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020 — Public Scholarship
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Teacher of the Ear 020 — Public Scholarship

With Dr. Mia Zamora from Kean University

This is Teacher of the Ear: a show presenting conversations of learning, teaching, and technology, listening for ways to empower educators and champion student agency. It’s the aural side of Hybrid Pedagogy. I’m Chris Friend from Kean University.

Bear with me for a second here. I want to try and combine two concepts that usually stand apart from each other. On the one hand, I want to ask, “Whom does a university serve?” Answers to that range from the pessimistic, transactional “students who pay tuition” all the way to the optimistic and lofty claims of “society, which benefits from an informed, critical citizenry and the advancement of knowledge.” Right? I think we’ve all heard responses that run the gamut between those poles. That’s the first concept: university benefactors.

On the other hand, I want to ask, “Who benefits from institutional silos?” Our entire modern education system, from elementary classes through terminal degrees, is built around disciplines and the idea that subjects can, or even should, be best learned in isolation from one another. Experts need, the argument goes, to focus on their very specific areas of niche expertise to be able to dive deeply into understanding the nuances of their specializations. Tucking someone away in an ivory tower lets them focus all their efforts on their expertise without distraction, leaving others to worry about other areas of expertise in other fields. At least, that’s the theory, right? So that’s the second concept: institutional silos.

I want to combine those two concepts, university benefactors and institutional silos, into a conversation about ways the work we do at our institutions should benefit others outside our disciplines, our silos, even our institutions themselves. We’re going to talk about ways to blur the lines between school and community, between class and real-world, between disciplinary expertise and broader experience. I want to talk about public scholarship.

Yes, that topic seems at first to be divorced from pedagogy, but don’t worry—this is me you’re hearing from. We’ll get there. We’ll talk about how this kind of scholarship benefits students in more valuable ways than traditional, isolation-minded scholarship. And just for some fun irony, to have this conversation about breaking down institutional barriers, I stayed inside my own institution—my own building—my own department, even—and walked four offices down from mine to chat with Dr. Mia Zamora, associate professor of English and director of the Kean University Writing Project and its M.A. in Writing Studies. Let’s jump right in to my conversation with Mia.

Chris:        So when some folks think about scholarship, they think about technical language intended for specialized experts focused on incredibly specific areas of inquiry. It's stuff that's supposed to go above somebody's head unless they study that themselves. Material designed for public consumption, though, we usually think of as approachable, accessible and applicable in a very broad sense. So how can something be both? How can it be scholarly and public at the same time? Because those two seem to be opposite to me.

Mia:        Yeah, I think they're opposite intentionally in the in terms of a historical legacy of the Academy. You know, as you set up this sort of tension between traditional scholarship and public scholarship and what the two different modes might be looking towards.

I'll say that in traditional scholarship, there's a whole lot of gatekeeping expectation, a culture that keeps certain expectation in place. And also it's about power, right? And so I think that in public scholarship, we're taking the baggage of traditional scholarship, not really necessarily working that through and then sort of saying, OK, let's connect with the community.

And that, to me, that's my greatest concern or my greatest fear if we don't think about public scholarship in, for lack of a better word, a radical way.

So moving into what public scholarship can be and what it might be. You know the relationship of the university to the public and also to the immediate community, has been not always an entirely harmonious one. There is a history of conflict in terms of gentrification issues, in terms of taking over real estate.

And so I want to address that on some level when we start to talk about scholarship, I think it's a public scholarship. I think it's really important to be mindful of power, and so from that point and embarking on what's possible, I think that when we blend A&F, well, when we move towards an effort to have a relationship between the production of knowledge and the local community and the world at large, society, we have to be super thoughtful about how that's done. In what terms, what expectations.

And in some ways, we need to be ready to question the kind of ideological regimes in which the university grew up, you know, and came of age and gained its momentum, so that's a pretty lofty and somewhat radical thing to say, but I think that in and of itself is a very important starting point for truly understanding the potential of public scholarship.

