CES Workshop

Fred Block|Research professor at U.C. Davis

First CES Dissertation Workshop

Question:  What do these people have in common?

  • Middle class Egyptian young people in Tahir Square in 2011
  • Police in a segregated Midwestern city
  • Urban bureaucrats closing health facilities because of low utilization rates of hospital beds
  • Angry farmers in Northeast Wisconsin
  • Central bankers trying to establish their credibility in financial markets
  • Corporate managers trying to squeeze a bit more out of low wage workers
  • Those low wage workers joining the fight for fifteen dollars an hour
  • Growers in the Imperial Valley considering the purchase of a mechanical picking machine called the Iron Bracero

Answer:   These were some of the people analyzed by the first two cohorts of Center for Engaged Scholarship fellows, who gathered on the weekend of September 8-10th at Costanoa Lodge in Pescadero, California for the initiative’s first dissertation workshop.   

Perhaps not surprisingly, every one of the fellows was contending in their work with problems of economic and political inequality and the disastrous consequences of the free- market  (or market fundamentalist) ideas that have dominated the global economy for the last four decades.   But they were all looking at these issues through a methodologically rigorous analysis of very specific populations that were analyzed through interviews, participant observation, social media postings, government documents, or archival records.

In every case, the research has the potential to demystify and challenge taken-for-granted assumptions that help to reproduce existing inequalities and allow us to see the possibility of different and better institutional arrangements. 

The study of central banks challenges the idea that central bankers have no choice but to prioritize the fight against inflation; a careful comparison of two national trajectories shows that central banks in emerging market economies have considerable leeway to avoid abrupt and dramatic increases in unemployment that result from sharp interest rate hikes.   The study of health care leading up to HIV-AIDS epidemic questions the management strategies that flowed from an obsession over rates of hospital cost inflation.   The study of franchising brings into question whether cheap labor is the only way we can get burgers and fries at a decent price.  Each case suggests an institutional redesign that would make organization more responsive to the needs of working class and poor people.

One feature of the gathering that was particularly generative was its multi-disciplinary character.   Participants came from six different social science disciplines—including history-- and most of the faculty had long histories of working across disciplinary lines.   This meant that students were often told about relevant books and articles with which they were unfamiliar or they were alerted to a different angle of vision on a particular topic.   There were, for example, some particularly fruitful interchanges between sociologists and historians on how to think about the racial terms and categories that are used to describe actors at a particular moment in time.

Much of the weekend was spent in formal sessions where the students presented their work and got feedback from faculty and other students.   But equally important were the informal conversations over meals and in the evenings that gave participants a chance to talk about the current political situation and the challenges currently facing engaged scholars.   What was really fruitful here was the opportunity to talk about issues across generational lines since the group included both people who had been active in the movements of the 1960’s as well people influenced by later movements up to and including union organizing campaigns in the 2000’s.  

There was frank recognition that the academic job market is now much worse than in earlier decades as the ranks of temporary and contingent faculty has increased markedly in response to continuing budget cutting at colleges and universities.   But the older faculty made it clear that it was never easy for scholars who challenged academic norms  favoring research that is “objective”, value-free, and allegedly apolitical.   Even when the radical student movement was at its height in the late 1960’s,   their faculty allies often faced repression and firings.   Moreover, the space that now exists for these graduate students to do engaged research is very much the result of ongoing pressure and agitation by generations of scholar-activists.

The weekend’s key take home message was enunciated early in the event by the historian Kitty Sklar who argued eloquently for the importance of community-building to sustain our ability to do work that is important, original, and engaged.   Academic life, particularly in the Trump Era, can be dispiriting and alienating, so that building community and creating solidarity are essential for the fights that lie ahead.    Fortunately, the workshop also showed that community building can be exhilarating and empowering.

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