Critical Engagements

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Critical Engagements: Questions That Matter is a collaborative project that makes the academic mission of Central Michigan University concrete by highlighting how our college and university are tackling the world’s most pressing and difficult questions. Working with community partners, we identify a common annual theme or “wicked problem,” recruit people and teams who work in and around the theme at CMU and beyond, and support investigations that reflect the depth and breadth of a research university committed to the highest standards of scholarship and engagement.

2022 - 2023 annual theme

Image of a large highway separating rows of houses from farm fields.

Cities, Coasts, and Everywhere Else

Red states and blue states. Cities and farms. Flyover states. Bible Belt. Rust Belt. Borscht Belt. North. South. East. West.

How we talk about geography and topography reveals deep-seated assumptions that go well beyond land and how we use it. Our shorthand phrases underscore (and sometimes perpetuate) the deep cultural, economic, political, social, and religious fissures that define the United States today. They offer orientation, literally and figuratively, as we try to make sense of it all. But binary approaches to the places we call home can also elide the essential complexities of our cities, towns, wildernesses, and the places in between.

This year, we will examine the complexities of the urban-rural continuum in the United States and beyond. From redlining and racism to urban farms and sustainability, from city-based models of social organization to their many historical and modern alternatives, from national parks to the wilderness next door—we’ll get beyond the usual categories and encourage fresh ways of thinking about the spaces we share.

Upcoming events

Is the Future Urban? Critical Engagements Panel Discussion
Thursday, September 29
7:00–8:30 PM
Pearce 127
Open faculty panel event flyer (PDF)

Join us on September 29 for the fall Critical Engagements kickoff event, "Is the Future Urban?" This panel discussion features professors and research from around CMU, including the Colleges of Science and Engineering, Education and Human Services, and Liberal Arts and Social Sciences.

In keeping with our annual theme, “Cities, Coasts, and Everywhere Else,” we'll focus on a number of important questions relating to where people live, and why, and what difference it makes. Some of them include:

  • Is Michigan a fly-over state?
  • Is polarization permanent (and a consequence of your ZIP code)?
  • How useful is the rural/urban dichotomy? Where does it come from?
  • Are cities good or bad for us?
  • Where will our students be living and working in 20 years?
  • Is Mount Pleasant Up North?

Contact us

Critical Engagements: Questions That Matter is an initiative within the College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences at Central Michigan University. ​Professors Christi Brookes (World Languages) and Greg Smith (HST) are the primary contacts for questions and suggestions about Critical Engagements or about events relating to the annual themes.

Advisory committee & charge

The Critical Engagements (CE) Advisory Committee serves as the primary team of faculty, staff, student, and community members who work closely with the CE executive committee to plan and promote CE activities related to its annual theme. Its responsibilities include:

  1. Soliciting internal and external expertise related to the year's theme in the form of talks, panels, books, classes, service learning, community engagement projects, and so on;
  2. Reviewing and evaluating proposals for CE activities, events, projects, speakers, and so on; and, 
  3. Assisting with the planning, promotion, and implementation of Critical Engagements events throughout the year. 

Funding requests

The Critical Engagements Advisory Committee is requesting proposals for activities and events around this year’s theme. Priority will be given to proposals that explicitly involve multiple departments, disciplines, or units; promote student engagement; and appeal to a broad university and community audience. The proposals will be evaluated by this year’s advisory committee and then forwarded to the dean for final selection and approval. Please email the application form to Professor Christi Brookes.

Funding Request Form

Past themes

Deep Waters (2021-2022)
In 2021-2022 Critical Engagements explored the artistic, cultural, environmental, political, social impact of water (or its lack) in its programming and activities. From the long protests at Standing Rock against the North Dakota Pipeline, cries of “Water is life!” spread from the Plains to become an international rallying cry. In a remarkable range of communities across the world water is not just essential but sacred. The Whanganui River has long been regarded as a person by indigenous Maori and now is recognized as such in New Zealand law. Water’s gifts of cleansing and renewal are ubiquitous in world religions, from the Ganges River to baptismal fonts. Like more straightforwardly empirical investigations, all these recognize that water is necessary to human flourishing.

