Profile of a Public Scholar: Anoop Mirpuri

The first in a series of public scholar alumni profiles.

Currently Assistant Professor of English at Portland State University, Anoop Mirpuri received his PhD in English from the University of Washington in 2010. Prior to joining the faculty at Portland State, he was Assistant Professor of English at Drew University and a research fellow at the Carter G. Woodson Institute for African-American and African Studies at University of Virginia. His current research explores the relationship between the history of U.S. racial capitalism, the formation of the radical prison movement in postwar America, and recent debates over the contemporary crisis of mass-incarceration. He is working on a book manuscript, tentatively titled “Articulations of Violence: Race, Punishment, Modernity, and Posthumanism.”

While at the UW, Mirpuri co-organized, with Keith Feldman and Georgia Roberts, “Public Rhetorics and Permanent War” (2005-2007), a graduate student cohort invested in producing intellectual work that engaged pressing political questions. “Public Rhetorics and Permanent War” hosted lectures and discussions with scholar-activists that included Angela Davis, Derek Gregory, and Van Jones among others. Interviews with the Gregory and Jones were published in Theory & Event 12.3 (2009) and Antipode 41.3 (2009).

The Simpson Center recently had the opportunity to talk with Mirpuri about how he has continued to practice public scholarship since receiving his degree.

SC: How did you become interested in public scholarship?

AM: Because I do work on questions of race, class, gender, and sexuality, and because I study the ways that contemporary neoliberal political and economic policies refigure state power, I’ve always seen my research and teaching as having a “public” component, meaning that the stakes of the scholarship and knowledge it represented are political, and have implications for how we live. In this sense, it would be difficult to not recognize that such scholarship has the potential to be—and perhaps already is—in sense, “public.”

How do you define or understand the term “public scholarship”?

For me, public scholarship has value only insofar as it recognizes that all scholarship has a “politics” to it, whether it gets identified as “public” or not. I tend to be critical of the term when its usage implies that there is actually a kind of scholarship that is either “non-public” or “private.” At the same time, I realize the distinction is useful for thinking about different kinds of research and education methodologies as well as for strategizing about obtaining and allocating institutional resources. I think one of the most important things that public scholarship can do is to broaden the recognition among researchers across the disciplines that there is always a wider context for our work and that it would do us all well to recognize it.

I think being attentive to the politics informing ones research and teaching is particularly important for understanding what you are doing as a scholar, what impact your work might have, and what are the stakes involved. I recognize this goes against the grain of the traditional model of the objective and unbiased observer/researcher whose perspective does not affect the results of an experiment, and who does not subsequently control the potential outcomes of her or his research. But much damage has been done—in terms of entrenching extant social and economic inequalities—by research in the social sciences, natural sciences, and the humanities when scholars fail to recognize that their own particular perspective, as well as powerful and competing interests that they may be unaware of, shape their research in important ways. 

One can argue that the academy only comes to recognize something called “public scholarship” in response to the critiques of “objectivity” made by the minoritized communities long objectified by such academic knowledge practices.  From this perspective, public scholarship represents an important victory for those who have been struggling against the exclusionary tendencies in university research and education. At the same time, it’s important to recognize that the institutionalization of “public scholarship” might also represent a defensive reaction by the university that serves to marginalize more situated, critical, and politicized modes of knowledge production. If this is true, we would want to be cognizant of those efforts to redraw the lines between “public” and “non-public”—ie, merely professional—scholarship. After all, these are the very lines that public scholarship aims to undo.

How has public scholarship shaped what you are doing professionally since receiving your degree from UW? 

It’s certainly shaped the various projects that I decide to take on, but more importantly, it’s shaped the way I position myself as a writer and educator: I see a larger role for the work I do that moves beyond the confines of the university, be that through my own public scholarly practices or through the actions and decisions of my students.

What kinds of public scholarship projects are you currently working on?

When I was faculty at Drew University, I was involved in the College Bound Consortium, a degree program that Drew and a number of other colleges and universities in New Jersey were running at a state prison for women. I just started at Portland State this academic year, so I am acclimating to a new institutional environment. At some point I will likely run some courses inside correctional facilities in Oregon.

I’m currently involved in organizing the Critical Prison Studies Caucus of the American Studies Association, which is a group of educators and activists that do various kinds scholarly and educational of work against the prison industrial complex. And since I’ve been in Portland, I’ve been involved in some of the public conversations around race, policing, gun violence, and social justice that are taking place amongst the wider Portland community—mostly by giving talks around town on these issues, which has given me the opportunity to translate some of my own research and analytic approaches regarding race and racism for non-academic audiences.

Interested in knowing more? Contact Anoop at amirpuri@pdx.edu.

Learn more about the public scholarship activities at the Simpson Center, such as the graduate Certificate in Public Scholarship and Transformative Education Behind Bars, a project through which UW faculty and graduate students collaborate with educators at community colleges, nonprofit organizations, other university programs, and correctional facilities to expand educational access and justice for incarcerated students.