Emory Report
October 20, 2008
Volume 61, Number 8



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October 20
, 2008
Linking scholarship and activism

Calinda N. Lee PhD’02 is assistant director for research and development at the James Weldon Johnson Institute for Advanced Interdisciplinary Studies and adjunct faculty in the Graduate Institute of Liberal Arts.

When I decided to leave my faculty position at another university to come to Emory as the assistant director of the James Weldon Johnson Institute for Advanced Interdisciplinary Studies, I found some friends and colleagues scratching their heads.

When I excitedly explained that the institute is the first and only in the nation that supports new research and scholarship on the modern civil rights movement, they agreed it sounded interesting.

When I argued that the institute would encourage the vital work of examining the civil rights movement’s points of intersection with other social justice movements such as the women’s movement, the GLBT movements and the human rights movement, they acknowledged that this was timely and progressive. But, what, many wondered, would I do outside of a faculty context? And how exactly would I advance scholarship — or even my own career — in such a position?

I welcomed these challenges because they forced me to refine my ideas about the meanings of success and to fundamentally interrogate our responsibilities as scholars in the academy.

At the risk of alienating at least half of my readers, I am going to be more candid than I would ever argue is prudent. The truth is that, when I began my graduate studies, right here at Emory, I felt quite disdainful of work in the academy.

I was drawn to the Graduate Institute of the Liberal Arts specifically because of its emphasis on public scholarship. I was quick to argue that I would not find myself cavorting in the gilded halls of the academy when I completed my doctoral work. I would not cast my pearls of wisdom to a privileged minority represented by the student bodies at elite universities.

Instead, I contended, I would be doing “public” work with the masses, work that would reach far beyond the ivory towers of the academy. While I intuitively understood the necessity and validity of the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, I struggled to reconcile my intellectual work with the imperative that I felt to be an active agent for social and political transformation in our society.

To be fair, I will acknowledge the arrogance and immaturity in my assertion that work in the classroom, lab, archive and in silent contemplation with a text could not be profoundly socially and politically transformative. I find remarkable my hubris in so poorly judging the importance of the scholarly enterprise; I am dismayed by the anti-intellectual bent of my assertions that those who chose to work within an academic environment and/or framework could not cause radical restructuring of societies.

And yet, even as I accept this self-criticism, I think that I was right about some things. I was right about the imperative of linking scholarship and social advocacy. I was right about the need for our intellectual work to more fully inform the society’s responses to practical challenges.

I was right that students need to be able to understand the connection between the work that they do in the library, the lab, the archive and the classroom with the social and political concerns that keep them awake at night.

And this is why coming to the Johnson Institute was a no-brainer. It was the vision of the institute, “an open but applied mind serving all of humankind,” that attracted me.

Each of our visiting scholars comes to advance their research interests but also to share their work with students and colleagues at Emory, at the Atlanta University Center, and throughout the city at large.

In like manner, the institute’s signature programs seek to bridge a gap between the campus and communities beyond. They include a reading of Johnson’s seminal “God’s Trombones and Other Sermons” by esteemed clergy; a spring concert series celebrating the role of art in voicing resistance and uniting community; and the Johnson Medal Award Ceremony, which honors individuals who have distinguished themselves through intellectual and creative genius and in service to their communities.

In seminars and symposia, colloquia and working groups, the James Weldon Johnson Institute’s mandate is to support critical new scholarship and to explore and affirm the relationship between scholarship and social advocacy.

This is a project that we can all embrace. In the very best academic tradition, we are committed to transforming the world together.

Learn more about our work at www.jamesweldonjohnson.emory.edu.