Profile of a Public Scholar: Georgia M. Roberts

The third in a series of public scholar alumni profiles.

Currently a lecturer in Interdisciplinary Arts & Sciences at the University of Washington, Bothell, Georgia M. Roberts is completing her PhD in English from the University of Washington. Her research interests are centered on global hip hop culture, American and Comparative Cultural Studies, Critical Race Theory and practical (everyday) conceptions of race, nation and empire. Her dissertation, “Who Killed It: Toward a Hip Hop Theory,” explores the aesthetics of commercial rap music, focusing specifically on the politics of reproduction around race, gender, and sexuality.

Roberts is also the co-editor of the recently released volume, Collaborative Futures: Critical Reflections on Publicly Active Graduate Education (Syracuse, 2012). Last fall, she helped organize the Woodruff Library’s Tupac Amaru Shakur Collection Conference: Hip Hop, Education, and Expanding the Archival Imagination.

While at the UW, Roberts co-organized, with Anoop Mirpuri and Keith Feldman, “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 Roberts about how she has continued to practice public scholarship while completing her degree.

SC: How did you become interested in public scholarship?

GR: I would probably trace it back to a 1999 undergraduate Ethnic Studies course at UC Berkeley with Ronald Takaki. It was the semester following the student strikes for department resources, and many of the organizers were teaching assistants in the class. The conversation always centered on how the kind of education we received mattered to the communities we came from and the communities we hoped to forge. Professor Takaki was an amazing storyteller, and he would use the histories we were studying to contextualize the present. He also modeled how to engage critically outside of the university by sharing Op-Ed pieces he’d written on the cultural bias of the S.A.T. or articles that challenged the premises of popular books like The Bell Curve. It’s hard to explain, but as a first-generation college student already in my mid-twenties, studying for his class felt like a practice of freedom. It was the first time I was able to step outside of the day-to-day struggle and look at things from a distance. His class is the reason that I chose to pursue a PhD. I remember thinking, “I don’t know if I will ever be able to do what he does, but I’m going to spend the rest of my life trying.”

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

I think keeping a productive tension between the terms “public” and “scholarship” is important, since in recent years the term has become a disciplinary site of its own – a place in the university one can garner attention, secure resources and “market” oneself as a “public scholar.” I’m equally (and some might say incurably) skeptical about celebrating what some frame as a new union between “public” and “scholarship.” The university has long been in the business of identifying, classifying and explaining the public. At its best, I think “public scholarship” can serve as a meeting place to explore the history of those classifications and explanations in a way that orients us toward a future public, a public that’s rooted in the past but still yet to come.

How has public scholarship shaped what you are doing professionally while working on your degree at UW?

I’ve been teaching at UW Bothell in the Interdisciplinary Arts & Sciences since 2006 and am still working on my dissertation. I spent five years traveling back and forth and teaching in South Africa.

I think it’s important to be honest in saying that for some students, such as in my case as a non-traditional student, a pathway that supports an activist scholar may also extend our time to degree. I have had tremendous support and encouragement. I certainly wouldn’t change any part of my educational process even when it’s difficult to juggle in the short term.

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

As I mentioned earlier, I consider teaching to be a public scholarship practice. I try not to think of other activities as “projects” so much anymore, but rather as practices – meaning that I’m working with other folks toward a common goal and hoping to improve (with practice) over time. At Bothell, I was asked to develop a class on leadership as a prerequisite for students who plan to mentor through the MATCH program (like UW Seattle’s Dream Project, they mentor high school students through the college application process). I am the faculty advisor for a student group called La Voz de ELLA; it’s a collective of women who mentor other young women in local high schools. I also do a monthly reading group at Stafford Creek Correctional Center. We got our initial start as part of the “Public Rhetorics and Permanent War” collective and have continued for the past seven years now.   

In your opinion, why does public scholarship matter to graduate education?

That’s a great question and one that I can only answer from my specific experience. Graduate school can be an incredibly competitive and lonely place. By creating spaces for students to collaborate with one another, the Simpson Center gave me the lifeblood I needed to make it through an otherwise isolating process. Anoop, Keith, and I were in the same department and gravitated toward many of the same intellectual and political questions and even advisors, but it was in our time with the Simpson Center where we had the space to tease out and appreciate our different approaches to similar questions, our individual stakes in critical conversations. I learned so much from these discussions and they continue to resonate in everything I do.

Interested in knowing more? Contact Roberts at gmr2@uw.edu.

Learn more about the public scholarship activities at the Simpson Center, such as the graduate Certificate in Public Scholarship.

 

Interview conducted by Amanda Swain. Amanda is a recent PhD graduate of the UW Department of History, an alum of the Institute on the Public Humanities for Doctoral Students, and a former director of the Arizona Humanities Council and Humanities Washington.