Andrew’s Big Think #3

Andrew Tries to Figure Out His Identity as a Public Scholar

By Andrew Rimby

It’s been difficult trying to figure out how to begin my reflection on this month’s Big Think theme: Education and Public Scholarship. The reason? Because so many of my projects are categorized as public scholarship, but when I begin dissecting this category I’m left with many questions. So, why not begin with my first memory of engaging in public scholarship? Yes, quite a conventional chronological way to begin, but it was okay with Montaigne and indeed with Whitman so it seems fitting.

My first memory of what public scholarship looked like in practice, and not just theoretically in the classroom, happened when I went on my first Whitman walking tour with Dr. Karen Karbiener (this was around October 2017). I vividly remember meeting Karen at the annual English department party, held near the college, where I first met her through her husband, Dr. Douglas Pfeiffer (Adam’s dissertation advisor). I had just taken a course with Doug (I now refer to them by their first names and have gotten their permission, just in case the familiarity seems at odds with traditional academia, a point I’ll bring up soon) on the “History of the Book” which involved so many exciting adventures to different NYC-metro-based archives: the Morgan Library, Columbia University, the Beinecke at Yale, Princeton University, and of course Stony Brook’s Special Collections (run by Kristen Nyitray who is a wonderful collaborator of mine). Well, when Doug told me that I had met my Whitman critical advisor, I couldn’t stop the questions from forming and coming out of my mouth: “Karen, what is your interpretation of the ‘Calamus’ cluster, ‘Children of Adam,’ ‘Song of Myself,’ Whitman’s queerness, his self-publishing history of Leaves of Grass…?” And of course, Karen matched each question with an incisive response–like we were on the tennis court and it seemed as if the set would never end. I soon learned that Karen was going to be a seminar instructor for the annual Walt Whitman Week (hosted by The Transatlantic Walt Whitman Association) in Creteil, France (a suburb of Paris). That week, in the summer of 2017, changed the trajectory of my scholarly career. And it set in motion my identity as a public scholar. 

    While I had attended Karen’s walking tour right before the week in Paris, what sparked my interest in the boundary between the classroom and the public sphere  was being around so many Whitman scholars, fellow graduate students, and undergraduate students who all shared a passion for Whitman’s poetics. I remember, with such fond memories, that I would be carrying Whitman’s 1860 edition of Leaves of Grass (this is my favorite because it contains the openly homoerotic “Calamus” cluster of poems) through the streets of Paris, while each person in the group would take turns reading different poems. It really changes your close-reading perspective when you are reading the poem “City of Orgies” (yes, it is called that) while on the Seine River, on a sightseeing boat in a city famous for its orgies. I think the ghosts of Oscar Wilde, Gertrude Stein, Colette, and Proust could be seen giving their looks of approval when we took a break to read from “Song of Myself” while touring the famous Parisian cemetery, Père Lachaise. I came away from that week realizing that my scholarly passion comes from the conversations had both in and outside the classroom. I always tell my students that so much analytic work happens when they leave the classroom. And, I could really tell that my queer readings of Whitman and Wilde would not be the same, if I had not gone to Whitman Week. And, without Karen’s passion for bringing Whitman out on the streets, especially through her NYC walking tours, I would not be the scholar I am now. 

    I would again cross paths with Karen, who by 2018 had become the outside reader on my dissertation committee, in the summer of 2018 when I audited her Columbia University course, “Whitman in New York”. By this time, I was working on a Whitman Bicentennial celebration happening at Stony Brook that featured an April poetry reading with Cornelius Eady and Rowan Ricardo Phillips, a Whitman symposium and concert with Matt Aucoin (the composer of Crossing, an opera about Walt Whitman and a recent guest on our podcast), and a walking tour through Stony Brook Village highlighting its 19th century history (all of this was in collaboration with my dissertation advisor, Dr. Susan Scheckel; the aforementioned Kristen Nyitray; and Brenda Harris, a professional opera singer and faculty member in the Music department). I know, so many Whitmanic (yes it’s a word) festivities happening on Long Island, and I didn’t even get to the part where I served as the graduate student representative for the annual Whitman Week, being hosted by Karen, in partnership with NYU. Talk about “for every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you” (an oft quoted line from “Song of Myself”). The 2019 Whitman Week was full of so much energy, engagement, and discourse that I kept in contact with so many participants (a few will be contributing some of their own writing and thoughts to The Ivory Tower Boiler Room, so stay tuned). I will forever be indebted to Karen who opened the interstitial door (think of it like Dorothy landing in Oz) that led from the university to the public. I have gotten pretty comfortable in this in-between land that allows me to engage with the public while also maintaining my university networks (the English department, undergraduate students, and collaboration with other departments, specifically Music and Special Collections). 

