Knowledge, Power & the Ethics of Engaged Scholarship

Knowledge, Power & the Ethics of Engaged Scholarship

Photo of speakers from the webinar

From left: Jennifer Suchland, Namiko Kunimoto, Kimberly Springer, Lyn Tjon Soei Len and Jessica Tjiu

In January, the Department of Women's, Gender, and Sexuality Studies and the Center for Ethnic Studies hosted a webinar roundtable featuring interdisciplinary perspectives and firsthand accounts about the ethics of engagement and the politics of knowledge production. As universities are foregrounding and supporting engaged scholarship more than ever, it is crucial to take-up urgent questions about how to ethically go about such endeavors and related questions about knowledge production and its dissemination. Ethical engagements include practices that are multidirectional, going beyond simply extending the university into communities, or extractive models of outreach, engagement, and collaboration. Scholar-activists in fields such as Feminist Studies, Ethnic Studies, African and African American Studies, and Native and Indigenous Studies have long wrestled with the politics of knowledge production, asymmetrical power relations, and the ethics of engaged scholarship.

By Jennifer Suchland
Associate Professor
Department of Women's, Gender and Sexuality Studies
College of Arts and Sciences

The webinar idea grew out of my experience as an ACLS/Mellon Scholars & Society fellow. As a fellow, I was in residency at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center and have ongoing collaborations with them as well as with the Ohio Justice and Policy Center. In addition, the fellowship encourages us to contribute to campus conversations about socially engaged scholarship and the relevance of graduate education outside the academy. These are ongoing conversations within the Arts & Humanities, especially in interdisciplinary fields such as WGSS and Ethnic Studies, among others.

The webinar specifically reflects collaborations and conversations within the WGSS department and the Center for Ethnic Studies - programs that have long wrestled with the ethics of knowledge production and the possibilities as well as the pitfalls of "community engagement." Along with my colleagues in WGSS, Dr. Namiko Kunimoto, associate professor of History of Art and director of the Center for Ethnic Studies, joined the dialogue. We invited Dr. Kimberly Springer, curator for the Oral History Archives at Columbia University as well. Dr. Springer's scholarly and creative works exemplify collaborative knowledge production, community accountability, and ethical praxis.

The dilemma of what accountability means and how it is practiced was a major theme discussed. Speakers drew from their own experiences, which ranged from local projects in Ohio, international collaborations in the Netherlands and UK, and work that exists digitally. Dr. Springer raised questions about to whom or what are scholars accountable, and Dr. Lyn Tjon Soei Len, assistant professor in WGSS, asked about who gains and who pays in community engaged work. Jessica Tjiu, a WGSS PhD student, shared insights about the different kinds of issues that one's positionality raises depending on the collaborators. The panelists agreed that accountability is an ongoing iterative and relational process, rather than transactional and final.

We also discussed the fact that social engagement is not something that needs to be manufactured - the community is already in the university and the university is already in the community. Our classrooms are alive with "the community" and we should not underestimate the power and responsibility of our jobs as educators. What does it mean to be accountable to our students? At the same time, the university is embedded in the dispossession of Indigenous peoples and continues to profit from the ancestral lands and contemporary territory of the Shawnee, Potawatomi, Delaware, Miami, Peoria, Seneca, Wyandotte, Ojibwe, and Cherokee peoples. University members and the institution of the university must strive toward greater accountability to the accruing debts of colonialism and its impact on Indigenous lives and Native sovereignty. One place to start is to follow Indigenous-led programs and mobilizations to understand what the current struggles are and how to support those efforts, as one form of accountability. In this regard, anyone benefiting from The Ohio State University faces the question of accountability (albeit in different ways, depending on your positionality).

Later this Spring, we will hold a workshop and small grants program geared toward graduate students. Details will be available in late February.

Link to webinar recording:

Resources from Webinar: