Engaged Scholarship and the “Organic Intellectual”

As a concentrator in Archaeology here at Brown, I am also a member of the Engaged Scholars Program. I’ve recently been thinking a lot about the nature of engaged scholarship and my relationship with it. I wanted to summarize and comment on three seemingly disparate strands of engaged scholarship that I’ve recently come across: the more traditional idea of service learning; Antonio Gramsci’s concept of the “organic intellectual”; and Cornel West’s more recent evolution of this idea, as demonstrated through an essay on Martin Luther King, Jr. I end by drawing together these three thinkers and articulating a critique of dominant understandings of engaged scholarship.

Tania Mitchell

This semester,  I am in SOC 0310: Theory and Practice of Engaged Scholarship (with Allen Hance and Lynsey Ford). We’ve been talking a lot about what engaged scholarship means for the program, particularly as an evolution of “service learning.” The traditional idea was that students gain valuable skills and experiences through direct service. More recently, Tania Mitchell has encapsulated a trend away from this idea towards a kind of “critical service-learning,” which emphasizes the importance of critical reflection as a way of addressing structural and systemic issues that underlie the most apparent problems. Brown offers a number of courses that fit within this philosophy, and has recently approved the introduction of a course designation in Community-Based Learning and Research (CBLR). Indeed, I would argue that the idea of service learning (mostly in its critical form) is at the heart of engaged scholarship as the Swearer Center currently understands it. Other definitions abound. For example, as used by New England Resource Center for Higher Education, engaged scholarship focuses on the role of faculty “in a reciprocal partnership with the community, is interdisciplinary, and integrates faculty roles of teaching, research, and service.” This definition (focused on faculty) has greater ambit than the idea of service learning, which is focused on student experience. I feel that this difference points at the crux of the issue with engaged scholarship as it is currently understood — more on this later. Continue reading Engaged Scholarship and the “Organic Intellectual”

Western writing and the Church of the East in China

I wanted to write about a fascinating object called the Nestorian Stele, a block of stone inscribed with Chinese and Syriac in 781 CE. The stele is entitled Memorial of the Propagation in China of the Luminous Religion from Daqin (大秦景教流行中國碑; pinyin: Dàqín Jǐngjiào liúxíng Zhōngguó bēi; the stele is commonly known simply as jingjiaobei). It describes the establishment of a Nestorian Christian church in China in the late antiquity, known as Beth Sinaye in Syriac and jingjiao in Chinese. The monument was erected in 781 by the Tang Dynasty Emperor Taizong to commemorate 150 years of Christianity in China, which had arrived with Syriac missionaries in 635 (for a concise yet thorough description see Lawton 2008). In 845 CE, the monument was buried during a period of religious suppression and was only rediscovered in 1625. From then on, there has been a steady but small stream of Western interest in the object; in 2008, a book by Michael Keevak was published entitled The Story of a Stele: China’s Nestorian Monument and its Reception in the West, 1625–1916. Continue reading Western writing and the Church of the East in China

Reading Spivak with Said

I wanted to jot down some initial thoughts about Spivak’s famous piece “Can the Subaltern Speak?” Despite the obscurantism and the great attention required to really parse Spivak’s text, reading it is ultimately a deeply satisfying and rewarding experience. The question that pervades the essay is essentially identical to that posed by Edward Said in “Always on Top” (published in the London Review of Books): “What does one do about the representation of undocumented experiences — of slaves, servants, insurgents (such as those at Morant Bay) — for which we have to depend on socially elevated, literate witnesses who have access to official records?” Said’s answer to his own question can be gleaned from his article in Critical Inquiry entitled “Representing the Colonized: Anthropology’s Interlocutors”, and more indirectly through Orientalism. Like Foucault, Said is invested in rigorous empirical work that informs, interrogates, and integrates critical theory; hence why Said responds to the criticism that his “work is only negative polemic which does not advance a new epistemological approach or method” (210). Said concludes by advocating the work of “engaged historians” whose “instigatory force … is of startling relevance to all the humanities and social sciences as they continue to struggle with the formidable difficulties of empire” (225). Continue reading Reading Spivak with Said

Working with Women’s Refugee Care

In Fall 2017, I was fortunate enough to take an engaged course in the French department called L’expérience des réfugiés et immigrés (The Experience of Refugees and Immigrants). This course was developed last summer and offered for the first time this year (see article for more). It combined a survey of Francophone texts by and about migration with an engaged component: working with Women’s Refugee Care (WRC). My French improved because I got the chance to use it in a setting with no safety net: in the community engagement portion of the course, French really was the best means of communication. More importantly, this course was a great opportunity to get involved with a local nonprofit and explore the idea of engaged scholarship (which I’m continuing to do through the Engaged Scholars Program in Archaeology).