(Listen to The Ivory Tower Boiler Room’s Interview with Dr. Karen Karbiener)

    Now, I still haven’t fully answered how I define what it means to be a public scholar. Well, I’m going to let myself off easy by saying “there is no one way to define it” but there are projects I’ve done that definitely fit the bill. And, if I had to point to a concrete definition, I would look no farther than Serena Zabin’s “What is Public Scholarship?” article where she states that Public Scholarship “refers to diverse modes of creating and circulating knowledge for and with publics and communities.” This summer, I was involved in many projects that involved public scholarship. Here are a few examples: 

  • I presented two talks, one on William Cullen Bryant and another on Edith Wharton, online with the Port Washington Library. Both talks centered on each author’s relationship with Whitman’s life and writing, and they broadly looked at Whitman’s queer poetics. Those in the audience consisted of both retired and current educators (university and K-12), creative writers, performing artists, medical doctors, lawyers, and overall, those interested in learning more about poetry.  A few board members from the William Cullen Bryant estate, Cedarmere, asked questions that helped push my approach to the Bryant poems I had chosen to analyze. One member asked why I chose to focus on Bryant’s “To a Waterfowl” and “Midsummer” in relation to Whitman’s “To Bryant, the Poet of Nature”? This question excited me so much because it’s not one that I usually get to address in an academic setting. If I had given this talk at a conference, the 19th-century American Lit. scholars would, most likely, dig right into how I’m interpreting figurative language in Bryant’s “To a Waterfowl.” But, having to think about “why did I choose these poems” helps to articulate why I’m gravitating towards the theme of nature, as I see it in these three poems.
  • I then had a virtual walking tour, hosted by the Whitman Birthplace, about the literary history of Roslyn Village (Bryant, Whitman, and Wharton). My talks for the Port Washington Library set the stage for going to Bryant’s Cedarmere estate, located in Roslyn Harbor, and then visualizing Whitman and Wharton’s discussion of Long Island’s Gold Coast (the Gilded Age wealth on the North Shore). One audience member, our very own Rusty Rose, volunteered to send her poetry, reflecting on Whitman, to The Ivory Tower Boiler Room, and she then gave more history about the Roslyn clock tower (a staple in that village). She also commented on how a virtual walking tour allows for more people to attend. This warmed my heart since making my walking tours more accessible is of utmost concern to me. 
  • As a board member of the Walt Whitman Initiative, I then got to participate in such an energizing “Song of Myself” marathon, led by the enigmatic Dr. Karen Karbiener, which is held every year in celebration of Whitman’s birthday. This year was Whitman’s 202nd birthday so I actually got to be among fellow Whitman enthusiasts, including Lenny Kaye and Rosanne Cash. I really enjoyed reading Section 45 from “Song of Myself.” And at the Whitman Birthplace, Caitlyn Shea, the Events and Media Director, and Cynthia Shor, the Executive Director, led a 202nd Birthday bash where I got to read “Of Him I Love Day and Night.” 

While you all catch up on these videos (and what a pleasure each event truly was to be a part of), I think these examples have helped me articulate, to myself, what being a public scholar entails. I promised at the beginning of my Big Think that I would eventually figure out the questions to ask if you are doing public scholarship. Well, here are a few that are present in the example projects I gave. 

  1. Does the project make specialized research accessible for a general audience?
  2. As the speaker, do you make sure that multiple communities are being addressed (this includes organizations that you partner with as well as communities that you belong to, for example, how I belong to an LGBTQ+ community, academic community, and writing community)?
  3. Is the material easy to access and shareable? (YouTube videos work wonderfully, as do podcasts.) 
  4. Most importantly, for me is, does interacting with such a diverse community begin to impact the way you view your specialty? I know that without my public events, I would view Whitman’s queerness more rigidly instead of enjoying how fluid his erotic voice is. 

Well, there is so much more I could add, but I want to put a bookmark in this. Next month, I’ll be reflecting on a current public scholarship and Humanities project, The Ivory Tower Boiler Room, and what it means to have co-created it with Adam Katz. I couldn’t think of a more concrete example of public scholarship than The Ivory Tower Boiler Room community. Until next month…

(Andrew reading Section 45 of “Song of Myself” at Port Jefferson Harbor)

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