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«Interview with Steve Parks Syracuse University and former Editor of Reflections: A Journal of Public Rhetoric, Civic Writing, and Service Learning ...»

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Interview with Steve Parks

Syracuse University and former Editor of

Reflections: A Journal of Public Rhetoric,

Civic Writing, and Service Learning

Willma Harvey,


fter reviewing some of the manuscripts

Associate Editor

for this issue, we, as editors, thought

Cristina Kirklighter, it would be appropriate to interview


Steve Parks’ regarding his perspectives on

& Jessica Pauszek, graduate students and community projects.

Assistant Editor

Steve has worked with graduate students for many years, including Jessica Pauszek, our Assistant Editor. He was also the past editor of this journal for a number of years, and we have benefitted through his guidance.

As he says at the end of the interview, the interview format cannot capture the spirit of “collaborative discussion” that comes from this work. However, given our close relationship with Steve over the years, the questions we did develop come out of our conversations with him and thus is a product of previous listening and dialoguing. An interview with a friend, mentor, and colleague is a different type of interview—one grounded in the familiar.

7 Reflections | Volume 14.2, Spring 2015 Cristina Kirklighter (C.K.): Steve, in our many conversations that we’ve had over the years, we have discussed how important it is for us to walk the talk with engaging our students in community projects at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. Yet, when we look at the Robin J. Crew’s Guide to College and University Service-Learning Programs http://evergreen.loyola.edu/rcrews/ www/sl/academic.html, the numbers show a significant imbalance between undergraduate and graduate programs. From your own observations, why do you believe more graduate programs at the M.A. and Ph.D. are not engaging students in community projects and how might this affect the graduate student experience?

Steve Parks (S.P.): That’s a good question. I think there are disciplinary and structural reasons for this fact. First, I think that English, as a field focused on literature and cultural studies, is premised on the production of textual artifacts that are principally focused on intervening in the institutional structures of its own house – i.e. they are interested in intervening in the status ofEnglish within the university, not in the status of Englishes in the community surrounding the university. This is important institutional work, but it is not community-based work. Since the vast majority of Composition graduate students exist within English Departments with such a focus, there are typically not enough faculty or resources to really build out a sustained community partnership focus. In that way, the legacy of Composition and Rhetoric’s re-emergence in English in the post World War II USA continues to impact the ability of the field to realize its full vision. (Clearly I am speaking in very broad brush strokes.) I think we also need to recognize that even within the field of Composition and Rhetoric, there is not wide spread support of such work. As a field, we are still primarily focused on textual artifacts as well – the study and assessment of classroom based student writing. Again, this is important work particularly in a time of standardized assessment in a corporatized university.

Protecting the full literacy rights of our students (and the labor rights of their predominantly adjunct professors) should be a part of any professional career. But to return to the latter part

8 Interview with Steve Parks | Harvey, Kirklighter, & Pauszek

of your question – the effect on graduate student experience – I think that not providing equal focus to community engagement during English or Composition/Rhetoric graduate careers fails to provide students with the organizational and rhetorical strategies which can combat the creation of the very corporate educational environment that is slowing draining resources away from English, from Composition/Rhetoric, and the Humanities, the very forces that are creating an indebted generation and a pauperized professoriate.

I think we need to see how these two worlds, the academic and the corporate, are necessarily linked in ways that diminish intellectual freedom and independent research, that diminish the possibilities of our classrooms and the future of our students.

Community partnerships can call the question on the relationship between the university and the surrounding neighborhood, between the creation of knowledge and the creation of profit.

This direct experience of negotiating these competing demands, creating alternative non-corporate spaces, to my thinking, should be a part of any graduate students career. Otherwise, it seems to me, we are really teaching our students to accept a world of diminished expectations.

C.K.: To follow up on this question, how do you believe graduate programs in R&C are comparatively faring in this area? Have you seen a change over the years in curriculums and dissertations that allow for such work?

S.P.: In terms of curriculum, I feel that we are in a transition moment.

For a lot of years, it seems to me, community partnership was brought in under traditional graduate course titles – think “Advanced Issues in Composition.” I always liked this approach since it forced the question of how such work related to the field. My goal was never to create a silo type sub-field, but to understand how such an emphasis might alter and learn from existing conversations. I think there is some evidence that community partnership work has begun to be taught under its own heading or related heading, such as community literacy.

While this is an important institutional victory, I’m not sure it

–  –  –

is best for the field. I think a dynamic where there is constant pressure placed upon us to explain “why we do what we do” is important. We are intellectually and institutionally strongest when we think in terms of collaboration, not separation.

Similarly, I think that embedding community-based work in dissertation work is the result of such intellectual collaboration, a collaboration that has both built off of and expanded some of the methodological and ethical practices that emerged out of Feminism, such as the need to carefully locate your self as a scholar. In addition, the field’s emphasis on the use of student writing, the ethics of citation, has been expanded by the inclusion of community voices in doctoral work. Where I think this is ultimately leading is to an expansion of who should be around the table during dissertation defenses. Should someone be able to represent their work as accurate about the community with no actual community member present? Should the work be allowed to be published without any community insight? I think right now our field would want to say the community should have some authority at such moments, but we don’t have a good strategy how to enact that belief. It pushes too much against how we professionalized ourselves on conservative views of the professoriate. So long term, I guess, I’m hoping community partnership work can put pressure on that traditional vision of the professoriate and move dissertations, move departments, to a more expansive vision of intellectual and the structures needed to fully enact their visions.

