PAGE Fellows Discuss the “Copernican Moment” in Higher Education and Civic Engagement

By Imagining America | March 27, 2012

By the 2011-2012 Imagining America PAGE Fellows

This edited conversation among members of Imagining America’s 2011-2012 Publicly Engaged Graduate Education (PAGE) cohort is our attempt to both critique and enact the shift David Scobey anticipates in his talk, “Civic Engagement and the Copernican Moment” (which has been published as IA’s 11th Foreseeable Future, available for download here). We have used various media to create this response collaboratively: Mozilla’s open source Etherpad platform, email exchanges, and transcribed conference calls.

Professor Scobey reflects back on the development of Imagining America (IA) to examine the contemporary moment in the academy and its future, but what can PAGE’s development in this context say about “change, crisis, and innovation in higher education”? Since 2003, PAGE, first under the direction of Sylvia Gale and then Kevin Bott, has helped IA consider the full career arc of the publically engaged scholar (1) and contribute to trans-disciplinary professionalization and mentorship for graduate students. PAGE shares Scobey’s interest in what it might mean if the institution were not the center of our reality in higher education. We come together from various disciplines and campuses across the country for mutual support, reciprocity, camaraderie, and collaborative scholarship. While Scobey calls for a re-envisioning of place and pedagogy for undergraduates, new scholarship and artistry like Nick Sousanis’s, featured on this cover, also calls out for a re-envisioning of dissertations, doctoral programs, partnerships, and scholarly artifacts.

We invite your responses in the comments!

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Adam Bush: Scobey’s talk at Imagining America’s national conference on September 22 took place five days after the first 1,000 people gathered in Zuccotti Park to ignite the “Occupy Wall Street” movement. The movement emerged out of a long history of protest, civil disobedience, and anger with the status quo to organize around financial inequality, educational access, and citizenship. While Scobey doesn’t address “Occupy” in his talk, the paradigm shift he calls for in higher education materializes out of calls for action, access (2), equity, and citizenship similar to those that have long been happening on university campuses, which is why his invocation of Copernicus is so interesting. Copernicus introduced a heliocentric solar system, but the implications and details of that have changed dramatically, again and again, since the 16th century. So, following the Copernican metaphor, is this paradigm shift a stepping-stone to something else we can theorize about together?

Alex Olson: The Copernican metaphor is indeed provocative, but I am troubled by the way it positions something that is legitimately contested—the organization and practice of higher education—as a matter of fact and science, casting defenders of the status quo as equivalent to Ptolemaists who thought the sun revolves around the Earth. The metaphor closes conversation—why, after all, should we take people who espouse the geocentric model seriously? I think there is more to our colleagues who advocate for disciplines, tenure, majors, etc., than simply clinging to an outmoded paradigm.

Nick Sousanis: I found the Copernican analogy fitting and quite specifically chosen (as opposed to other major paradigm shifts—i.e., special relativity). Copernicus’s removal of the earth from the center of the universe is analogous to the idea that the Academy is no longer the center that learning orbits around, but rather one element in an inter-connected community/universe. That understanding of no longer being THE center is no small thing, a shattering of a world/universe view that would fuel further scientific and cultural revolutions. Similarly, Scobey posits that this is the sort of change the modern university (which comes into being around the time Copernicus’s theory is published) needs, but it is perhaps as unimaginable to us now as those living in the time before Copernicus.

Alex, I totally agree—there is more to our disciplinary colleagues than geocentric delusions. But I don’t see Scobey using Copernicus to close the conversation and throw out all that’s come before. Rather, I saw him pushing the idea that we need a radically new perspective on things as they are, something the Copernican model made possible. To Adam’s point, it’s not that Copernicus was right, it’s that “this is the best theory available” until we discover a better one. Tangentially, that often seems to be the problem: instead of seeing the models we come up with as tools to aid in our understanding, we seem to mistake them for the thing in itself.

