Critical Lessons & Educational Change

Dear Scholars of Imagining America

Yasmin Ortiga

December 16, 2009

I chose to write my letter to the scholars behind Imagining America. While there were many issues in class which I felt strongly about, the topic of engaged scholarship was something which particularly inspired me. On one hand, the idea of a university culture promoting the public good is something which I am interested in pursuing as part of my research work. Few people realize that the Philippines is the top source of highly skilled migrants in the United States (we rank above Mexico, India and China). Therefore, in the context of a country which specializes in the export of labor, engaged scholarship is considerably quite rare. In most cases, local tertiary institutions are merely run as knowledge factories, where the main point of teaching is to make students viable commodities in the labor market.

However, the work of Imagining America touched me on a more personal level as well. While I had my own dreams of how to make an impact with my work, I was also someone who played the game. Like some of the professors the TTI report mentions, I did not think that it would be possible to do publicly engaged work without the security of tenure. Therefore, I was much more pragmatic than political, willing to do what it takes to get ahead. It was in reading about IA’s work that I realized how much of myself I put on hold in working towards this “goal” I thought I had to achieve. Therefore, this letter was mainly a simple way of saying thank you to those who fought for a continuum of scholarship.

Dear Scholars of Imagining America,

First, I’d like to apologize for not being able to name you all specifically. I wanted to write to the people who were behind Imagining America (IA) so I went to your website and tried to look for a director, a chairperson, or a project leader to whom I could address my letter. Interestingly, I found this to be quite a challenge! While there were definitely people who led IA’s projects (Jan Cohen-Cruz, Timothy Eatman, Nancy Cantor, etc.), the changes the organization proposed did not just seem to come from them. Rather, it appeared that many other deans, chairs, administrators and faculty members (both tenured and untenured) took on the task of “imagining” a new form of scholarship. Given the wonderful collective effort that created IA, it did not seem right to reduce this letter to a few important names. Therefore, I decided to write this letter to all of you – and by “you” I refer to all artists and scholars who accepted the challenge of creating a university culture geared towards a public good.

I hope you don’t mind this unexpected letter. This semester, one of my professors actually gave us the time and the space to do a little imagining ourselves. In this assignment, we were asked to write a letter engaging a theme that touched us throughout a semester of tackling issues and problems in education. We had a lot of choices. Not only because we could write a letter about the issues we advocated, but because we could write to whomever we wanted and in some cases, imagine the possibility of our letters being read and seriously considered. Oh, I had a list! I thought of the president of my country, a scholar named Ronald Takaki, and even the principal of my high school. I was excited to discuss a whole range of themes, and found myself shifting from social policy in education to the tragedy of America’s “little brown brothers” and a biased history curriculum. Yet, in the end, I realized that while all these letters would have been fun and interesting to write, they would have been just like all the other papers I write in graduate school – critical and (trying to be) insightful, but not very personal at all. Given that we were asked to write a letter, I thought that the least I could do was make sure it truly came from “me” and not just the student handing in her assignment. This was the reason why I decided to write to all of you – and by “you” I mean all the artists and scholars who took on the challenge to be publicly engaged in their work.

I guess I should start by saying how much I admire the work that you do. We read the Tenure Team Initiative (TTI) report in class and I was amazed at the idea of modifying the tenure system to include publicly engaged scholarship. When Timothy Eatman came to class, I sat through his talk thinking about how wonderful it must be to engage society in scholarly work. I assumed that a lot of my classmates identified with IA’s goals, given that most of them were practitioners who were trying to bridge the gap between the community and the academe. I wish I could say that I counted myself among them. Sadly, I have to admit that I wasn’t too sure.

The thing is, I’m pretty much someone who has learned to play the game. I came into graduate school with a plan – how many manuscripts to publish, the kind of professors I would need in my committee, and the quality of internships I needed to get for the summer. Yes, at times, I thought that this paper chase was stressful and “soul-sucking” (I’m quoting this from a former colleague) but I was also believed that the academe is a career and in the “real world,” everyone has a ladder to climb. When I read the TTI report, I saw myself in those faculty members who believed in waiting till they got tenure before they did publicly engaged work. I was ready to wait. And when I felt guilty about where I was situating myself, I rationalized that I would be able to do all the things I wanted once I “made it” in my career.

I think I  related so much to IA’s work because I have seen both sides of your “continuum of scholarship.” For my undergraduate education, I went to the University of the Philippines (UP), a very publicly engaged university which was ironically established by Americans[1] as well.  As the country’s premiere public university with a highly subsidized tuition, we were called iskolar ng bayan or scholars of the nation. From freshman year, we were told about the “debt” we owed to the people who paid for our tuition. Therefore, the emphasis of our education was on service and social justice. During the Marcos dictatorship, our university was the center of anti-government protest and it was common to find soldiers storming the campus to arrest student leaders. My professors tell amazing stories of carrying their chairs to University Avenue, where they built a barricade, doused it with gasoline and set it on fire (this would probably be a little more difficult to do in the snow).  A few days ago, the College of Mass Communications staged a “walk out” to protest the massacre of 30 journalists in the Southern Philippines[2]. My sister, a broadcast communications major, wrote me an email saying that their dean had gone to every classroom, telling students to join the rally, “Don’t be afraid. You will all be together.” Jeepneys brought students, faculty, administrators and staff all the way to the president’s palace in downtown Manila. The entire college was empty for a day.