Chris:        So I do want to double check something from what I just heard from you. You talked about the institution as a site of knowledge generation and then the community around it. I just want to clarify, in public scholarship, is the basic idea here that the institution is going to be the knowledge generator and that the institution is going to serve as the locus of knowledge creation on behalf of the Community that surrounds it. Is that kind of where we're going?

Mia:        Yeah, that's it. That that is the perfect question, Chris, because I think the impulse is precisely that. It’s an assumption that the loci for knowledge production is in the set of practices and the set of resources that comes from the university, and I think in and of itself, that assumption needs to be, we need to start to dismantle that in and of itself, we are not necessarily here to enlighten the public and lift them up.

Although that would be a wonderful outcome. I'm not trying to say that's not a not an outcome that is worthy, it is. And yet to think that that is the project in and of itself from the beginning is an imperial one, and so I I kind of want when we start to talk about public scholarship, I want to like kind of hit this note immediately and say, you know what assumptions do we take into that relationship, and you know what do we want the work to serve in the end. And you know a neoliberal impulse can be deeply problematic for the participants involved, and so I want to be mindful of that.

Chris:        So OK, I I think the other question that came to mind is related to what you just said. Then you distinguished public scholarship from traditional scholarship and you said that traditional scholarship includes gatekeeping and power, so this question then comes from an outside perspective. If public scholarship has no gatekeeping, how can we ensure that it's good? How can we make sure that our public scholarship is quality scholarship? Where does that come from?

Mia:        That's a really good question and I think there's a you know quite a bit of challenge in that question, meaning that that that's an, uh, a bit of a moving target, but I think if we stand by the way in which we have been trained, and sometimes quite frankly, professionally hazed and we we reside in that space as the only way to be to prove our merit and to also move forward in our processes. Then I think on some level we haven't really connected to a larger mission of our role in society.

So what is the point in spending your life thinking and extending, thinking in a way that's meaningful? Well, hopefully the answer resides somewhere, and to make the world a better place, to have people understand each other in ways that make a difference to make people's lives improved to reach towards lofty ideological goals like freedom, like democracy in ways that aren't stilted, thwarted, blind sighted. That's really big stuff. I mean ambitious and as I said, lofty.

And yet at the same time I think if if we don't start with noticing the the ways in which we harbor certain kinds of impulses towards right ways and wrong ways we're gonna get in trouble.

So like one concept that I think is like important to introduce when thinking about public scholarship is the idea of knowledge equity. How do we understand ways of knowing? Traditionally it's it's all about, you know, learning the field, producing some form of performance around, knowing that field, and then inserting ourselves within it to sort of complicate the matter with new ideas, but always in deference to what has come before.

But there are many other ways of knowing and so knowledge equity is sort of an idea which tries to open up the way we come to know things enough to invite new people to the table. Not just to invite them though, but to listen to them and listen to them the way they want to be listened to, which is not an easy thing to accomplish. It brings us into territory that we might not feel like grounded in our expertise, hence this is a sort of conundrum that I'm sort of circling in on in a way is the notion of expertise, mastery, etc versus an openness that would provide possibility for people who don't have the language or the discourse, or even the preparation to participate to still find a way in to making meaningful new knowledge.

Chris:        I think what I hear you say is that in order to determine whether public scholarship is quality scholarship, we need to ask the publics that we are working with. From their perspective, is this quality? Like, the the very public that we are hoping to serve are also going to be the arbiters of whether we are serving them correctly?

Mia:        Absolutely so one you know trying to ground back your original question, how do we essentially know what we're producing is worthwhile? I think it is rooted in a co-learning impulse or co-learning mentality where it isn't as if there's a hierarchy here inherently where I have nothing to learn and but my students need to learn from me that I am the font of knowledge and their brains are just sieves to pour into, but rather we all have lived experiences that are valid in the space in which we embark on some sort of journey to learn something new together.

And it's that sort of stance which is very difficult quite frankly to you know, step into fully, especially after the kind of professional training that most scholars have received, it's it's not just counter-intuitive it it's a it's a no man's land. I mean, it's really a high risk space because so much of what we're talking about is rooted in sort of human psychology as well.

