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The Point: Welcome to the Thunderdome!

9/21/2020

On this holiday, AFR Submission Day, we invite the membership to think about what it really means to evaluate the work we do, especially with respect to our public-facing contributions.

Greetings Colleagues!

Did you get your AFR submitted? Or did you block out 4-5 p.m. today to get it done?  (Surely it is not only our students who push right up against due dates, right? How many of us put strict deadlines with points deducted for lateness on our syllabi in the same week that we begged some editor for just a few more days to get our work submitted?)  In any event, the AFR, this performative ceremony of self-assessment, strikes me as a particularly bizarre activity to be engaged in this moment of dual pandemics: having to do AFRs in 2020 seems almost punitive given that everyone at UMB, at least everyone I know personally, is already worn down to a nub, and the semester has just begun.

Faculty burnout is real, existing workplace inequities are being deepened, and the additional resources needed to support our most vulnerable colleagues are just a glimmer in the zeitgeist’s eye. Just when we should be revaluating the entrenched but unexamined rituals of evaluation per se (and this goes for course evaluations and departmental AQUADs as well as individual personnel matters) we seem to be acting as if business is as usual. Perhaps we could have shifted from AFRs to straightforward pandemic impact statements?

While the self-assessment ritual seems misbegotten, I do want to call attention to the fact that this year for the first time some space has been created on the AFR form for us to think about our public-facing work.  Of course it is a sort of giving-with-one-hand-taking-away-with-the-other kind of situation: “You may also optionally choose to flag your participation in any community-engaged activities (defined in the broadest of terms).” OK, that’s good so far, right? (Aside from the awkward phrasing of “optionally choose”!) But then: “These fields are…optional and will not appear on your official AFR.”

Maybe it is time for our work in the public sphere to be legitimized.  In fact, it might be a good time for lots of us to think about how to organize our work around what medical researchers describe as the path from bench to bedside--these times demand it.  This came manifestly clear to me last week when the President of the United States launched a broadside attack on a few generations of the most important work in my field, with his call to establish a commission for the teaching of patriotic history. More than 20 years ago, the President of my professional association, Professor Mary Helen Washington, asked in the title of her inaugural address “What Happens to American Studies If You Put African American Studies at the Center?” The kind of work Professor Washington urged is at the center of a scholarly and public discourse that hit a culminating point last year with the publication of the 1619 Project in the New York Times.  Scholarship in African American Studies, American history, critical race theory and related fields is literally shaping the national political conversation and American historians are rushing into the breach to do what we can to push back against the incipient fascism baked into “patriotic” education.

Now we cannot all make it to the pages of the New York Times—or the Rhode Island State Senate—as FSU Executive Committee member Professor Meghan Kallman has just done!  But it does seem like a good time to think about how to take our teaching and research work out into the public arena.  Two other members of the Executive Committee, Professors Linda Liu and Joseph Ramsey, have been doing this as part of a collective producing an amazing video series, Shelter and Solidarity.  From Africana Studies to nursing to environmental science to education colleagues are taking on the burden of “translational research”—moving our scholarly and creative work into the public sphere to help advance the most pressing political, economic, and social conversations of our time:  Professor Lillian Yvonne-Bertram's nomination for a National Book Award this past week for the poetry collection Travesty Generator—a work widely hailed for its meditations on the intersection of computer code and race—offers just one thrilling example of UMB faculty members shaping the broader discourse.  And our Centers and Institutes—I’m thinking particularly of the four dedicated to major communities of color—have been doing this for years and are currently under siege.

Sometimes all it takes to enter the public conversation is to lend your name—your prestige as a university professor or librarian—to causes you care about: in the past few weeks graduate students at University of Michigan have striven mightily to convince faculty members on their campus and around the country to act in solidarity with their very basic demands vis-à-vis health and safety.  The more we, as union members, join such organizing efforts around the country, the better.

This will be coming home to us soon enough. Later today you will get an email from FSU President, Professor Steve Striffler urging you to contact the Board of Trustees to argue against unnecessary austerity budget cuts: our sibling campuses are already suffering from the Board of Trustees’ slash-and-burn approach. Please consider taking a minute to write the BoT.

This is your union: please tell us at fsu@umb.edu how you are finding ways to engage with the public as part of your “research, creative, or professional activity.” However you define that!

Sincerely,

Jeffrey Melnick

Graduate Program Director, American Studies Department

Communications Director, Faculty Staff Union Executive Committee

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