Friday, May 25, 2007

Dispatch from the Wisconsin Idea Road Trip 2007

Every year in the spring, a diverse and engaged group of four dozen or so UW-Madison faculty and staff sign on to a five-day bus trip across the state known as the "Wisconsin Idea Seminar." The purposes are many. The event is certainly a fun and (hopefully) positive public relations event, as evidenced by the participation of scholarship-raising alumni and local newspaper reporters. In an economic environment where direct government appropriations only account for 19% of the university's operating budget, portraying UW-Madison to citizens and legislators all across the state in a positive light is an important goal. But in the end I think we as participants learn more about the state of Wisconsin than the state of Wisconsin learns about us. We've seen a thriving global plastic packaging firm in Oshkosh, an energy-producing dairy farm in the Fox Valley, an agricultural and gaming economy on the Oneida reservation, a mechanized cherry orchard in Door County, a maximum security prison in Green Bay, and several examples of the rich natural environment (and environmental ethics) that are preserved and reproduced by both the university's College of Agriculture and the state Department of Natural Resources. And the trip isn't even over.

One evening during all of this, several of us gathered over drinks on the cool moonlit lawn of our Ephraim bed and breakfast to discuss the themes that had emerged so far. Amidst the good-natured joking and unwinding, some very serious issues quickly emerged. Wisconsin was a state rich in resources, labor, and ideas, but apprehensive about its place in a vast and interlocking set of competitive battles -- for tourist dollars, for state dollars, for corporate investment, for federal notice, for agricultural export, or for global status and prestige. The stark logic of economic competitiveness seemed to structure every conversation, affect every citizen, invade every institution. We consoled ourselves in public proclamations of our "innovativeness," our "adaptability," our "progressivism." But troubling realities of industrial and agricultural restructuring, racially disproportionate incarceration, and declining funding for public education made such claims ring hollow.

Into this contradictory mix of comfort and crisis comes the University. According to the Wisconsin Idea, "the boundaries of the University classroom are the boundaries of the state itself." In other words, the teaching, research, and service which originate in Madison should have as their focus the many peoples, communities, industries, and interests of Wisconsin at large. Citizens deserve to see a direct effect — more particularly, a direct economic effect (in terms of competitive advantage) — for their sustained investment in our University (even as that investment continues to drop below 19%).

I have a particular lens through which I view this idea. As a UW faculty member who studies information and communication processes — not just the technologies which enable those processes, but the laborers and consumers who enact them — I am beginning to think that the Wisconsin Idea is less an idealization of an economic production process (if the community subsidizes the academics, then the academics will increase the wealth of the community) as an idealization of a knowledge production process (if the community subsidizes the production of knowledge through research, then the unversity enacts the dissemination of knowledge through teaching, publication, and conferencing).

Understanding the Wisconsin Idea in this way, however, one must move beyond the overly-simplified communication dynamic between "academy" and "community." If there's one thing that this seminar road trip has illuminated for me, it's that in this state, neither the academy nor the community is homogenous in its origins, its approaches, its interests, or its power. Just as there are both affluent and struggling towns within our political geography, there are both well-resourced and struggling departments within our disciplinary geography. Just as the swaths of "red" counties and "blue" counties vie for power in our presidential elections, both political critique and corporate partnership can vie for prominence in each faculty member's research. And just as a wide variety of ethnic, language, and cultural groups have migrated (and continue to migrate) through the Wisconsin landscape over the last thousand years, so does our University draw students, staff, and faculty from all corners of the globe, suffused with all manner of personal philosophies and subject to all manner of public prejudices. It is not enough to simply brand both the state and the state university "diverse." The point is to wrestle with the ways in which diversities of all sorts, and at all scales, affect the processes of knowledge production.

For this reason I believe that reducing the state's plight (and the university's purpose) to one of "competitiveness" undermines the power of this diversity in knowledge production from the very start. Issues of environmental understanding, stewardship, and sustainability may not be reducible (or translatable) to market logic. Issues of cultural collision, conflict, and cooperation, while having profound links to economic power, nevertheless involve more than one's position in the labor market. And the same "high technology" that we might hope to deploy in order to attract and retain high-paying jobs cannot substitute for an informed, engaged, and media-literate political public. The life of our state is reducible to none of these single narratives. Neither is the life of the University.

Thus for me, the "Wisconsin Idea" stands for more than just extending the boundaries of the classroom to the boundaries of the state. It means extending the meaning of teaching to include publication and engagement at both local and global levels. It means extending the meaning of disciplinary research to incorporate multidisciplinary team research involving diverse groups, as well as interdisciplinary translation of research on the part of diverse individuals. And it means seeing service not only as a way of demonstrating an economic return on investment, but as a way of reminding ourselves and our many publics that investments in knowledge of all sorts — both science and art, both critique and creativity, both practical and theoretical — yield returns of their own.