Alex O: I wholly agree that there is much to be said for the Copernican metaphor as it relates to de-centering knowledge production and power relationships. It is a main strand running through much of our work and that of others in IA. At the same time, I think we can make the point in a non-reductive way that acknowledges the complexities of the current academic landscape. Tenure, for example, has historically worked to protect an important space of critique in American life. The notion that the whole system was predicated on being “the center of the universe” flattens these complexities to provide us with an easier-than-necessary foil. I would ask instead, how can we utilize the existing strengths of higher education, including vibrant strands of thought being generated in and around the disciplines, to help make the transition from generation to generation, paradigm to paradigm?

Adele Holoch: Let’s expand upon Scobey’s question, “what might that future look like?” with more concrete thoughts and examples drawing on our own work as scholars, educators, and community activists. What are some specific contributions we can make toward enacting the kinds of change he talks about? What can our experiences tell us, and others, about why and how change might be challenging?

Alex Agloro: This moment is a social phenomenon, too. So much of the really important learning that we do takes place in social situations, particularly with those who equip us to cross boundaries, feel differences, and manage interactions with people who do not come from the same backgrounds as our own.

Cecilia Orphan: The discussion about community is challenging as well. Alex A., you have talked about how in higher education we’re so obsessed with being global and yet there are communities surrounding our institutions that are totally falling apart. Students are developing more awareness of what’s going on abroad than in their own neighborhoods. I’m not saying you shouldn’t create global learners, but I think the communities surrounding universities are equally important local contexts for learning and exchange. We need to dispel this notion that the university is an island unto itself and the community just exists around it and when we want we can go out and engage it.

Kinh T. Vu: Around the time that Copernicus was circulating his heliocentric theory (1514), the church was also facing confrontation from one of its own, Martin Luther, who posted his 95 Theses on the Wittenberg church door (1517). Not long after, in 1545, the Catholic Church rebutted with its own reforms during the Council of Trent. How do graduate students, like today’s Imagining America fellows and other allies, advocate for revolutionary change in local, national, and global ways that prompt institutions to examine their own academic and socio-political priorities on campus and off?

Nick: I like this shift to education and revolutions—the heart of Scobey’s talk. But as a metaphor for the unsettling of a changing landscape, we should note that lacking a physical demonstration, Copernicus’s hypothesis didn’t present a real challenge to the church. Only later, with the aid of the telescope, can Galileo present a basic theory of relativity. And it’s then that the church turns against him, forcing Galileo to recant his views and putting him under house arrest.

To bring the analogy back to higher education, the environment that IA is wading into and Scobey is speaking of is hostile (3). Institutions don’t want to hear that their view of the cosmos is off. They have a lot invested in maintaining the status quo. Nearly a hundred years passed between Copernicus and Galileo, and then hundreds more before the church’s apology to Galileo. So the actual Copernican Moment is only a moment in hindsight; the actual revolution took a long time. Such, it seems, is the moment we are in today—it will be a long haul. I think Scobey’s talk affirmed IA’s work and challenges us to seize this moment and push on towards revolutionary educational shifts.

Kristin Buchner: I find the larger story of Copernicus/Kepler/Galileo interesting—Galileo was condemned as a heretic for expanding on Copernicus’s models, while years later Kepler was praised as a scholar. We can liken this progression of astronomers to that of community-engaged scholars—from early pioneers to us as PAGE fellows, representing the next generation of this work. What is our responsibility to the engagement field in terms of continuing to reinvent higher education? Scobey spoke directly to me when he said, “early scholars have struggled for the sake of this work, and have paved the way for a stronger future.” While this work is far from complete, the Copernican leaders have set the stage for the next generation of Keplerian scholars to thrive.

LaTanya Autry: I focused my attention on Scobey’s points about changes in engagement and education. Overall, I liked his statements about empowering students and being more aware of students’ identities, lifestyles, and goals. In light of the recent Occupy movement, these issues, which I haven’t heard much about on my campus, are paramount. It’s very exciting to consider this challenging time as an opportunity for profound positive changes in our educational system. With so many attacks on public funding for education and increasing costs, the current situation often seems disheartening. However, public scholars can be instrumental in publicly expressing the relevance of education and fostering necessary community networks. Scobey’s mention of how we need to think locally, translocally, globally, and digitally gets at this idea.