In Michigan, we enjoy our fresh water lakes and rivers, and all the beauty, recreation, and sustenance they afford those of us lucky enough to live here. But recent years have taught us not to take this most basic and precious element for granted. The Kalamazoo River oil spill, the Flint water crisis, and the recent failure of the Edenville and Sanford dams highlight water’s pressing importance. And beyond Michigan, we cannot ignore the catastrophes already set into motion by a warming earth: the melting of polar ice, encroaching water on major population centers, and unquenchable droughts all threaten massive change, if not destruction, of our communities and environment as we know them. Water turns out to be one of the biggest issues we face in the twenty-first century.

What Does it Mean to be Human? (2020-2021)
It’s a question people have been asking for a long time, even as recent developments in science and technology have brought it into sharper relief. From artificial intelligence to CRISPR, from ancient hominids mating with humans to  modern monkey-human hybrids, from the  mechanization of white-collar work to  wondering whether robots have rights, from  Siri to Alexa — what counts as human, anyway? We don’t know the answers to these questions but we know that they are as critical as they are complicated. 

Fake News: What Do We Know and How Do We Know It? (2019-2020)
It was hard enough a few years ago, when just about everyone agreed that “fake news” meant false facts — bad information disseminated by accident or on purpose. Getting the story right has never been easy, and conspiracy theorists have been around as long as the experts and institutions they mistrust. But it’s harder now, when it is no longer clear what people mean when they say “fake news.” Is it deliberate misinformation, party-spun propaganda, or just news that makes you look bad? And who decides about definitions in the first place? Before we think about persuasion, then, more fundamental problems demand attention. Have we given up on truth itself? These are questions of signal importance, especially for a university. If a crucial part of our mission is to generate expert knowledge and develop reliable interpretations of the same, how do we respond when expertise itself is seen as a threat, as a source of fake news rather than its antidote?  We are convinced that the problem should be tackled head-on, and on multiple levels. The first challenge is an epistemological one. As scholars and students, as teachers, artists, and practitioners, we regularly interrogate the production of knowledge in our disciplines. What do we know, and how do we know it? Second, we ask hard questions and offer solutions to the problem of persuasion. Once we arrive at a reliable understanding of a given problem, how can we communicate our findings clearly and effectively, with compassion, sensitivity, and respect for other ways of knowing?

“The End of the World: Crisis, Turning Points, Renewals” (2018–2019)
Recent months and years have seen unusual activity in what might be called the apocalyptic space of public and private discourse. Political, social, cultural, and environmental developments in the United States and beyond have inspired commentary, analysis, and even a little prophecy — not just from the usual quarters but also from sources not ordinarily prone to predictions of paradise or doom. These developments have a history, of course, including important precedents in religion, politics, literature, and science, but they also have a future.

“People On the Move: Borders, Boundaries, and Migration” (2017–2018)
While our title deliberately evokes the concrete reality of literal walls, political boundaries, and the people who move between them, we are delighted to feature research,  teaching, and special events that address borders, boundaries, and migration from a broad range of perspectives, including figurative ones.

Future themes (an evolving list)

- "Metrics," their value and limitations.

- Problems and possibilities of data.

- Increased public, commercial, and government interest in quantified results.

- Digital humanities vs./plus traditional humanities.

- Up- and downsides of algorithms in public policy; "weapons of math destruction?"

- Who generates/controls/understands the numbers? Power, equality, democracy.

- Statistics, research, replication of results, private and public confidence in social and behavioral sciences (and other number-heavy fields).

- History of medicine/body.

- Medical ethics.

- Portrayals and practices.

- Public policy.

- Mental health.

- Tradition and innovation; trust and mistrust of evidence-based medicine.

Alternative facts; fake news; public attitudes toward expertise.

- Ivory towers and Ivy Leagues.

- Canons, taste, and cultural capital.

- Accidental inequality: fair/unfair advantages of having educated parents, a culturally rich community, etc.

- History / theory of education.

- "Pure" vs. applied liberal arts; open-ended vs. public-goal-directed scholarship.