Bridging the university and the public
Two UCI professors bring visionaries to campus to discuss urgent, complex issues
By Annabel Adams
At first glance, China specialist Jeffrey Wasserstrom (Chancellor’s Professor of History) and prize-winning author Amy Wilentz (Professor of Literary Journalism) may seem an unlikely pair. Wasserstrom is an oft-cited expert on Chinese culture and politics; Wilentz is a seasoned journalist with a longstanding focus on Haiti. What they share is a belief in the university’s fundamental responsibility to facilitate dialogue among its scholars and the public. In service to this goal, the dynamic pair lead the Forum for the Academy and the Public at the University of California, Irvine. Founded in 2015, the Forum is a partnership between UCI’s Literary Journalism Program, its Department of History, and its School of Law. “Our main goal—with the Forum and as scholars and writers—is to offer a measure of truth and analysis in a complicated, dangerous time,” says Wilentz.
Wasserstrom and Wilentz have a long history of taking difficult and urgent issues and making them understandable and engaging to the public. For Wasserstrom, it was an art he honed early on, as a child growing up in a politically aware household. It was when he was in graduate school, though, that he realized the true potential of making scholarly work accessible to the public. A pair of filmmakers making a documentary on the 1989 student protests and massacre in China approached Wasserstrom about his dissertation on the history of Chinese youth movements. When Wasserstrom turned his dissertation into a book, it did well with scholars of China but did not reach a broad reading public. The documentary, however, made it to PBS’s "Frontline" and several film festivals. “It quickly became clear to me that I could have more impact and reach a wider audience if I didn’t confine myself to writing scholarly books. This was a transformative moment for me,” he says, “and I became committed to finding ways to combine research with communicating beyond specialist circles. I’ve been lucky throughout my career to find likeminded people involved in a similar breaking out of the purely academic sphere to collaborate with. Amy [Wilentz] is a perfect example of that. We really mesh that way.”
Wilentz did not begin her career as an academic. She started thinking about journalism and writing when she was at Harvard, where she majored in English and minored in French. Her first full-time journalism job was with The Nation magazine, where she spent four years on both the literary and political staff (she is still a contributing editor). She also worked as a reporter and editor at Newsday. When she started working at Time magazine, she found her calling: Haiti. She had been reading sporadically about Haiti and following journalist Bernard Diederich’s coverage of the Duvalier dynasty, an ongoing dictatorship there. Moved and inspired by reading Diederich’s files, Wilentz decided to visit Haiti and witness the events in real time. Fluent already in French, Wilentz studied Creole and then took her first trip to Port-au-Prince just in time to see the fall of Jean-Claude Duvalier in 1986. Soon after, she began work on her first book, which focused on that moment in history. She returned to Haiti in 2010 to cover the earthquake and its aftermath. “Working and living in Haiti was life changing,” she says. Since then, she has written two books on what she learned there: The Rainy Season: Haiti Since Duvalier and Farewell, Fred Voodoo: A Letter From Haiti, as well as other books. She was appointed to UCI’s Literary Journalism Program in 2007.
The UCI Forum for the Academy and the Public takes Wasserstrom and Wilentz’s commitment to understanding deeply urgent issues and amplifies it for a broader impact. Featuring an annual conference and a series of pop-up events throughout the year, the Forum has brought some of the world’s most brilliant and complicated thinkers, writers, and artists to campus. The annual conference takes an urgent current theme and, for two days, features a keynote and several panels dedicated to discussing the issue. Previous themes have included justice and narrative in the courtroom; freedom of expression in a changing world; the future of the truth in the Trump era; and American identity and the ideal of democracy in the 21st century. Unlike most academic conferences, the Forum’s intended audience is the public. Panelists are encouraged to think aloud in front of the audience, rather than to read from written papers or a PowerPoint, and the panels are moderated and directed to ensure that the public has plenty of time to ask questions and engage with the panelists.
While the conferences are intricately planned, the Forum’s pop-up events are meant to respond to breaking news or quickly unfolding developments, and thus can be planned with as little as a day or two’s notice. Previous pop-up subjects have included the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation proceedings, U.S.-North Korea relations, mass shootings, and human rights in Myanmar.
“Because these are conversations, not set pieces, there is a degree of spontaneity and collaboration among the presenters and the audience. You can’t get this information, in this form, anywhere else,” says Wasserstrom.
What is particularly noteworthy about the Forum’s series of conferences is the caliber and range of experts brought to the table. The Forum’s first official event in 2015, “Justice and Injustice: The Consequences of Storytelling in the Courtroom,” featured Bryan Stevenson, best-selling author of I and founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative as keynote. In 2016, the Forum’s conference, “What Cannot Be Said,” featured keynote Edward Snowden, National Security Agency whistleblower, via Google Hangout. Timed to coincide with the first anniversary of the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris, the two-day event took place at both UCI and USC and featured not only writers and scholars, but also political cartoonists (like Lalo Alcarez, Ann Telnaes and Zunar), comedians (like Sandra Tsing Loh and Azhar Usman), and hip-hop artists. This year’s conference, “Who Do We Think We Are,” featured New Yorker staff writer and Harvard professor Jill Lepore, author of The Secret History of Wonder Woman and These Truths: A History of the United States, as keynote speaker.
This coming February 8-9, the Forum will tackle its first scientific issue—climate change. “Fire & Ice: The Shifting Narrative of Climate Change” will feature climate activist Bill McKibben, author of The End of Nature, as keynote speaker, and a range of interdisciplinary panelists including Peter Gleick, head of the Pacific Institute; Isabel Hilton, London-based international journalist and broadcaster who runs a bilingual website that tracks how different countries are dealing with environmental issues; the New Yorker’s environmental writer Elizabeth Kolbert, author of Field Notes from a Catastrophe and The Sixth Extinction; Nathaniel Rich, writer-at-large for the New York Times Magazine; Eric Rignot, UCI’s Donald Bren Professor of Earth system science; and Cathy Whitlock, professor of earth sciences at Montana State University and lead investigator on NSF WildFIRE Partnership in Research and Education.
“Some like to say that humans can’t face the challenges of climate change because the problem is too big. It’s planetary in scope,” says Wilentz. “We at the Forum for the Academy and the Public think this most pressing issue in humanity’s history can and must be addressed immediately, locally and globally. That’s why the conference this year is taking a wide-ranging and, we hope, provocative look at this looming existential disaster. We definitely hope our conversations will lead to action and new policy ideas.”
Though the list of Fire & Ice panelists includes several scientists, it is also populated heavily with journalists, writers and communicators. This range of experts from across the STEM and humanities fields is intentional and fundamental to the Forum’s ethos.
“There is consensus among scientists about the looming threat of climate change, but unless writers and others who work in communications perform the intermediary service of taking that data and those analyses and bringing the material to the public and making it understandable for the public, the public won’t know what’s happening and, worse, won’t know what to do,” says Wilentz. “Communication on climate change leads to mitigation, and is especially important at this moment of crisis.”
While Wasserstrom and Wilentz are putting the final touches on Fire & Ice, they are also looking ahead to the future and thinking about how they can take the electric discussions among their panelists and the public and turn these into action that will lead to change. “Every time we get conversations going between people from different backgrounds, new ways of thinking about issues emerge,” Wasserstrom says. “That happened when our focus was on free speech and on American identity, so we expect it to happen again when we tackle what in many ways is the biggest issue of our time: climate change.”
To learn more about the UCI Forum for the Academy and the Public and its forthcoming conference, “Fire & Ice: The Shifting Narrative of Climate Change,” visit http://sites.uci.edu/fireandice