It's very, you know, destabilizing to not necessarily front all that you know at once. To establish a kind of confidence in your students and also the the students themselves have been brought up in this cultural context, so they want to know their professor as an authority and they feel more reassured by that.

And when they're asked to produce their own learning outcomes, on some level they might even be angry and resentful of that move because they feel like you're not working. You're not doing your work, so that's why I use the word radical. But I'm also connecting those possibilities to, uh, a sense of real authentic empowerment and even freedom, a notion of freedom. So it's a fault line that it's quite hard to reside on. You know it's it's full of tension.

In essence, there is this possibility of you know, being dynamic and I think part of it is in the design of leaving space for what is unknown.

So I I one of my favorite words, just theoretically when I talk pedagogy is emergence, you know. And leaving space for what emerges that cannot be seen before embarking on the experiment of spending time together and and learning something together as a community, I mean so that space for what is unknown.

What I often talk about is something like a pathway or a like a syllabus. That's like a learning spine like OK, this is our curricular spine, so we have things it's like we're laying down some sort of skeleton of a plan or a path to embark upon, but then there is much space for the flesh of the thing to be realized, you know what I mean?

And so it's those twists and turns along the way and they're like thinking in real time. You know, thinking on your feet, problem solving. Opens up this really powerful possibility of modeling those kinds of skills you know in real time. And not just modeling, discovering side by side, those things are so critical to any embarcation of public scholarship.

Because if we start off assuming we know things and that we're here to teach the community or bring the community along, or raise up the community, we are really not necessarily paying close attention. We are not positioning ourselves to listen to the reality on the ground. And it starts with that, you know, real transformation comes not just from having a plan but listening first you know and then adjusting and it's twice or exponentially more work, quite frankly, Chris, than just having a prescription and then moving towards it and saying this is going to be the outcome.

That model that we're talking about, that kind of dynamic space for emergence public scholarships, situated in a stance of listening and then the creativity that comes from that active listening. That is not easy. And I think it looks a lot easier than it actually is, and it's only until there's some sort of fruition or some sort of realization of project of articulation of writing or whatever it is wherein the people on the journey start to realize the sophistication and complexity of that design touch.

It's not apparent in the beginning, and that's very hard for scholars to swallow because that sense of their own authority is so much a part of the way we've been trained to think, and the way we have been situated as students ourselves, so my journey I've learned all these things.

So I guess another way to say this really like more simply is: The importance of vulnerability is utmost in my mind when I think about the mission of truly engaged public scholarship. And I, I think that that's important to to keep that in mind. It's not an easy stance it's challenging always emotion.

Chris:        It sounds to me like you're—oh…and then you threw in that last word.

Mia:        Yeah, sorry.

Chris:        No, no no no it sounds to me like you're setting up a vulnerability as the antithesis of hubris.

Mia:        Yeah, as a matter of fact, absolutely and and I think it's really an important thing in in leadership to to be a gifted leader one needs to understand the importance of vulnerability. One of my quotable quotes like meaning my student like for years now I've been saying this as students sometimes repeat it. They say Doctor Zamorra says the seeds of real learning lie in the the your threshold to tolerate vulnerable moments.

You know, and I I think that's true. You know, like that. And that includes the designer of the learning experience as equally as the people invited along the way, you know.

Chris:        It's interesting while you were talking, I was thinking of how we haven't exactly done anything for a grade yet in that class. And and when I realized that a couple weeks ago, I thought, oh shit I'm going to get in trouble because I have. I don't have any I like, I have nothing to show for grades. I have not graded them on anything and yet. I'm fairly convinced that those students are being more deliberative and thoughtful and intentional with all of their work in this class than any other students in any other class maybe I've ever taught.

They might not be doing as much work, but their work has so much meaning that that they they know why they're doing it. They know why they're doing it. How they are doing it and all of that, and so the experience might be simpler but richer, and I'm OK with that and and they're OK with it, 'cause it means they're not writing essays all the time. I'm not grading stuff all the time, we're just. Just taking this this thing, this project that we know is going to benefit others and we are using it to help us learn as we go.

