a higher poverty rate. As the map shows, those counties of the latter (Groups 2 and 5, Colors Red and Purple) are predominantly in the South, with the exceptions again being the Native American reservations in the Southwest and Northwest. Table 1 defines the statistical outlines of these categories.


Table 1

Group 2:

Variable Mean
% “Nonwhite” 29.5751
% Below Poverty Line 45.1298

Group 5:

Variable Mean
% “Nonwhite” 54.9413
% Below Poverty Line 62.1839

Using the data I got from the Wisconsin History Society and the Civil Rights Veterans website, I then layered the home locations (where the volunteers were born) and their placement locations onto the grouping analysis map. The first iteration accounted for roughly 300 volunteers of the total 973 college student volunteers. This allowed me to identify which “group” the volunteers came from and the economic and racial character of the Mississippi county in which they were placed. This comparison allows me to more effectively contextualize volunteer reflections. For example, Charles Sowerwine, one Freedom Summer volunteer, wrote home in Mid-July and described his experiences in Mississippi as a “confrontation of our well-fed, middle class values with the searing sadness” of the American South.

With this analysis, I can now place Sowerwine’s anecdote into the context of the summer. In Sowerwine’s case, he came from an area where 7.53% of the population lived under the poverty line and the “nonwhite” population accounted for 7.66% of the total population and served in an area where 72.42 % of the population lived under the poverty line and the “nonwhite” population accounted for 67.83% of the total population.


The summer forced students like Sowerwine to directly confront the social and personal effects of poverty rather than just study it as a statistical abstraction in college. The Summer shaped how these students saw American society and became a catalyst for later social movements in the 1960s. Future work will follow the post-summer geographical movements of the volunteers and how they linked their experiences with later political work. Stayed tuned for updates later this summer.


The Beginning

March 15, 2017

Beginning in January, I decided to pursue a Digital Humanities project to supplement my dissertation and to open up my findings to the larger public (a public humanities project). My project visualizes the argument that the 1964 Freedom Summer, a key event of the civil rights movement, served as a catalyst for later social movements in the 1960s. I decided to begin with Esri’s ArcGIS, thinking that the pre-summer and post-summer locations of the volunteers were vital to my visualization. For the past month, I have been experimenting with Esri’s Arc GIS, slowly understanding the language of choropleth maps and vector data. I have found the software to be very effective in working with large sets of data, say increased postwar college enrollments or poverty rates in the 1960s. One map that I am currently working on layers the pre-summer location of the volunteers (vector data) onto a choropleth map with 1960 census data on poverty (attribute data). The draft below visualizes 1960 Census data on poverty rates (Note the high levels of poverty in the American South, especially in Mississippi where the Freedom Summer was focused). I hope to use this visual map to demonstrate that the 1964 Freedom Summer made real Michael Harrington’s landmark 1960s book, The Other America. While many of the volunteers had read the book (it was a bestselling book in the 1960s) and were aware of poverty at an intellectual level, the summer directly exposed the students to these conditions.


I believe these maps will be important for the larger story, but I have found ArcGIS limiting in visualizing the post-summer activities of the volunteers and activists. A key element of my project is to visualize the post-summer networks of the volunteers, many of whom went on to become key organizers for feminist, anti-war, and university reform movements. I find that relying on the ArcGIS maps temporally constrains the network. Moreover, it seems (at this stage) that geometic network analysis within ArcGIS focuses more on roads, rivers, and other more geographically based connections. While still experimenting with Arc GIS, this next month I also plan to explore social network and visualization platforms like Gephi to see how I can create a more fluid social network that can be explored in conjunction with the ArcGIS maps.