For Caroline Cheung (PhD Candidate in English and GWSS), the heart of education exists outside the classroom walls of formal academic spaces. An activist-scholar exploring the revolutionary gestures of literature, prison abolition, and community-based justice, she has earned numerous awards and national leadership opportunities for her work. In 2020-2021, Cheung was awarded the prestigious Publicly Active Graduate Education (PAGE) Fellowship from Imagining America, an organization that HPG and the Obermann Center work with actively; the University of Iowa has been a member since 2002.
Imagining America (IA) is a consortium of art, design, and humanities practitioners from inside and outside of the academy who work towards the liberatory and transformative power of community learning. The organization publishes the peer-reviewed journal PUBLIC, hosts national and regional conferences, and promotes collaborative learning through numerous awards and research initiatives. The PAGE Fellowship program works towards that goal by establishing and facilitating a network of similarly minded graduate students and their mentors across the country.
When I spoke to Cheung, she had recently finished participating in the Imagining America summit. She and her PAGE cohort created a series of lightning talks, podcasts, and knowledge networks to sustain the community organizing and collaboration that embodies their work. As Cheung describes, for graduate students who define their work outside the traditional conventions of higher education, “graduate school can make you feel like you’re alone. So, it sounds odd, but it was incredibly motivating to find so many people who think about their scholarship and its intersections with public activism or politics or social life to ultimately serve their communities in ways much broader than research.”
Cheung finds the PAGE Fellowship transformative because of its whole-person philosophy of education and community organizing, “It’s been a different year for how they usually do the fellowship because of the pandemic and the election,” Cheung said. “Our meetings and the workshops included community care and rest, undoing the grind culture that organizes grad school life, that finds its way into our work and minimizes the time and effort that goes into it. The fellowship was organized in a way that acknowledged we’re all humans going through a very dehumanizing experience and need to disrupt those patterns of behavior and neglect.” This aspect of the fellowship has extended into Cheung’s work and teaching, too. “My students who are working and caring for families amid the uncertainty of the pandemic need the rest, breaks, and care that I do.”
This year has also meant difficult changes for Cheung and the community of Iowa graduate students who teach at the Iowa Medical Classification Center Correctional Facility (Oakdale). For the past several years, Cheung has worked with Jennifer Stone and Elena Carter of the Rhetoric Department but was re-assigned due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. This shift has “been really sad and difficult” Cheung says, especially because the pandemic has been especially deadly in prisons, and teachers “do not have any communication with anyone imprisoned there.”
But Cheung’s commitment to the learning community at Oakdale and the broader prison abolition movement has remained central to her work – growing in strength and solidarity with her community of PAGE fellows. Her PAGE Salon blog posts highlighted the central commitment of her work to women of color feminisms and prison abolition movements. The feedback she received underscored that motivation and the part it played in her decision to pursue a PhD in the first place.
“It’s very topical with what President Barack Obama recently said about defunding the police. Language has to be intentional. When I wrote ‘Abolishing the Academy’ I did mean we need to get rid of it. I think because academics are so trained to be critical thinkers and intellectualize our world that we make ourselves the exception to the violent practices and processes we study. But there’s just so much history between colonial practices, white supremacy, and patriarchy that use the University as their site of power. And that hasn’t really changed because we haven’t had a sustained and serious movement at ending it, at abolishing the academy.”
The PAGE Fellowship program has helped her find other scholars who are dedicated to similar issues and thinking about how graduate education and academic scholarship could be reimagined. Cheung points to her fellow PAGE Fellow Trisha Remetir, a PhD Candidate in English and Comparative Literature at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, as an inspiring scholar and colleague working towards many of the same ends.
“Trisha proposes so many examples of what abolitionist work and non-extractive public scholarship looks like: zines passed out on a bus, contributing to revolutionary study groups that so many communities are already doing outside of formal academic institutions or universities. People are reading Frantz Fanon and other really difficult texts, but in their own communities and for a specific purpose of organizing, collaborating, and acting. They’re using their imagination to ask and answer: ‘How can we actually create something else? Something different that does teach us, help us learn from each other in ways that don’t require Black and Indigenous and LGBTQ people to suffer within the system.’”
Many of these questions and answers might look different across different communities and universities in the US. Cheung was the only PAGE Fellow from the Midwestern region, between Chicago and California. As she describes, living and working in the Midwest presents different visions and understandings of activism and community care. “I think in the Midwest it’s harder to find activist spaces that get the same attention or empowerment that peer organizations receive in larger cities or on the coasts. They exist, for sure, but for any number of reasons – population density, survival, confidentiality, or supportive infrastructure – they’re not as visible or publicized.”
While “public” is not always synonymous with “political,” Cheung sees Humanities for the Public Good as one space at Iowa that is similarly working to refine and focus the core of graduate education on serving communities in more just and ethical ways. Her HPG committee work during the 2019-2020 academic year explored the meaning of community commitment that did not replicate exploitative or “drive by” models of engagement. This year, she is part of an HPG working group considering how racial justice can be woven within graduate education at every step of the way. Appropriately enough, it was a fellow working group member, Rachel Williams (Associate Professor in GWSS and Art & Art History and currently a UI Ombudsperson), who pointed Cheung towards Imagining America’s PAGE Fellowship program.
For Cheung, her HPG and PAGE Fellowship “flow right into each other. They are both examples that put funding and backing behind their values of graduate education and research.”