Can There Be Community in Graduate Education?

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A Discussion with Ashanka Kumari, University of Louisville, in Preparation for the Watson Conference

Community is a fraught term in our field. It is used for all manner of purposes. We speak of our classrooms as communities, attempt to foster inclusive communal practices in our graduate programs, and establish equitable community partnerships. It is less clear, however, that we enable either our undergraduate or graduate students to possess the skills required to actually build communities – the nuts and bolts of organizing strategies and practices that turn community from a noun to an existing space.


At least, this is what I have learned through my discussions with Ashanka Kumari, a doctoral student at University of Louisville and an Assistant Director of the Thomas R. Watson Conference, which will be held this October. Our conversation began when I came to campus to share a draft of my Watson essay, then extended into my revision of that essay, and eventually resulted in multi-authored piece. The talk itself initially focused on my efforts to build Syrians for Truth and Justice (STJ), a human rights documentation center based in Istanbul. (Bassam Alahmad, Director of STJ is also an author in the piece.) STJ stood as an example of the conference theme of what it meant to engage in “producing truth.” In our discussion, Ashanka highlighted how graduate education often did not provide the requisite skills for such community building – whether something large, like STJ, or small, like a community gathering. The assumption of graduate education seemed to be that everyone would end up working in the academy as a researcher, teacher, or both. She noted that for first-generation students like ourselves, with few safety nets, such an assumption could be alienating – what if no academic job was found? Why not, we came to ask, imagine graduate education as preparing students to engage in the meaning of “community” through a multiplicity of skills, through a multiplicity of career paths?

In several weeks, Ashanka and I will present our essay, which includes just a small audio segment of our extended discussion. My sense, however, is that this discussion with Ashanka not only enunciates a new way to imagine graduate education, but also a nuanced way to imagine the students in our seminars as possessing a diversity of heritages and ambitions. It is a conversation that points to what a “community-based” graduate education might require. For that reason, in a blog focused on the intersection of community and the academy, I am happy to provide the full discussion here with a transcript of the discussion here.

Finally, if you are at the Watson talk or joining us virtually on Twitter (#WatsCon18) at 10:30 AM EST on Saturday, October 27, I hope you will come to our session and share your thoughts on how graduate education can be infused with “community-building” strategies/skills that are useful not only in our “field” but in the neighborhoods in which it exists.

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About the Author
Steve Parks is an Associate Professor of Writing and Rhetoric at Syracuse University. He has spent the past twenty years forming community based partnerships, publications, and pedagogies in the United States, United Kingdom, and the Middle East. For more information, visit: