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A Conversation with Professor Scott Peters

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  • Cornell Cooperative Extension
  • Department of Global Development
  • Global Development

Historian and professor Scott Peters has dedicated over two decades to examining the dynamic relationships that scientists, scholars, and extension educators at land-grant universities have with the communities they serve.

In this episode of “Extension Out Loud,” a podcast by Cornell Cooperative Extension, Peters traces the history of extension systems and engages with the difficult question: what exactly is extension work? He says, “the work of extension isn't about just extending stuff from the lab and the campus. It's about extending this idea that if we come together and pool and share our knowledge and do some experiments together … perhaps we'll be able to make some progress on understanding and addressing problems we're facing.” In this episode, Peters highlights the ways that extension educators and programs enable communities to work together with land-grant universities to respond to some of the biggest challenges we face today.   

“Extension is a reflection of the deeper culture that it's in.” – Scott Peters  

This conversation with Peters is the fourth episode of the latest “Extension Out Loud” series, “Leading Through Extension,” which features key CCE voices discussing their approaches to extension work and how history – and this past tumultuous year — are shaping the organization’s path forward.    

Listen on:

PAUL TREADWELL: Welcome to Extension Out Loud, a podcast from Cornell Cooperative Extension. I am Paul Treadwell.

KATIE BAILDON: And I'm Katie Baildon.

PAUL TREADWELL: This is the fourth episode of our Leading Through Extension series, and Katie for episode four, who are we talking to?

KATIE BAILDON: We talk to Scott Peters, he's a professor in the Department of Global Development and a historian.

PAUL TREADWELL: I think one of our goals with this series is to really connect the history of Extension, with the future of Extension.

KATIE BAILDON: Exactly, and Scott Peters studies Extension, and particularly in New York state. So he has a really interesting, and nuanced perspective, about where we've been, and where we're going.

SCOTT PETERS: So I've been at Cornell, since August of 1999. I am a professor in the Department of Global Development, which is a new department, that was just established last year. That department is intentionally interdisciplinary, including people from the plant and biological sciences, along with the social sciences, and even the odd outlier, like me, because I am really more of a humanities person, than a social science person-- I'm a historian. The central thing I'm interested in is how scientists and scholars, and educators, are engaged and involved in communities, working with folks, and communities, of all different kinds of backgrounds, and positions. To try to understand problems, and issues, and situations that people are facing.

And also to learn, and to figure out how to understand what kind of aspirations individuals have, and collective neighborhoods, and communities, and you know bumping it out larger to states, and nations. What sort of aspirations people have, and are yearning for. So I'm not interested in looking at scientists and scholars as problem solvers only. But it really is people who are involved in work that has to do with what people really aspire to be, and do, in their lives. And that includes everything from raising their kids, and their families, to their own personal livelihoods, to the quality of life in their neighborhoods. And there's a history of experts trying to dominate people and communities.

So there's a bunch of suspicions that people have but, there's also a really rich history of productive, creative, engagement. And I'm interested as a historian, and illuminating that history, and looking at it as deeply, and carefully, and critically as I can. And also, connecting it to our current situations, as a way of taking that really, really broad question, and kind of narrowing it, and focusing it. My work centers on the land grant university system, and Extension. Because when I first started doing my graduate work, and I came into my Ph.D. work after having spent 10 years working as a community educator, in a small nonprofit, I came to my graduate work with this urgent question, which I had an urgent sense about. Which had to do with, what is the connection between this land grant mission that I keep hearing people talking about?

I was at the University of Illinois during those 10 years, with a community organization, nonprofit, called the University YMCA. And I kept hearing this kind of hand over the heart sacredness, that people had about the land grant mission. The University of Illinois is a land grant. And the way people would express that is, they would be really angry at the university, for doing something that it shouldn't be doing, because it's a land grant. Or, they would be really angry at the university for not doing something it should be doing, because it's a land grant. And I kept hearing this, and wondering what is this land grant thing? What is this land grant mission?