Elena Gonzales: LaTanya importantly addresses the root of much of the trouble with higher education today. High costs and untenably tremendous student debt limit students’ access. The Occupy movement—an actual response to the comprehensiveness with which our society has come to privilege the 1 percent—inspires me. I haven’t been living in a tent in Chicago, but I have been asking myself where my work can amplify and bolster that of the Occupiers. My dissertation addresses museums’ use of their exhibitions for social justice, and one of my case studies is the Jane Addams Hull-House Museum. Several weeks ago, JAHHM hosted Occupy Hull-House, a daylong symposium that involved academic speakers, Occupiers from Chicago and New York, and many others from inside and outside the academy. Vijay Prashad and Nathan Brown, both speakers at the symposium, argued that the movement must transform from a tactic into a strategy that should include the fight against ballooning student debt. To me, this is where Scobey’s talk has gone since last September. That’s not to deny universities’ deep financial difficulties. Rather, as we discussed as a group, the crisis in funding throughout higher education must be used and not wasted: it can’t be misdirected at professors and administrators. It has to reach policymakers.

Adam: I think you’re right, Elena. This cuts deeply into the need for policy changes. Scobey’s talk reminded me of one Catherine Cole gave at UCSB earlier this year, looking to Clark Kerr’s Master Plan for assistance in navigating the UC’s present conditions (4). While Kerr was the architect of the past 50 years of California’s public higher education system (5), he also, through his work with the Carnegie Commission on Higher Education, was instrumental in policy changes on the federal level and the formation of FIPSE—the Department of Education’s Fund for the Improvement of Post-Secondary Education. Many of the innovations Scobey invokes as part of the paradigm shift—distance learning, adult education support, and credit documentation—emerged as new structures in higher education through FIPSE support. This year, the White House Office of Public Engagement, the Center for Democracy and Citizenship, and the Department of Education are inaugurating the American Commonwealth Partnership on the 150th anniversary year of the Morrill Act, which created land grant institutions to examine, create, and support new models for democracy colleges (6). I’m truly excited for what this moment can create for publicly engaged graduate students, like PAGE, and all those invested in democratic engagement practices through higher education.

Professor Scobey notes at the close of his talk that “someone’s new paradigm” will surely take hold in the coming years. He then asks: “Will we have created a ‘Copernican Revolution’ worthy of the name? And will we … have created new visions and practices of democratic education adequate to the promises and disruptions of that revolution?” It is with that closing thought in mind that we invite you to join in on this conversation.

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End Notes:

  1. Please see the Imagining America web site to download our Tenure Team Initiative, new data from our Publicly Engaged Scholar Research Project, and 2011’s Catalyst Paper for Full Participation.
  2. I think of PAGE Fellow Blair Smith and CNY PAGE director A. Wendy Nastasi who co-authored “Syracuse’s Rise” in response to an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, writing, “We embrace engaged scholarship, the building of knowledge that is inseparable from practice. The inclusion of historically underrepresented students does not detract from our ability to recruit or to remain competitive. It contributes to a robust and dynamic learning environment where multiple perspectives and voices expand our notions of what is knowable. Public scholarship is important to us because it mobilizes community and campus resources, brilliance, and creativity.”
  3. As evidenced by last fall’s Chronicle of Higher Education article, which prompted our colleagues to respond with “Syracuse’s Rise.”
  4. Catherine M. Cole, “Trading Futures: Prospects for California’s University.” Thanks to Kim Yasuda for alerting me to the talk. Within the talk Cole posts a link to Clark Kerr’s 1963 Godkin Lecture at Harvard: /.
  5. A Master Plan, Cole points out, that was only written with the next 15 years in mind.
  6. The ACP is spearheaded by former IA board member Harry Boyte with a steering committee including 2011-2012 PAGE Fellow Cecilia Orphan, IA founding director Julie Ellison, board member John Saltmarsh, director of research Tim Eatman, and former board chair David Scobey.