And one final related point: My sense is that the best community partnerships are nurtured over time, expand beyond a class, and are imbued in the entire department. A systemic commitment by all is involved. It’s only in that context that the questions raised above can be addressed. In an austere entrepreneurial university, where partnerships rest too often on grants, such a broad commitment isn’t really possible. In an austere university, where the entrepreneurial spirit can determine resources, such partnerships are incredibly hard to produce. So to return to an earlier point, if we really want community partnerships to be an essential aspect of our graduate programs, we need to train

–  –  –

graduate students who can actively work against a political economy designed to stop such collective sensibilities and collective commitments.

C.K.: From the research by Campus Compact, MSIs are known to have an overall higher percentage of emphasis of community outreach and service-learning than non-MSIs. During your time with Reflections, a few special issues were published on HBCU’s, African American Community Literacy, and Latin@s and community activism. A few of the editors came from MSIs.

Would you speak to the importance of race-based studies of community outreach while you were editor of Reflections and how your graduate students and partners benefit from such research and participation in these projects?

S.P.: The impetus for those issues grew out of a quote from a Gayatri Spivak article I read in graduate school, “Can the Subaltern Speak?” There is a moment in the essay where she frames her investigation in terms of the phrase “White men saving brown women from brown men.” I’ve always felt that community partnership work had the quality of “White scholars saving brown communities from brown residents.” That is, there was a subtle sense of racism in our sense of importance, of who we did and did not have to listen to – what Spivak calls sanctioned ignorance. When I became Editor of Reflections, I wanted to highlight that MSI’s had a long history of partnership work that proceeded “our field’s” involvement, that there were other spaces to learn what this work could mean, how it should look.

And more generally, I was concerned that as framed, our field had limited the type of scholars who could be read, learned from, based upon their affiliation with Research 1 institutions. It was out of that context that I published the special issues, but more generally tried to greatly expand across all of our issues the range of scholars who shared their work in Reflections. And in a related move, this is also why I tried to include non-academy based community intellectuals. Clearly, more could have been accomplished, but these were my goals.

11 Reflections | Volume 14.2, Spring 2015

In all of these moves, my sense was that there was a need to expand the field for those entering into such work, such as graduate students or considered experts in the work, such as professors, to recognize that there were other practices perhaps based upon a different set of values which could be studied. In doing so, I was echoing arguments made by the Black Caucus in the 1960’s, when C’s would have white scholars talking about black communities, never inviting scholars who were members of those communities, whose research was based upon deep and sustained research, of engagement, with the residents of their communities. I wanted Reflections to hear that argument and respond to it. Otherwise, my sense was, the journal would be teaching graduate students (and scholars in general) a damaging and limiting sense of the history and practices of community partnership. Again, clearly more could have been accomplished.

Jessica Pauszek (J.P): What suggestions would you have for graduate students interested in community work to begin this work?

S.P.: I think my most consistent advice is “you have to be the scholar you want to be from the moment you enter graduate school.” My sense is there is pressure to always push your values, your commitments, off until you learn “the field.” While there is some truth to the argument, you need to be responsible to the work of scholars before you, I also believe that you always need to act upon your own moral compass, the ethical system that drives you forward. You should never put your values to the side. This is the only way you will know if the field can be a space to do important work for you. It is also the only way you can learn the navigational skills that allow you to build your own research, your own community projects, as your career progresses.

I’ve been fortunate to work with students like you, Jessica, as well as Ben Kuebrich, Romeo Garcia, Yanira Rodriguez, and Vani Kannan. They are really models to me for how to enact your commitments – and I should add they don’t all share the same commitments – and to build careers which speak to their values. I’ve seen the toll it can take, so I’m not romanticizing such

–  –  –

work. I’m just saying, why would you want to take on work that asks you to be someone else for a couple of years before you can “possibly” find your own voice. So always acting out of your own ethical values is fundamental.

Within that framework, for the most part, I don’t think graduate students should create their own community projects. They simply aren’t in a community long enough to do the sustained work necessary. Instead, they should study what faculty and programs do in the community work that speaks to them, apply there, and work within that existing project. In some ways, this gives you a better sense of the complexity of such work: starting your own might. It also gives you a network of support to work through mistakes (which will happen) and to understand the successes (which will happen as well.) Then, my sense is, students should use one aspect of that project for their dissertation work, using that experience to understand how to represent their role in a collaborative community project. This will help them as they move forward to article and book projects. Lastly, I think that anyone interested in this work should develop experience writing grants and arguing for institutional resources. As I wrote above, it’s an entrepreneurial environment and folks need to learn how to bend resources towards progressive community projects. You should never have to depend on grant money for a project to continue, but you also shouldn’t cede the territory to projects that have little or no value to the communities surrounding your university.

J.P.: What does it mean to take on community projects for graduate students? What risks or challenges are involved? And what might success look like in these projects?

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