In terms of IA’s “continuum of scholarship,” UP would probably be on the extreme side of public engagement. Don’t get me wrong. I am proud of being from UP. As students, we were not coddled, spoon-fed or sheltered from the “real world.” In fact, my field work skills were taught by professors who were often in the field themselves. Yet, along with funding issues and budget cuts, there were disadvantages to being in the extreme. Because we were so focused on what was useful, practical and of service, we didn’t really learn much theory in the classroom. Research was lacking and few of our faculty really contributed to the general disciplines they were in. There was also little conversation with other scholars – especially those from other nations who were actually fighting for similar goals. As a result, UP didn’t rank very highly among other Asian universities and it failed to gain recognition for academic excellence. UP students were learning to be active citizens but they weren’t learning everything that they needed to know to become effective professionals and scholars. In this sense, I do believe that some “power, prestige and cash” would have been useful in helping the university achieve its goals.

In contrast, I encountered the other end of the continuum when I went to work for the National Institute of Education in Singapore. Interestingly, I came at a time when the Singapore government was in the final stages of shifting from a “British style” of higher education to a model based on the “American university.” Barely two decades ago, their universities were mainly focused on teaching and barely made its presence felt in Southeast Asia. To change this, the first thing the new administration did was demand that all faculty submit a list of publications done within the past 6 years. Those who lacked a particular number of journal articles were fired and new professors were brought in from some of the most prestigious universities in the world. To get hired as a research assistant, one had to have top academic records and an ability to write, write and write. Every research team was given a list of journals – categorized according to impact factor with special emphasis placed on those from the US and the UK. This was stressful for the faculty but it came with amazing benefits. My husband and I often joked that funding in Singapore flowed like water out of a faucet (parang gripo). There was money for conferences, intervention programs and even additional books that were not in the library. We could do all of this as long as it was coupled with a journal publication or two. Today, the National University of Singapore is ranked number 30 in the world, above other institutions such as Boston University, UCLA and Brown University[3].

However, there were also problems in being on this side of the extreme. Because most of the faculty members were from other countries, few of them were concerned about doing work which engaged Singapore’s multicultural communities. At the same time, they were often bogged down in trying to make sure they published enough to get their contracts renewed. I remember my boss, an Australian professor, did not even have the time to visit schools with the rest of the team. While we successfully published an article on student motivation, he never met any of the students or teachers who took part in our study.

I remember telling myself then: when I finally get to lead my own research project, I will not sit in an office and make other people gather data for me. I will be out in the field like my UP professors and teach my students to do the same. Yet, I realized: to lead my own project, I would need to get funding. And to get that funding, I would need to be a professor with an office to sit in.

In a way, it’s interesting to think about how these two extreme versions of scholarship were initially begun by people who imagined America. UP was established by American colonizers who wanted to build a public university which offered subsidized tuition and equal opportunity (they didn’t anticipate an anti-imperialist student body – but that’s another long story).  Meanwhile, Singapore’s institutions were remodeled by leaders who envisioned an American-style university which could produce top research studies and symbolize academic prestige.  In a way, IA’s work touched me because it offered a way to imagine these two extremes together. And the TTI report made the possibility a lot more tangible than just wishful thinking.

I have to admit, working from both extremes can make you a little jaded. During my first few weeks of graduate school, I was amazed at how idealistic some of the students were about promoting social justice.  While it was easy to dream big in the classroom, I felt that the “real world” demanded that one be open towards compromise and sacrifice. There are still tests to take, money to earn and games to play. I thought that creating change would be easier once we’ve all “made it” and yes, perhaps, once we have the power, prestige and cash to do so. It was only after I read about IA’s work that I realized how much of myself I had lost because I was willing to wait. Reading about your work helped me visualize a continuum of scholarship which until then, had been impossible for me to imagine.

So, I guess, the whole reason I wrote this letter is to express my gratitude. I know how hard it must have been to propose an alternative vision of what it means to be true academic scholars. Often, I feel that people get stuck in the two extremes because they cannot think of a way to engage with the other.

Thank you, thank you, thank you. And by you, I gratefully refer to all the faculty, administrators and graduate students who had the courage to imagine a different kind of scholarship for the rest of us.


Yasmin Ortiga


[1] This was during the American colonization of the Philippines from 1898 to 1945. UP used to be called “The American University of the Philippines” – a really interesting (and often ignored) part of history that should probably be the subject of another letter.

[3] This is based on the QS World University Rankings. Website: