Let the City Serve Knowledge

“I think one of the important things that we’ve all learned in recent years is that knowledge takes many forms and is generated in many locations.”

-Dr. Susan Jeffords
PSU’s motto is “Let knowledge serve the city” and it’s written on a sign on the
sky bridge over Broadway in the heart of PSU’s campus. This mockup proposes a
remix of the motto to say “Let the city serve knowledge.”
Photo and lettering by Laura Glazer.

One of the things that I first loved in Portland was a sign above Broadway. Its tall gold letters state “LET KNOWLEDGE SERVE THE CITY.” When I saw it in 2016, I didn’t know it was PSU’s motto or that it was on PSU’s campus. At that time, I was in the fifteenth year of hosting my weekly radio show called “Hello Pretty City.” I started it in Albany, New York, in 2001, as a way of using the radio to make myself and residents of New York’s Capital Region feel better about living in what many of us considered a dull city. I imagined listeners looking out their windows at the city and hearing my voice and the mix of cool indie-rock music coming from the radio making it feel better to live 2.5 hours north of one of the coolest places, New York City. 

Originally, I planned to call the show “Radio Photo Booth.” While that name combined two of my interests—radio and photo booths—it sounded awkward and I tried to think of a new name but couldn’t. As a result, the show was unnamed for the first few episodes until I noticed that I picked out songs related to the idea of “place.” Sometimes, this meant a mention of a specific city and other times, a longing for a more general change of scenery associated with a memory in a certain place and time.  

When I saw the words “LET KNOWLEDGE SERVE THE CITY” in my new Portland home, I immediately thought: “that would make a perfect song to play on my radio show! This is going to be an inspiring place to live!” Although I ended the radio show project in 2018, I continue making art that responds to cities and “place”. 

As Portland’s “urban university,” PSU has an informed perspective on the role artists like me play in serving “the city” and creating new knowledge with the city and for the city which I discuss with PSU’s chief academic officer, Provost Susan Jeffords. 

Dr. Susan Jeffords: Hi, it’s so nice to meet you. 

Laura Glazer: Likewise. How’s your day? 

Dr. Jeffords: Good, good. How about you? 

Laura: Really good. 

Dr. Jeffords: I’m so glad to hear that. People don’t often say really good, so it’s nice to hear. 

Laura: Our program runs a museum in an elementary school and today we did an art project with PSU undergrads and third graders.

Dr. Jeffords: That must have been really energetic. That’s fabulous. 

Laura: It was really special. I could see community-based learning happening right in front of my eyes. It was amazing. 

Dr. Jeffords: I think that’s so awesome. That’s really wonderful. I know there’s a lot of learning that takes place when students feel like there’s a safe space, a familiar space. They know they’re supposed to work there, they know what’s happening there [when they’re on campus.]

But every once in a while you need to take kids out of that environment and it’s something new and parts of the brain open up that they hadn’t used before. 

Laura: What do I do next to help them engage what they’ve done off campus in the community with the learning they’re doing in their classes on PSU’s campus? 

Dr. Jeffords: That’s a really good question. How do you close the circle? 

Laura: Yes! Do you? I’m kind of new to all of this, so I’m curious.

Dr. Jeffords: I think for a lot of students that happens in their capstone courses. Because that’s part of the purpose of the capstones is to give students those kinds of community-based experiences and then to have reflective opportunities to think about what they’ve learned there and how their learning has been impactful in those environments.

I think the capstones are designed precisely to do that and a lot of faculty work to incorporate those kinds of learning moments into their everyday classroom practice. So you’re new here, how long have you been here? 

Laura: I moved to Portland in 2016 and then I found out about the art and social practice MFA program a few years later. 

Dr. Jeffords: That’s a great program. 

Laura: What’s your connection to our program? 

Dr. Jeffords: I’ve had a chance to talk to Harrell Fletcher and some of the other folks who have been instrumental in developing that program. I’m just so impressed with the integration and the commitment that art is not this ethereal thing that happens up in the stratosphere and the rest of our lives are lived down here on the ground. But that art is part of our everyday experiences and can be not just a sort of side experience, but a tool and a mechanism for the kind of change that we imagine.

Laura: That’s what I wanted to talk about with you today. I watched the series of videos that College of Urban and Public Affairs (CUPA) did this fall. I noticed art didn’t come up in talking about the future of the urban design plan and PSU and I’m sad about that. 

Dr. Jeffords: You’re right that up until now we haven’t seen as much of that integration as we would like. But there are tons of conversations happening right now both on campus, as well as with partners in the community, about really leaning into and being arts-facing, as one of our points of distinction for PSU. But even better than that, as something that is a point of distinction for the city of Portland.