Mia:        Yeah, makes total sense to me. It's it's funny you break you bring up this issue of grades because of course, grades are an artifact in many ways of that kind of impulse that I'm talking about—to stand and authority to evaluate to expect to gate keep—all of those things, and once you sort of lessen the significance of—which is a true challenge and we all have our experiments with it, but you can't quite get over it right?

Because the whole institution is founded in it? Yeah, but we do tinker. I know we tinker with that power structure or hierarchy or the whole thing in order to get around it and make something else open up. So yeah, I think when you marry that with public scholarship as a kind of, you know, shared purpose, that exists from the beginning, you're on to something you know.

One example of the gatekeeping, I alluded to that often happens in academia is, you know around language itself. And as writing professors and as literature professors, this is our space, so to speak.

So I'll say that the question of what linguistic justice is, what are the natural languages of my students? You know which come from very particular backgrounds and spaces that aren't necessarily like, endorsed or recognized by the Academy. You know? How can I make space for them to speak naturally in that in the context of academia, to write in their in in the expression of their inherited ways of speaking.

You know, I talked about ways of knowing, but I also wanted to talk about ways of speaking, ways of writing, and how that hits a wall, especially when you are positioned as someone to teach academic writing. So I'm constantly thinking about that and I don't have like fast answers around that, but I certainly am interested in linguistic justice and on the other like side of this that same scale is the problem of linguistic violence.

Let's and I'm very aware of that, so I think I just wanted to mention that in in the context of when we navigate our role as academics. I think it's important that we understand that whole tension and and those the ways in which gatekeeping can play out in that regard. That's not to say that I don't want my students to graduate without being able to formulate an effective argument and have rhetorical finesse in varying dialects, but I think if they feel as if they can be themselves in their learning experiences, then these kinds of code meshing and code switching talents can be further developed.

I mean that that is a huge thing for our work, meaning the work of literacy, the work of language, the work of writing, you know what is our shared cultural history handed down to us in the form of literature. You know that's our zone, right? And if we're not thinking around linguistic justice and language and the history of linguistic violence and its relation to the Academy, I think we're not doing our work.

Yeah, and and opening up those conversations and then thinking about how we can teach in a way that addresses the needs of the public sphere and the local community. And also is mindful of that problematic history, that problematic legacy.

Chris:        So that leads into my next question of how students benefit from public scholarship. So are there things that we should keep in mind when we're trying to do this sort of work that will protect student interest or autonomy or agency? You've talked a lot about how this makes learning more meaningful and learning more honest and genuine—are the words I'm going to throw in—It unsettles the dynamic within the classroom of the authority, all resting in one person, and it makes the work done of the classroom a little bit more distributed and a little bit more meaningful. I'll go out and say that.

But I don't hear in this implicitly or or automatically student agency and student autonomy and I know that it's there, I'm wondering if you could help articulate it 'cause I like, what is it that we need to ensure that that's there, how's that?

Mia:        Yeah, no, it's such an important part of discussing, like the design of a kind of open scholarship model.

So what I'll say first simply, is this that there needs to be a certain amount of time set aside for them to reflect on the work they want to do, and that needs to be scaffolded, and they need to have a sense of trust in community, so in order to get there.

You can't insist upon trust, it has to emerge from the experience of being with the other students or being in the network or being in the community. It’s made in small moves. It's not something that is just enforced, uh, you know, like you can't insist upon it and you can't enforce it. Rather, you have to give people the space and the time, to build that naturally or intuitively.

So actually, storytelling is a large part of that. So in any kind of like momentary activity, it could be as something as simple as the early check in you know, how are you guys doing? How are you feeling?

If you change up those small activities to open up a sense of what's authentic within a person and have that sort of not be prescribed, but be something that's a kind of interesting invitation, magic happens because people start to say things. People listen, people realize the uniqueness of each individual and then slowly the trust is built.

Sort of like, if you put the tea bag in hot water in the beginning, it's just clear water you walk away 3 minutes later, there's this beautiful like hue of something. It takes a while for that to infuse and become potent and you know, tasteful.

