Monthly Archives: February 2003

community-based discussion

I spent almost all of today at a good Democracy

Collaborative conference on "engaged," or "collaborative,"

or "community-based" research (i.e., research in which academics

and members of a community work together, at least to frame a common research

agenda and sometimes to conduct the whole project.) There was a lot of

talk about potential research involving University of Maryland faculty

in our own community, Prince George’s County, although many of the speakers

came from elsewhere. (One of the best was Gary Cunningham, who runs the


County African American Men Project in and around Minneapolis, MN.)

I was generally impressed and inspired, although a couple of worries stick

with me.

First, this was the kind of conference in which everyone quickly feels

comfortable with one another and starts to talk as "we." For

example: "We need to convince young people to work in the World Bank,

so that they can bring our perspective inside that place." But no

one ever exactly says what defines "us." I suspect this is partly

because everyone in the room is on the left, and that’s their most fundamental

identity. That’s why they all feel confortable with one another. But the

agenda and purpose of the meeting are officially non-partisan and non-ideological:

we’re supposed to be talking about research in partnership with communities.

The fact that everyone is on the left is an unacknowledged but crucial


Second, one graduate student gave a presentation on an extremely disadvantaged

group that she had studied. No one asked the kind of questions that would

routinely arise after a presentation at a regular academic event. For

example, individuals had volunteered to participate in her focus groups,

and no one asked whether these volunteers were representative of the whole

population being studied. Also, many of the individuals claimed to have

given up drugs, but no one asked whether this claim was tested or credible.

I wondered why these questions didn’t come up. (I didn’t ask them, either).

Here are three guesses:

  • She made a good presentation about a terribly oppressed group, and

    everyone was moved and sympathetic and didn’t want to appear skeptical

    in any respect. or

  • People who do action-research are not primed to think about such matters

    as the representativeness of their samples. or

  • This was a middle-aged, female, African American graduate student

    and no one wanted to ask the tough questions that they would naturally

    pose of a young, white student who was starting on the standard academic

    career path.

If the last hypothesis is true, than I worry about what one of my least

favorite presidents calls "the soft bigotry of low expectations."

In other words, I hope we are not afraid to ask tough questions of middle-aged,

black, female graduate students because we think that they will be unable

to answer effectively.

civic work

I participated in an interesting conference call with members of the


Although I’m a bit embarrassed because I haven’t done any work on it,

I’m listed as the co-editor of a proposed book that would describe recent

experiments in real-world citizens’ deliberations. The Consortium, meanwhile,

is committed to holding a conference for researchers and practitioners

during 2003. The purpose of today’s call was to explore the possibility

of using the conference to create the book—by inviting authors to

present preliminary drafts of their chapters. There are potential advantages

to collaboration for both the Consortium and those of us who are working

on the book.

I also met with the two students and two professors who are conducting

a project on journalism, funded by the Kettering

Foundation (I am Principal Investigator). Their project is to create

a website with material drawn from political theory that’s of practical

value for working journalists. The more fundamental goal is to explore

ways that political theory could be more useful to journalism, and vice

versa. They have decided to focus for now on two pressing issues: the

role of the press in covering a war; and arguments in favor of conscription.

They are finding more good political theory relevant to the second question,

but more news coverage of the first.

the high school rat race

A day spent frantically working on grant proposals for CIRCLE and the

Prince George’s Information Commons—three proposals in all. I did

have an interesting phone conversation about the degree to which high

school students volunteer in order to improve their chances of being admitted

to college. This is very common, apparently. I don’t necessarily draw

cynical conclusions about the kids’ characters. Instead, I’d tend to blame

an increasingly efficient system of sorting the whole national student

body by "merit," which causes everyone to compete on a common

scale, whether they aspire to Harvard or the local public college. More

and more people know how to play the game of college admission. As a result,

I fear that kids are waiting until after high school for their real lives

to begin, and much of what they do as adolescents feels hollow.

grant-writing for local work

In between dealing with various financial issues involving CIRCLE,

I wrote most of a proposal to the NSF

to support high school classes for the next two years—including money

for curriculum development, assessment, and research. The specific activity

that we’ll ask NSF to fund is map-making. If funded, our kids would make

a whole variety of interactive maps of their community that they would

post on their website: asset

maps, network maps, environmental maps, problem-solving maps, and historical

maps of the County. My current dream is that we will get funding from

several specialized sources to suppport work in particular fields over

the next 2-3 years. One source might fund a journalism after-school program

on Tuesdays; another would fund map-making on Wednesdays; and still another

would support community history work on Thursdays. (Clearly, since I have

another full-time job, I would only be able to come to these classes occasionally.)

All the classes would produce material for the Website. Once the site

was full of valuable material, we would convene community leaders and

citizens and say (in effect): This is something that belongs to all of

us, because it reflects the richness of our community. Would you like

to join us in adding material? Would you like to run the site as a nonprofit

association? We’re at your service, and we’re willing to back away if

it’s time for someone else to manage things.

The idea, in short, is to strengthen the community by building a new

independent association connected to a Website. But to get people interested,

the site has to have content. And since no one wants to fund us to build

an association, we need to go after specialized funders in various content

areas—such as NSF for geography. We’ll see if it works.

Mike Weiksner and Archon Fung have contributed nice replies to my posting

on the


renaissance portraits

I stayed downtown today. Some of us from CIRCLE

had an interesting lunch in Union Station, discussing research ideas with

some potential applicants. I was also on my cell phone a fair amount,

mostly talking to fellow NACE members

about opportunities to mobilize the organization. In between things, I

ran—literally ran—into the National Gallery. I headed for an

area that I hadn’t been in for a long time, and found myself looking at

a couple of striking portraits of Guiliano de’ Medici, who was murdered

at mass in the Pazzi conspiracy. The Gallery has Botticelli’s amazing


(which looks almost like a fine modern cartoon, with its bold blocks of

color and exeggerated features) and also Verocchio’s large bust

of the same young man. Guiliano is ugly but charismatic; confident or

perhaps arrogant; and very much an individual. I can’t think of anything

else to write about these portraits except art-historical cliches ("Renaissance

individualism," "unsentimental realism" …), but it was

a 25-minute break that will stay with me for a long time.