Portland is a remarkably creative community. I run into people all the time who are starting a small business or they’ve opened some practice that they’re doing and their backgrounds are “I worked for big tech” or “I worked in this big organization, this big institution someplace else, and I just couldn’t stand it anymore and I came here to Portland because I knew that I could start over and use my creativity in a different kind of way.” I think Portland is infused with people who have said “this is a community where I can be creative.”

Laura: In the future and the present of PSU, does the art that someone like me makes in the art and social practice program factor into PSU being the urban research university? 

Dr. Jeffords: I’d love that. I would love that. I would really look to the people in the program to guide us on how best to make that happen. I would love to see that happen, absolutely. 

Laura: How would we do that? 

Dr. Jeffords: That’s a good question that we can ask all of you, right? Because that’s part of the goal of the program, to figure out how you take ideas and put them into practice. I could challenge you all and say, how can we make this become part of our practice? I’d be really interested in your thoughts on that.

Laura: That’s a really good question! I’m not really sure. I watched those CUPA videos and I was like, I wish there was an artist here because they’re like professional interrupters.

Dr. Jeffords: Oh, I love that! That’s such a good phrase. 

Laura: I noticed there was a lot of research coming to the table during those talks but I’m not sure anyone’s thinking, how do I engage it? 

Dr. Jeffords: I would welcome a chance if you and your colleagues in the program could come up with some thoughts about that. How do we put all this into practice at PSU, not outside the campus, but here? If you all could have that conversation and come up with some ideas, I would really love that. I’d love to continue the discussion. 

Laura: Where would we get a good snapshot of where PSU is right now in this visioning process of moving forward? 

Dr. Jeffords: There’s a lot of visioning happening at the local level. We are in the process of hiring a new president and I suspect once the new president’s on board, that person will want to lead a campus-wide conversation. I think that we are really building up towards having that campus conversation as soon as the new president is on board. 

Laura: Will that be for the fall? 

Dr. Jeffords: Oh, yes. That person is going to be named soon, I think they’re hoping within the next month. 

Laura: You’re obviously part of that conversation happening now, right? 

Dr. Jeffords: Well, the trustees hire the president. The board of trustees is in charge of that process. But there’s a search committee and everything.

Laura: I regret to say I didn’t make it a priority to go to one of those meetings. 

Dr. Jeffords: They’re all starting to happen next week, so you still have time. It’s really important that people provide feedback. The trustees are eager to hear how people respond to the candidates. It’s an exciting moment for the university.

Laura: Is it okay to be an artist asking those questions in an academic environment? 

Dr. Jeffords: Absolutely. 

Laura: I think that’s a barrier in a sense of…

Dr. Jeffords: Maybe that’s a barrier in your head.

Laura: Maybe!

Dr. Jeffords: Get rid of that barrier. I think people value the voices of artists so much around here that I think everybody would welcome that. Sometimes I think folks get tired of “I’m an economist and I can tell that ‘those numbers’ and ‘that factor’ instead of this ‘other factor’?” They’re like, “oh God, how much more of this can we take?” I think somebody coming at this from the point of view of an artist, people would say, “oh, thank God, we have this voice in the room.”

Laura: I’m graduating in June and I was thinking about how to make a living as an artist. When you think about your students who are studying art, where do they belong? 

Dr. Jeffords: I was just talking to somebody today in the College of the Arts about this. Some faculty who recognize that this is a question that lots of students in the arts ask: “how do I make a living doing this and not just have it as a pastime?” And they’re talking about—and it would be great to get the feedback of you and other students—maybe adding one or two courses that’s pretty basic stuff, like how to make a living as an artist and how do you create that kind of sustainable career path as an artist? I thought that was a fabulous idea that they were considering and I suspect a lot of students would welcome a course that’s really intentionally designed for artists to be able to think about how do you make this your life practice and not a hobby because you have to take some other job. 

Laura: I like that phrase, life practice. I taught a class called Ideation this past fall. As an instructor I really felt like I was sharing tools for life practice. 

Dr. Jeffords: I think that’s great. I lived in Seattle for many years and while we were living there, my nephew lived with us while he went to Cornish College of the Arts. They make “how do you make a living as an artist” a regular track for all their students. I thought that was so smart and I know that all the students really appreciated that. I think that would be a good thing for us to integrate. I think all of our students would like to have real conversations about careers as they are going through their education. 

Laura: Is PSU using the arts program as part of recruitment? 

