What shapes the reputation of academic institutions? The accreditation process in the United States intends to "ensure that institutions of higher education meet acceptable levels of quality."1 While this is certainly important, accreditation agencies that are responsible for ensuring compliance with national standards are private educational associations with their own guidelines for membership of new institutions. They make their own rules. Some states like California are now requiring degree-granting institutions to be accredited by US Department of Education approved agencies. This makes it even harder for small, non-conventional educational institutions to become accredited.
What if there was another way for non-conventional institutions of education like The Cooperative New School to build public recognition? As C.N.E. Corbin once shared with me, credibility for the Cooperative New School will depend on contributions we make to local efforts for social, political, and environmental change. This includes training activist scholars and the research projects we take on through the Environmental Justice Knowledge Factory.
It also includes our public facing representation through publications. While I have several other affiliations at this moment, I made the decision in January to reference the Cooperative New School as my institutional affiliation on an upcoming peer-reviewed publication titled Improvisatory Activist Scholarship. The article is currently in the copy editing phase with ACME: An International Journal of Critical Geographies. In the meantime, I welcome comments and feedback on the pre-print version. It represents my modest contribution to elevating the important efforts of the Cooperative New School.
Here's the abstract:
I define improvisatory activist scholarship as attempts to disrupt commonly-held meanings in research through the skilled negotiation of unexpected circumstances and through attention to the circulation of power among collaborators. Metaphors from the dancing of contact improvisation serve as a bridge to highlight improvisational aspects of participatory action research (PAR). I also trace movement between PAR and engaged ethnography in my research with CEDICAM, a farmer-to-farmer training network in Oaxaca, Mexico. Improvisation is the creative negotiation of an encounter with the unknown or unexpected, sometimes due to a lack of options. In iterative cycles of PAR, improvisational skill increases receptivity to emerging pathways for investigation when unexpected circumstances arise. This is important in transdisciplinary fields like agroecology that closely interface with the complex realities of land-based livelihoods. Extending awareness from the individual to the group and to society at large helps identify effective leverage points for analysis and action. Finally, recognition of the privilege embodied by the activist scholar may encourage power to circulate more equitably in multiple directions to stimulate horizontal communication between actors. These are some of the practical suggestions presented for how an embodied scholarship may embrace improvisation as par for the course.