And I think that trust is like that in any like embarking on any learning community and it's in the small moves you make pedagogically. But if you can establish that sense of trust, then from there you start to build spaces for them to pick up on on their own terms their shared purpose. They need to be able to talk amongst themselves. And identify goals that they want to pursue together.

You can't sort of say, well this would be good, but you guys go ahead and 15 minutes later we'll come out of the small group discussions and talk about what you said. That's too quick. It's a kind of process over time. So again, rather intentional design in all of this.

Chris:        It requires a little bit of hands off treatment and a lot of of trust and emergence.

Mia:        Exactly the those two words I think are really key that building at building structures in order for trust to grow and also I'll just add to that that it's very important to be mindful of equitable practices in the context of that, because not everyone comes with the same background with the same assumptions with the same privileges. It's a further like double down on the challenge, in a way, when thinking about building trust to make sure that those processes. Or those practices are equitable ones or mindful of differences that might not necessarily at first on face value, be remembered, et cetera so.

Chris:        Can you provide an example?

Mia:        Yeah, I was just thinking. That's the kind of thing that's complicated.

Chris:        Yeah, it sounds good, but…

Mia:        Yeah, I think it's like when it comes down to you know, If ones introducing themselves, you know what kinds of things some people are willing to bring forth right away and and maybe because they fit into certain more mainstream or authorized forms of identity in terms of the kind of ideological framework that comes from society, then they are forthcoming about who they are or what they you know I'm married or I I you know I have two children at home or whatever.

But then some people aren't yet ready to share those things because there might be risk involved or they might feel like there's risk involved in telling some of their own story and the kinds of things that have caused them some challenge in their lives. So how do you sort of create spaces where people can sort of bring forth what they want to bring forth and not feel like they're forced into anything.

We always have to remember, there are things in the room that might be easier for some people to share than other people to share, yeah?

Chris:        I do like the the idea of creating space where people are able to select what they choose to bring out in that space, yeah?

Mia:        Yes, exactly exactly.

Chris:        So why are you qualified to talk about public scholarship?

Mia:        I don't know is the answer.

Chris:        OK.

Mia:        The answer is just like I think we all are qualified on some level to talk about it. We are each a citizen of this world, of this nation, of this state, and as such, we should be able to engage with each other and imagine a better future, you know and do that work in a co-learning context, but to produce certain meaningful knowledge that addresses those issues, you know.

We are all part of something broader, called society, but sometimes we never really feel that much 'cause we don't feel much empowerment within that context, so we often like design our lives around our individual desires and our individual will.

But we don't see the ways in which we're connected, and the ways in which our lives might be meaningful in connection with others and civic imagination starts with the sense of that connection, that we are part of a civic fabric, in which we hope that together all of us will realize better lives and a better experience in society in the broader sense of society moving through society.

But that idea of imagining beyond what we can apprehend in the literal world we reside in is a very powerful paradigm for doing public scholarship.

Mia:        It’s not my PhD, it's not the you know teaching role I have at Kean or whatever it may be that that endorses my ability to do this as much as the inherent positionality as a citizen, I think that that makes me feel a calling towards this and a belief and to hope in democratic processes, you know.

And there we go. Hope in the democratic process sounds like a great idea to leave you with.

You've been hearing Teacher of the Ear, a production of Hybrid Pedagogy.

Just because the show is over doesn't mean the conversation ends. Everyone who contributed to this episode is accessible through Twitter, and so is the show itself. Along those lines, @TeacherOfTheEar and @chris_friend would like to thank @MiaZamoraPhD for chatting with me on today's show. Our theme music is by Blue Dot Sessions. This show is hosted on, and you can subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. The full catalogue of episodes, including show notes and complete transcripts, lives at That’s

So that’s it for this episode  of Teacher of the Ear. I’m your host and producer, Chris Friend, from Kean University in Union, NJ, on land taken from the Lenni-Lenape in the late 18th century. here in the 21st century, the land felt the season’s first dusting of snow a couple days ago. It didn’t stay long, but it hinted at what’s to come. In the meantime, let’s all keep our ears open for more ways to empower educators and champion student agency.

Thanks for listening!