Action and Engaged Scholarship: Tiya Miles

In her book, Men in Dark Times, Hannah Arendt created portraits of those whose lives illuminated an era. “Even in the darkest of times,” she wrote, “we have the right to expect some illumination…[S]uch illumination may well come less from theories and concepts than from the uncertain, flickering, and often weak light that some men and women, in their lives and works, will kindle under almost all circumstances and shed over the time span that was given them on earth…” (p. ix). Here is the remarkable story of a young woman whose light illuminates our own times. And it flickers brightly.

In 1996, I was invited to give a keynote address to the Pacific Southwest Women’s Studies Association in Claremont, California with a young graduate student who was completing her doctorate in American Studies at the University of Minnesota. Her name was Tiya Miles and yesterday she was one of 22 people selected to receive the prestigious MacArthur Foundation “genius” awards.

Even as a graduate student, Tiya was making waves. A “third wave” feminist, she had been featured in a story about the next generation of feminists in Ms. Magazine in 1995. A talented writer, her vibrant essays appeared in  collections celebrating new voices, such as Listen Up: Voices of the Next Generation, edited by Barbara Findlen (Seal Press, 1995).

Tiya and I decided to create a different sort of presentation for the women’s studies meeting. In telephone conversations and letter exchanges we began to craft a sort of essay-as-performance, weaving together points of view from an “older” and a “newer” feminist about the relationship between feminist scholarship and feminist action. We called it “Risking Integrity: Political Responsibilities of Women’s Studies to Changing Communities.” We never published the essay, which I regret. But the document adds historical dimension to the depth of Tiya’s commitment to scholarship that matters in the lives of people today, especially those who have been marginalized by political, social, cultural, and economic inequalities.

“I often wonder, along with many of my fellow graduate students,” Tiya wrote, “what this job is we’re preparing for. Most of us come to this work with a sense of idealism and energy. We hope that by teaching and writing, by being oppositional critics, we can be agents of progressive social change and have a positive impact on students’ lives and communities. Then we see that some of our professors, even in Women’s Studies, seem mesmerized by the possibilities of more and better publications so that students’ well-being fades into the corners of their vision.” Tiya then told a story about a personal experience that had made her fall into what she called a “deep crisis of faith,” an event that made her doubt, at first, the path she had taken toward a career in the academy.

Tiya wrestled with that doubt and ultimately renewed her commitment to become a professor dedicated to providing her students with the needed tools to understand the world and make it a better place.

In her book, The Human Condition, Hannah Arendt wrote that “[t]he miracle that saves the world, the realm of human affairs, from its normal, ‘natural’ ruin is…the fact of natality…It is, in other words, the birth of new [people] and the new beginning, the action they are capable of by virtue of being born. Only the full experience of this capacity can bestow upon human affairs faith and hope…” (p. 247) Implicitly connecting with this principle, Tiya articulated a vision of engaged scholarship: “Women’s Studies professors, and other academics whose fields emerged out of political struggles, have a commitment to ensure that their scholarship and the scholarship of their colleagues is being re-integrated into those movements and into non-academic communities.” But, she wondered, “How do we negotiate the demands of the academic system on which we rely for our livelihood, the demands of our consciences, and the needs of our communities? How do we prepare for the risks we take when we step outside of sanctioned academic parameters. Who are our models?”

Tiya Miles has answered her own question. Not only her important scholarship on intersections in the history of African-American and Native American peoples, (Ties That Bind: The Story of an Afro-Cherokee Family in Slavery and Freedom (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005; The House on Diamond Hill: A Cherokee Plantation Story (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010)) but also her public history work, her recently established project to engage girls and young women in environmental work, called ECOGirls, plus her own commitment to balance her work with a richly textured personal life demonstrate that she has become one of the models.

Congratulations, Tiya.

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