And at that time, my memory of it, which is highly selective, and we know how we embellish stories, but as I remember, at the time, nobody could answer the question, of what the heck this land grant mission was. I couldn't find anybody, and I was working with a lot of professors at the university, administrators at the university. So I went to the University of Minnesota, really to understand this. And I immediately discovered Extension, when I started looking into that, as the kind of institutionalized mechanism, for signaling this obligation, and commitment, that the institutions had through their status-- as what's called a land grant university-- to somehow be connected to, engage with, and serve people beyond the campuses, throughout their states, and of course, throughout the world, is now how we think about this.

So, I have centered my work, as a scholar, on the history of that land grant university system. And in particular, on the story of the establishment of the Extension dimension piece of that system, and how it's evolved, and what its purposes had been, and how people have understood, and debated those.

PAUL TREADWELL: So, Scott can we jump back to a little bit of prehistory? So, before the Extension system, there were some precursors that grew up sort of organically. And, one of those I'm thinking of, is the farmers' institutes. How do you trace the route from those farmer institutes, to sort of the formalization of the land grant, and then the movement into an Extension system?

SCOTT PETERS: Extension, as a formal system, was established nationally in 1914, by the Smith-Lever Act. And so, the formal Extension system, at a national level, was established through that act. But states, including New York, had already established Extension divisions, in their land grant colleges, before 1914. So Cornell's Extension division was actually established in the 1890s, and the county Extension dimension of it came through the establishment of the Farm Bureau in Broome County, where Binghamton is, in New York. And so, there is a history of dates and certain pieces of legislation. But you're asking for kind of the deeper story, of where all this came from. And this is what, of course, engaged my energy and attention for more than 20 years now. This is the dominant thread that people still think about inside Extension. It's part of the discourse of the institution. And it fits with the word Extension.

That, what Extension really is about, is disseminating scientific information, and technologies, and methods. Carrying them from a place like a laboratory on a campus, out to a place like a farm, or a farm home, or a neighborhood, or a business. The very word Extension signifies that kind of move. So that tells us the knowledge, and the expertise, and the technologies, are in a laboratory, or on a campus. And the move away from that is to extend that out to people, so they can benefit from, and use that knowledge. You can see an arc of an answer to the question of what Extension is, what its purpose is, what its function is, how it works. Which essentially is, this idea that science has things that can improve activities like farming, and agriculture. We need to get it out to farmers, and importantly, this is a big part of Extensions history, we need to get the farmers to use this science and technology.

So, when we trace this piece of the Extension story, which is extending science and technologies, and methods off of campuses, out into communities. And it's not just farming, it's nutrition and health, it's parenting, it's running businesses, it's the whole genre of activities. What people discovered was, a lot of people didn't want to do that. They didn't want to adopt the science and the technologies. They resisted it. The two early serious histories of the Extension system that were published by scholars have very intriguing titles. One of them is called The Reluctant Farmer. And the second one is called The Resisted Revolution. Now, that's really interesting. What's the story? Well, the story is that a lot of farmers resisted, and were reluctant, to adopt these new methods and technologies. And, by the way, it wasn't just methods and technologies.

It was an entire world view. It was a way of thinking and being, that people in these institutions, were trying to extend. They wanted to extend a mindset, not just how to do something in five easy steps. But, you should actually change the way you're looking at the world, seeing the world. So, that's one thread. So, I mentioned that it wasn't just science that emerged in the early 19th century as a force, in American culture. It was also this idea of democracy. The very establishment of the land grant system has a built-in contradiction when it comes to terms like democracy. Because, the original resource that was a source of wealth, that helped states to establish institutions like Cornell University, came from, essentially, stolen land, through the colonial process in this country. But, the human condition in life is full of contradictions, and part of what we need to do is own up to certain contradictions, that maybe we don't want to own up to, and then think through, so what does that mean, in terms of what our obligations are, and our commitments that we should have?