Dr. Jeffords: We are but I think we can do a lot better at that. I know that the Dean of the College of the Arts, Leroy Bynum, has really strong feelings about that. There are some targeted recruitments that happen already, like in the music programs and singing and performing programs. But I think there’s something more to be said for any student who would want to have an arts experience as part of their overall education.

That’s one of the reasons that we’re so proud of the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art on campus. We want all the prospective student tours to go by there and say, Hey, by the way, anytime you feel like going to the museum, it’s free. It’s just part of your experience here. I love that in the heart of our campus, we have a museum that’s free to every student to just go in there and if they have 10 minutes and they wanna look at one work of art, that’s great and then go to class. You don’t have to feel like I have to make an intentional trip to a museum, you can just have art around you all the time. 

The current sign on campus says PSU’s motto “Let knowledge serve the city.”
Photo by Laura Glazer.

Laura: When I moved here in 2016 and I saw the sign on the walkway over Broadway that says “Let knowledge serve the city”, I was just so elated. I’ve thought about it a lot recently and that’s another reason why I wanted to talk with you. Is there a way to think about it in terms of “let the city serve knowledge”? 

Dr. Jeffords: That’s an interesting question. Tell me more about what you’re thinking there. 

Laura: Originally, I thought about what would happen if we replaced the word “knowledge” with “art” so it became “let art serve the city.” But then talking with some friends, who said that isn’t good because artists are often asked to serve and do work without compensation; that we need to change the status quo and compensate artists. Then I was talking with Harrell and he suggested “what if it was ‘let the city serve knowledge?’”

Dr. Jeffords: I think that’s a really interesting idea. I’ve never heard anybody talk about flipping that around. This is why we need artists in the room. Nobody’s ever said that before, that I know of. You have to be in more conversations! 

Laura: I did a little mockup.

Dr. Jeffords: I love that. I love it. That’s so fun. 

Laura: I was thinking of proposing to do an installation of this sign as an art project to see what happens. 

Dr. Jeffords: I love it. Yeah, yeah. 

Laura: I don’t know if anyone would notice so I would have some sort of engagement piece on the ground to point it out. 

Dr. Jeffords: Yep, yep. I love this idea. 

Laura: Yeah?

Dr. Jeffords: It’s fabulous. 

Laura: It’s like a follow-up celebration to the 50th anniversary of the Urban Design plan. 

Dr. Jeffords: I like it. 

Laura: So I could propose it to you? 

Dr. Jeffords: Yep, you betcha. I love it. 

Laura: That’s very exciting. And who in the city of Portland would I also show it to? Because I would want “the city” to see it. 

Dr. Jeffords: That’s what I was just thinking. Kevin Neely, who is the head of our community and external relations, handles all of our relationships with the city. He’d be able to say, “Hey, here are the folks in the city that we’d wanna make sure saw that.”

Laura: The MFA students have an end of year exhibit at the art museum which is right below that sign! 

Dr. Jeffords: Oh my gosh. Yeah, it’s perfect. 

Laura: So maybe it could be… 

Dr. Jeffords: …it could be part of that. Yeah. Yeah, exactly. 

Laura: Interesting. 

Dr. Jeffords: I like it. 

Laura: That’s exciting. 

Dr. Jeffords: This is good.

Laura: All right. That’s a couple months away, so that’s actually enough time to put all the gears in motion. 

Dr. Jeffords: Yep. I like this a lot.

Laura: That’s so cool. Thank you. What is your vision when I say let the city serve knowledge? What is it that ignited you when I said that? 

Dr. Jeffords: I believe that we all know that we benefit from learning more and having more ideas. Whether that’s a new product that goes into the economy or a new way of thinking about preserving resources or climate issues. I think everybody knows that we all benefit from this. What I think is kind of interesting there is to say: to what extent is the city reinforcing that generation of knowledge is a benefit to everybody? 

Laura: I wonder that, too. Does it sound elitist for a city to say, we are served by knowledge? Is that exclusionary language? Is that at odds with what we’re trying to do as a university and bring more people in who may not recognize that they have knowledge?

Dr. Jeffords: That’s a really interesting question. I think one of the important things that we’ve all learned in recent years is that knowledge takes many forms and is generated in many locations. I think to the extent that we believe that knowledge is equated with advanced degrees—that the more degrees you have, the more knowledge you have—then we are becoming elitist and we’re ignoring that cultures that recognize that folks as they age actually are repositories of knowledge who should be respected and to acknowledge and want to seek out the wisdom of elders.

I think to the extent that we have knowledge as a broad term that encompasses all of that, then it’s not elitist. We just have to keep away from the idea that knowledge is how many letters you have after your name. 

Laura: That seems to come up a lot in what we study in art and social practice.

