November 11, 2021
by Dean Franco
The seminar met on November 10th to discuss the prior meeting at Happy Hill, to respond to the previous reading on civil rights unionism, and to plan for subsequent meetings. One commonly shared view that emerged is that it was important for this seminar to engage with actual community members as part of its investigation of universities’ relationship to neighborhoods. I immediately pause to note that almost all of us have already participated in activist projects or community engagement projects, so I don’t mean to suggest that this sort of encounter was a first for us. Far from it. Rather, we found it important to note the tremendous asymmetry that pertains to different kinds of working groups, parsed out along that otherwise too-easy dualism, “university/neighborhood.” The sort of nuance with which faculty sort through teaching, research, and service; the disciplinary boundaries of our work; and the limiting temporality of our semester schedule—which emphasizes batch-work and final projects—has little in common with the sociality, temporality, and politics of community self-organization. Yes, the meeting therefore, was full of the friction of these two sets of expectations rubbing up against each other (plus the friction of not expecting to have such a meeting in the first place). And, yes, it should cause us to reflect on all of our key-terms going forward, including “university,” “neighborhood,” and even the article, “the.”
One emergent discussion point is that engaged research and teaching cannot yield quick results, certainly not along the semester timeline. Indeed, Denise observed that a major humanitarian project that she led as faculty at WSSU took six years to yield its sought-for result. Still, Denise and her colleagues at WSSU have determined that a cross-disciplinary, multi-semester engagement with the Happy Hill community is worthwhile and should be endeavored, fully aware that it will take time to develop, and that the anticipated results are as yet not entirely clear. This will require a lot of meeting, listening, and developing a basis of mutual understanding. Community members need to understand what it is university faculty members and students can do—what unique assets they bring to the work at hand—while the university community must come to learn what work needs to be done. At the same time, we all agree that university faculty have political leverage in this town, precisely because this town operates on legacies of prestige. At community forums, city council meetings, and even in meetings among our own university administration, our voices matter.
One key question remains for me. We all, more or less, subscribe to the institutionally endorsed proclamation that our academic work is somehow for the common or public good. Whose commonality, which public, and what good? We do our work and hope it counts, but it seems imperative that we also attend to these broad questions about who is and isn’t served by universities in the world out there, who is and isn’t constituted under the banner of “the common good,” especially when the grammar of a university’s value is increasingly resonant with the rhetoric of the city’s business growth and real estate development.
During our meeting, we spoke about the role of the scholar-activist, which I hope we can continue to discuss. I’d also like us to revisit the construct of “the neighbor,” which was the topic of the two prior years of seminar meetings. Whatever work we do, and whatever university we serve, we are also residents and neighbors, with both a political and an ethical stake in the well-being of others around us. Material proximity, human recognition, and a desire for others to be secure and well in the way we desire security and wellness for our families and ourselves—these are the conditions which constitute the ethical imperatives of the neighbor. I hope we can re-circulate a discussion of the ethics of the neighbor in future discussions of the university and the neighborhood.