I'm happy to say that, on this theme in particular that, there is a new national effort underway, to take this up. It was really, inspired by a new study, that was published in High Country News, which did something that really hadn't been done in a study like this before. Which is, they took every single land grant institution, in the United States, and they were able to identify exactly the federal land, that was given to them, on the original land grant in 1862, through the first Morrill Act, and then trace where did that land come from. Much of Cornell's land was in northern Wisconsin. So, at Cornell right now, we are, by we I mean a team of people, working through the American Indian and Indigenous Studies program, have established an initiative, which the president of Cornell is supporting. An effort to really, deeply, trace and document where Cornell's land came from. And, all in the service of pushing to the question that's important for us today, which is what are the implications, and what are the commitments we must bear, as a result of that.

So having made that identification of a contradiction, I'll say that Extension is a reflection of the deeper culture that it's in. We are in institutions that were created through cultural forces, that are maintained through cultural forces. They represent things in our culture, in terms of what we judge to be important, what we're willing to invest money, and time into.

PAUL TREADWELL: So Scott, you mentioned contradictions. I think one of the possible contradictions we're looking at here is, there is this desire, this intent, to engage in what we can call technology transfer. But the enactment of that happens on the ground, in local communities, with local Extension educators, or agents, as they used to be called. Somewhere in that transfer, there is a possibility for a change in the way that that work is approached, isn't there?

SCOTT PETERS: So, interestingly, when you read through the history of Extension, what you find are women and men, who were deeply, passionately, committed to this idea, that those ordinary, everyday, people in little rural communities, or farms, they needed to be brought into the work of making, and building their neighborhoods, and states, and the whole country. That their agency, their voice, their power, their imagination, their capabilities, their dignity, all of those things, were really what Extension was about. And, what's interesting about Extension to me, and what people, I think, don't understand or appreciate well enough, it's not just about transferring technologies and science and getting people to adopt scientific methods and technologies. But, it's developing people, and their agency, and voice, and capacities.

To use a word that is troubled by its legal status, as citizens. And by citizens, really, I mean civic actors. Not a legal status of whether you're a legal citizen, but civic actors. What's really interesting about the history of Extension that people don't know, is that that work was done through the work of science and technology, and nutrition, and farming, and raising kids, and all of that stuff. What I have found is that the best practitioners of Extension, are ones who didn't have an either/or perspective about this. Either we attended this democracy thing, or we're going to do the real work of helping farmers produce more stuff, and helping fix the environment, and make sure the environment is protected. Raising kids that aren't obese. What I've seen is, what Extension has modeled at its best, is a way of saying, yes, we are going to address economic issues. Yes, we're going to address ecological issues. We're going to address health issues. And, yes, we have some science and technology. But we're going to do this in a way that enhances people's own voice, and agency, and power, and dignity.

And the way you do that is by, first of all, this now, Paul, is back to what you were saying, earlier. The way we do that is we don't see people as just bundles of problems, and troubles, that we're going to fix with our science. We see people as human beings, that have their own knowledge, and wisdom, and intelligence, that's hard-won from their life experience. That's taught informally, through cultural relationships, that are embedded in our culture, and all kinds of different ways. And so then, the work of Extension isn't about just extending stuff from the lab and the campus. It's about extending this idea, that if we come together and pool, and share, our knowledge, and do some experiments together, where we can learn, perhaps we'll be able to make some progress, on understanding and addressing problems we're facing. At its best, Extension involves people who know how to bring those different ways of knowing together, and to work, and to develop programs, activities, initiatives, relationships.

That's why I have fallen in love with Extension. Because, I have discovered that kind of move throughout its history, and I've learned it from the oral histories that I've done, of people, Extension professionals, today.

KATIE BAILDON: I'm sure you have many examples of what that Extension work might look like. Can you illustrate an example for us?

SCOTT PETERS: One of my favorite stories. We have a handful of signature stories we tell, but this one is just a wonderful one. So there's a guy named Stephen Small. He is a professor at the University of Wisconsin, in Madison. He was hired as an Extension professor. His area of expertise is adolescent health. So, I'm telling a story that he tells, that he's told, he's written about. So, he shows up in Wisconsin, with this expertise, and he starts going out to places in Wisconsin, little towns, and communities, and telling people what he knows, from his expertise. All right folks, here's the National Survey data. Right? This is telling us what do we know about our kids' behavior. What do we know about their drug use? What do we know about their sexual behavior? And those kinds of things.