Dr. Jeffords: I’m sure it does. It’s got to be something that you talk about a lot. 

Laura: It’s at the core of so many projects. Even working with those third-graders today, they knew so much. 

Dr. Jeffords: They do know a lot and we need to give them spaces to feel like what they know is important. 

When my kids were little they went to an alternative school in the city of Seattle. They always asked for parents to volunteer to do all kinds of things at school and one of the things I volunteered to do is to take prospective parents around to look at the school. We went in one time with a tour of some parents to the kindergarten. We stood in the door and the teacher was over in the corner just sitting and playing his guitar. The kids were all around the room. One kid was pulling apart an owl’s nest to see what was inside of it. Another one was building blocks, another was drawing something, and one was playing music. 

I looked at that and I thought, I love this room. One of the parents said, “he’s not teaching, why is he not teaching?” I said, “what you don’t realize is that while he’s sitting there seeming to play the guitar, he’s watching,” because this was like in October, so it was early in the year. “Within a month, he will know how each of those kids learns best. He’ll be able to teach them in the ways in which they learn best. But if he didn’t spend that time learning about who they are, then he couldn’t teach all of them, he could only teach the ones that knew how to learn in a certain way.”

I said, “he is the best teacher I’ve ever seen.” But I remember thinking about how we were seeing this space so differently. This person was imagining that teaching was, you stand here and you tell people things. Instead of the idea that teaching is this engagement with how people learn and recognizing that people—even kids—are bringing that kind of wisdom to the table, just by bringing their curiosity. 

Laura: I see that you have our MFA program book on your shelf. Is that its normal home? 

Dr. Jeffords: Yes, that’s exactly where it is.

Laura: Oh my gosh. 

Dr. Jeffords: You betcha. 

Laura: Amazing. 

Dr. Jeffords: I’m going to have to quit in a minute. But I’m enjoying our conversation so much. I hope you’re going to come back. 

Laura: I am. 

Dr. Jeffords: Good.

Laura: This won’t be the last you hear of me!

Dr. Jeffords: I am happy to hear that. 

Laura: Can I take a picture of you at the table here and get the book in the background? 

Dr. Jeffords: You’ve got to get the book in the background! Tell me where to move so I can get the book in the background. I’ll just point to it. 

Dr. Jeffords in her office where the 2018 book It Can Change As We Go Along: Ten Years
of the PSU Art and Social Practice MFA Program is displayed on her bookshelf.
Photo by Laura Glazer.

Laura: That’s perfect! Thank you so much for meeting with me. 

Dr. Jeffords: This has been so much fun for me. I’m counting on you coming back. I have really, really enjoyed talking with you. 

Laura: Me, too. I can’t wait to do it again. I’ll talk to you soon. 

Dr. Jeffords: I hope so. 

Dr. Susan Jeffords joined Portland State University in 2018 as Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs. She served previously in numerous roles at the University of Washington, including department chair, Vice Provost for Global Affairs, and Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs at the University of Washington Bothell. Jeffords has written and taught broadly in the area of American popular culture, with a particular emphasis on Hollywood film, the Vietnam War, and feminism. She is particularly committed to increasing opportunities for more diverse and underrepresented communities to participate actively in higher education, including expanding opportunities for international and community engagement.

Laura Glazer (she/her) is an artist using curatorial strategies to uncover and share exciting stories that she finds in places she lives and visits. Her work is socially-engaged and depends on the participation of other people, sometimes a close friend, and other times, complete strangers. Her background in photography and design inform her social practice, and her projects appear as books, workshops, radio shows, zines, festivals, exhibitions, installations, posters, signs, postal correspondence, and sculpture. She studied photography at Rochester Institute of Technology and is an MFA candidate in Art and Social Practice from Portland State University. Born in northern Virginia, she was a longtime resident of upstate New York and is now based in Portland, Oregon. Visit her website to see her projects and follow her on Instagram for updates.

The Social Forms of Art (SoFA) Journal is a publication dedicated to supporting, documenting and contextualising social forms of art and its related fields and disciplines. Each issue of the Journal takes an eclectic look at the ways in which artists are engaging with communities, institutions and the public. The Journal supports and discusses projects that offer critique, commentary and context for a field that is active and expanding.

Created within the Portland State University Art & Social Practice Masters In Fine Arts. Program, SoFA Journal is now fully online.

Conversations on Everything is an expanding collection of interviews produced as part of SoFA Journal. Through the potent format of casual interviews as artistic research, insight is harvested from artists, curators, people of other fields and everyday humans. These conversations study social forms of art as a field that lives between and within both art and life.

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