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Simpson Center for the Humanities

Profile of a Public Scholar: Keith Feldman

The second in a series of public scholar alumni profiles.

Currently Assistant Professor of Ethnic Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, Keith Feldman received his PhD in English from the University of Washington in 2008. His current research centers on theorizing and narrating the many connections between U.S. imperial culture and changing geopolitical engagements with West Asia, North Africa, the Arab and Muslim worlds, and Israel/Palestine. He is working on a book manuscript, “Special Relationships: Israel, Palestine and U.S. Imperial Culture.”

He is also working on two related projects. One, tentatively called “Patterns of Life: Raciality and the Visual Culture of the War on Terror,” addresses the visual culture of a purportedly ‘post-racial imaginary” from the public print culture of political iconography in the age of Obama to the scopic regime produced by the drone wars at the borders of U.S. imperial cartography. The second is a collaboration with several scholars to theorize the “race/religion/war” nexus as it has been forged transnationally, asking how race and religion are used to establish war as a strategy of political power, and conversely how the uses of war stabilize the epistemologies of race and religion as intimately linked organizing categories of social life. Feldman is also pursuing a textual studies project to republish David Graham Du Bois' ...And Bid Him Sing (1975), an autobiographical novel about the cultural practices of black radicalism in Cairo in the 1960s.

While at the UW, Feldman co-organized, with Anoop Mirpuri and Georgia Roberts, “Public Rhetorics and Permanent War” (2005-2007), a graduate student cohort invested in producing intellectual work that engaged pressing political questions. “Public Rhetorics and Permanent War” hosted lectures and discussions with scholar-activists that included Angela Davis, Derek Gregory, and Van Jones among others. Interviews with the Gregory and Jones were published in Theory & Event 12.3 (2009) and Antipode 41.3 (2009).

The Simpson Center recently had the opportunity to talk with Feldman about how he has continued to practice public scholarship since receiving his degree.

SC: How did you become interested in public scholarship?

KF: It might have started with the contrapuntal practice of Edward Said, playing the scholarly and the political simultaneously, unhoused and always already against the grain of institutionalization. But then it was forged collaboratively amidst a cohort of graduate students interested in the articulation of scholarship, art, and activism at the crossroads of war and neoliberalism. The sharp edge of collaboration, its capacity to animate and push and demand further elaboration of ideas and practices that circulate in different settings—that’s what’s sustaining about the project of public scholarship.

How do you define or understand the term “public scholarship”?

For me public scholarship is problem-based. It’s responsive less to disciplinary paradigms and their attendant bibliographies and citational logics (even as it strategically draws on these) than to the questions pressed upon it by a particular conjuncture. Also, it demands critically leveraging expanding access to knowledge production and circulation, inviting an engagement with the mayhem of heterogeneity that constitutes the once and future public, against the tide of a neoliberal university intent on hiving off difference in the service of “diversity.”

How has public scholarship shaped what you are doing professionally since receiving your degree from UW?

As a faculty member in a public institution today, it’s hard to avoid asking about the relationship between knowledge production and the circuits of power that shape where and how it travels. I now have the extraordinary privilege to work in an academic setting (Ethnic Studies) whose animating force at its inception was to hold the university accountable for its role in democratizing access to the resources of higher education and, in the process, transform the very basic epistemological substructure of the modern university. With this in mind, the research, teaching, and service components of my work can’t help but be driven by a commitment to addressing problems relevant to ethno-racial communities in the Bay Area and beyond, and to supporting the educational trajectories of students of color on campus.

What kinds of public scholarship projects are you currently working on?

At present my public scholarship work is taking the shape in a variety of advisory positions: supporting the programming of UC Berkeley’s Multicultural Center and its Center for Race and Gender—two sites granted by the university in response to a student-led strike in 1999 that bring various communities of practice to bear on knowledge production. I’m also involved in shoring up the grids of intelligibility for community engagement in our undergraduate curricula and am serving on the Faculty Advisory Board of the American Cultures Engaged Scholarship (ACES) initiative—a campus-wide undergraduate learning initiative to pair racial/social justice pedagogy with community-based partnerships. A team from ACES has begun working with Imagining America to craft more durable scaffolding for such projects. And from that work I’ve begun collaborating with a group of faculty, staff, graduate students, undergraduates, and Bay Area activists to develop a space to support work around Critical Prison Studies in the age of Mass Incarceration.

In your opinion, why does public scholarship matter to graduate education?

The easy answers—around maintaining relevance, marketability, and the like—and even the slightly more difficult answers—around sustaining a vibrant practice of interdisciplinarity—are certainly worth bearing in mind. But the more complex concerns this relationship raises—around, for instance, what Stuart Hall calls the “dangers of institutionalization”—invites us to dwell with the messy analytical and political questions such a relationship reveals.


Interested in knowing more? Contact Feldman at

Learn more about the public scholarship activities at the Simpson Center, such as the graduate Certificate in Public Scholarship.