So he went out, and he told people all these things, and the data is not so good about a lot of our kids, and adolescents, This happened many decades ago, nearly 30 years ago. And so, what happened when he did that? People said, yeah well, professor, that data might apply to kids who live in Chicago, or Philadelphia, a place like that, but that's not our kids. That doesn't describe our kids. So, thank you very much, but we don't actually need your expertise, or believe it, or want it, so see you later, or maybe not, see you later. So, I'm obviously embellishing the story, but this is the essence of the truth of his story. So, he got very depressed about this. Here he's got all this expertise, people don't want it. So, in his depression, he had a lucky encounter, with this idea of participatory action research, which at that time, was beginning to really emerge. And he got an epiphany, about how he might get out of his-- because he was not ready to just say, OK, my expertise is-- they don't want it, and that's it.

And so, what happened was, through that epiphany, and through a whole process that he went through, he established something called the team assessment program. So, the idea was, look, people in families, schools, young people themselves, they do care about the health and well-being of each other, and young people, right? How might we work together to better understand what's going on there, and what we might do about it? So, what they ended up doing was saying, instead of me coming in, and telling everybody what the national data says, therefore what you should do, and be attending to, let's design a survey ourselves. Let me sit down, as a professor, with people in the community, and say, what would you like to know about the adolescents in your community? And, out of that conversation, you create a survey.

Then, let's have the people in the community, themselves, implement that survey. And, when we get the results in, hey, we at the university, we've got software, we've got programs, we've got the expertise, we can run those numbers. We can process that data, that comes out of the survey. And then we can bring it back to you, and instead of telling you then, OK, here's the numbers, and here's what you should do, we can sit down together and say, so here's what we found out. What do you think? What do you think about what we're seeing here? What do you think about what we might do? And then out of that comes a new insight into the kinds of work, that perhaps should be done in that place. That's the kind of story, that exemplifies-- that story respects people as actors, with their own voice, and agency, not just people with problems, who are going to get fixed by the social scientists, who come in and give them all the answers.

The social scientist isn't giving up their expertise. They're just repositioning them, and saying, look, if you'd like to have this expertise brought into this, let's figure out how to do that respectfully. And then, at the end of this, people can't say that's not our kids, that's people in Philadelphia. This is their kids, so I love that story.

PAUL TREADWELL: It's a great story, but to make that move to, you have to give up a certain amount of power, as the expert, you have to engage in a power-sharing arrangement with the community.

SCOTT PETERS: This is a story about people deciding to share power. Professionals, in all kinds of fields, doctors, and lawyers, and scientists, have been granted a huge amount of power, in our culture. They've been deferred to and granted, a lot of power. I will say, that the Stephen Small story, about a professional who is repositioning their expertise. And in a way, that means that he's not the only one with power. That that is not a new story. That was not a new story when he went through all of that, in the 80s and 90s. That was not new. I can tell you that isn't a new story, because I see, when I look back through the history of Extension, the land grant system, a lot of experts, and scientists, and professionals, what they were committed to wasn't just extending their authoritative, scientific knowledge. This is actually the now Liberty Hyde Bailey, this is what he was committed to.

They wanted farmers, and everyday people, to learn how to experiment and create knowledge themselves. Bailey was the leader of Extension work, in New York, at Cornell, in the 1890s. What he wanted to extend, is what he referred to, at the time, as the scientific spirit. John Dewey, the American philosopher, talked about the scientific moral. And so, what we're extending, is not the product, of scientific research. We're extending a set of skills and habits, that have to do with experimentation, and observation, that are central to our ability to create, and test knowledge. Bailey once said something that exemplifies this, "The best agricultural experiment station is that station that incorporates every farm in the state." That statement recognizes that farmers are experimenting all the time and that they have knowledge from those experiments. It doesn't mean, that the knowledge they have is good and automatically correct. You need communities of people, who work together, to look at experiments, and to refine them, and to debate what is being seen about those experiments. And that's the scientific process. So Bailey, in the 1890s, was committed to helping people learn how to build knowledge themselves. That is a central dimension of what a democratic culture can be, and look like.