My work with Women’s Refugee Care centered on three interviews I did with members of the Congolese refugee community here in Providence. Along with Jeanelle Wheeler, my wonderful colleague, we got to know the community, attending a few gatherings and meeting lots of interesting people. We then arranged interviews with a few of those we met at their homes. After recording the interviews, we translated them into English and then posted them on the WRC blog.

I’m particularly happy with the final result: interviews with Katerina, Aline, and Sylvie. I encourage you to read what they have to say — not just to admire their successes and appreciate the challenges they faced, but to acknowledge them as multifaceted human beings. I also wrote an introduction to the interviews (in French), where I reflect on the entire experience, including obstacles, challenges, and the path we took in presenting them as we did. If you find this interesting or stimulating, I would love to know — just add a comment here or send me an email.1

John Wesley Gilbert: some clarifications

John Wesley Gilbert at an unknown date. Photo credit: Michigan State University.

Update: I gave the presentation I mentioned below in March 2018; the paper I delivered is available here.

I am currently preparing a presentation on John Wesley Gilbert, based off of a paper I wrote for a class in Fall 2017. Gilbert is not very well-known, so here’s some brief notes about him by John W. I. Lee, who wrote a piece on Gilbert’s work with the American School of Classical Studies at Athens:

Gilbert graduated from Paine College in Augusta, Georgia, then received his BA from Brown University in 1888. As a Brown MA student in 1890–1891 he became the first African American to study in Greece at the American School of Classical Studies at Athens (ASCSA). During his year in Greece, Gilbert participated in the American School’s excavations at the ancient site of Eretria on the island of Euboea.



Here, I would like to clarify the chronology of a few events in Gilbert’s life, specifically relating to his education and relationship with Paine College. Continue reading John Wesley Gilbert: some clarifications

The “Temple of Aphrodite”

My mother was born and raised in Limassol (Lemesos), a city on the southern coast of Cyprus which I also lived in for five years. The city proper is not ancient; the oldest building is the medieval castle. Yet the Limassol metropolitan area is anchored at its western and eastern ends by the ancient cities of Kourion (Curium) and Amathus, respectively. Going to the beach, to a restaurant, or visiting friends often involves passing by these very tangible reminders of classical antiquity. Examples of neoclassicism also abound, though they often take surprising forms. Cypriot buildings that draw on classical elements are mostly unlike the civic architecture of, for example, Washington, DC; to put it uncharitably, Cypriot neoclassicism is generally “touristy” and “kitsch.” One characteristic example comes to mind: a structure called Aphrodite’s Temple that was built just a few hundred meters from my school in Palodia, around ten kilometers from Limassol. A few months after Aphrodite’s Temple opened, police raided the building and arrested the operators on charges of sexual exploitation. The owner’s lawyer threatened to reveal the names of prominent government officials who patronized the brothel if the prosecution continued. The intermingling of classical antiquity and powerful interests – including the archbishop of Cyprus, according to one source – demonstrates how the material legacy of classical antiquity continues to be meaningful in Cyprus.

ΟΕΔΒ and Classical antiquity

When I attended Cypriot public school, I remember glancing at the back cover of many textbooks in moments of boredom. Staring back at me from some corner of the textbook’s cover was almost always an owl standing on a pile of books. Many years later, I visited the RISD museum and stopped in front of their display of ancient Greek coins. There again was that same owl, staring at me with its bulging eyes. As it turns out, at the time I was in primary school many Cypriot textbooks were published by the Οργανισμός Εκδόσεως Διδακτικών Βιβλίων (Organismos Ekdoseos Didaktikon Vivlion, State Organisation for the Publication of School Textbooks), or ΟΕΔΒ for short. This organization was founded by the Metaxas dictatorship in 1937, which had close ties with Greek nationalism.1 ΟΕΔΒ has long played a crucial role in the propagation of state ideology, as might be expected from a state-sanctioned publisher. For example, ΟΕΔΒ is tasked with producing history textbooks by the Ministry of Education. The aims provided by the ministry include “developing an ‘awareness of Hellenic continuity’” and “cultivating genuine national pride.”2 The role of ΟΕΔΒ in the construction of Hellenism intertwines state authority and the legacy of classical antiquity. Nowhere is this better symbolized than in ΟΕΔΒ’s logo, which is little more than a stylized version of the Athenian owl (see above). The owl was a symbol of Athena and of wisdom. In this role, the owl was famously used as the reverse of the tetradrachm – a type of silver coin – minted in Athens from at least 500 BCE.3 ΟΕΔΒ clearly paid homage to this coin in its choice of logo, thus also identifying classical Athens as the root of education in the modern Greek state.