In that, in the United States, that was a key part of what was called the pragmatist, philosophical, tradition that John Dewey was a leader of. That science is a set of habits, that actually is important. You know one of the reasons why it's important? It's important so that despots can't fool people into supporting them. John Dewey wrote an essay in 1939, as fascism was raging across Europe, and wondering how the heck have all these people succumbed to these fascists? And one of the reasons why, he said, was because ordinary folks, they don't have a scientific spirit. They're not able to create and build knowledge themselves. As long as they can't do that, we're susceptible to that kind of despotism. Bailey understood that, in the 1890s. He was extending the scientific spirit and trying to teach that for farmers, and others. So Stephen Small's story fits into that. Yes, it involves shifting our understanding of who's got power, and who doesn't, and how power is exercised.

KATIE BAILDON: A lot of the tensions that you've brought up, and that we've talked about today, they're historic tensions, but they're very real, and present today. And three of them that I kind of want to tease out, and talk a little bit more about. So, in the past year, we've faced the pandemic, we've faced increasing anxiety around climate change, and we've faced increasing anxiety around racism in the US. Those three things are, essentially nothing new. They've been tensions, and issues, that we've talked about in Extension, for more than a century. But, what I'd like to look at-- how this increasing anxiety that we faced in the past year, around these three issues, is playing out in Extension. And what you think the future of Extension looks like, that recognizes, and reckons with our role in the environment, and in race, and in public health.

SCOTT PETERS: Yeah, OK. That's a very big set of important things for us to be thinking about. And, I think, the things you just mentioned, are things that all of us, we've got to figure out how to deal with climate change. Look what's happening with racial violence, this past summer. With police violence. With all the things that we have seen, with the kind of reassertion of a white supremacist perspective. We're thinking about these things as human beings. As just people. As parents, as neighborhood members, as just, again, citizens in the non-legal sense, of just somebody who's part of a culture, and society, that we have to do something. What's important here, in this conversation, is what does that have to do with the institution of Extension? What does that have to do with the land grant university? There are all kinds of ways that we could be engaging with each other, and with others, off of our campus, that address issues of race, issues of climate change, issues of economic decline, in ways that both enable us to make use of scientific knowledge and expertise, and other kinds of expertise, and helps people and communities grow into their own power, and open their imaginations, and their creative energies, and direct them in ways that are productive, around these issues.

Those things can be brought together. We need to be looking for where they're already being brought together. And they are already being brought together, in New York state, and every other state in this country. The teachers are already out there doing this. So, I would say, the big thing that we need to do on Extension, is to try to extract ourselves from the grip of the either/or mindset. Because the either/or mindset is going to lead us to say, it's not our job. Our job is to produce the science, it's not to fix racism, address racism, it's not to do the culture change stuff. That's an unproductive, unhelpful, thing to be trapped in, or stuck in. We need to extract ourselves from that. And we need to extract ourselves in that in a way that helps us work through the fears we have of losing power, as you were saying Paul, or giving up some power, or sharing power. And also, releases ourselves from the sense that somehow we're going to be dumbing down our science, or diminishing it, or something like that.

No, we need to reposition it. And we need to improve it. The pioneer, to use a word that's troubled. The women in home economics, for example. Ruby Green Smith wrote the history of Extension at Cornell. She spent decades in-home demonstration work, and essentially home economics work. She had her finger on really powerful wisdom, which is, and she wrote about this in a beautiful passage in her book, The People's Colleges. She actually said that Extension is like a two-way door. Extension doesn't just make better communities, by extending its science and knowledge. Extension brings people together, builds relationships, that brings knowledge and wisdom from people to the college, which makes better colleges.

So, everything I'm talking about is not new. These were aspirations, these were commitments that people tried to live out. They connect to climate change, they connect to racial violence, and things like that, because they invite us to not give our expertise up, but reposition. To see other people as sources of knowledge, and wisdom. What Extension's power is, is we have people who know how to bring people together, who are different from each other, to learn, and to explore issues, and to come up with plans, and programs, and initiatives, that can address the things we care about.

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