Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Intellectual Activism and Presence

I recently had the opportunity to have lunch with a former graduate student, now professor, who was in town. During our visit she gave me a copy of Patricia Hill Collins' On Intellectual Activism. I immediately connected with the Collins' discussion of intellectual activism. It took me back to the constant conversations I have had with students who are anxious to connect their work to a social justice paradigm. However, whether they realize it or not, many of the ways they conceive of activism are based in Othering or colonizing practices. They continue to have the belief that they must go out into some other community and "do the work." While I appreciate their intentions, I get slightly frustrated by the lack of reflexive turn to our own practices in the academy. Let me elaborate.

One of the things Collins and other scholars of color have argued is that our mere presence in the academy is subversive. Collins elaborates upon this by arguing how speaking truth to power is resistive and it can "often best be done as an insider" (xiii). She adds, "Challenging power structures from the inside, working the cracks within the system, however, requires learning to speak multiple languages of power convincingly" (xiii). In consistently increasingly hostile academic environments our presences are acts of intervention, especially when we hold positions of power. A student asked me what I did in terms of social justice work. My answer was, "I work in the academy." I say this because I know the continual challenges facing students, staff, and faculty of color, and when we reach positions that might give us some power, it is integral we remain. I don't have to go and look for another community to do social justice work. I simply have to survive and that itself is resistive. In addition, many of us are finally starting to see the fruits of our labor as we see concrete things like sexual harassment and racial discrimination policies finally being revised so that they actually take intersectionality into account rather than dispel larger patterns of harassment. I, or others, may fight for change in our academic work spaces, and even if we don't stay in that particular space for the long term, the social justice work and changes we have advocated for may help the next person. Additionally, many of us do research that examines the conditions faculty of color and/or queer faculty face in the academy. That work can be and is used to argue for policy changes in the university or it can simply be used to school people. Many of us teach social justice oriented courses as faculty of color in predominately white classrooms. We put literally put our bodies on the line. As scholars of color one of the most radical things we can do is be promoted to full professor. It is integral.

Years ago at a conference I heard a more senior scholar of color make the statement that only faculty of color get asked, "What do you do for your community?" S/he elaborated that white faculty are never asked that question. In that moment I found that to be a pretty profound statement. White faculty are not asked that question because more often than not, unless they are doing anti-racist, anti-sexist, anti-homophobia work, they are contributing to the project of whiteness. We are expected as faculty of color to constantly "give back" to some monolithic outside community which ignores the fact that our presence in the academy is radical and in fact doing something.

Since I started graduate school in 1998 I have held various positions, graduate assistant, assistant professor, director of graduate studies, associate chair, associate professor, and department chair. Moving between these positions I have seen how important it is to have faculty of color on graduate admissions committees, as mentors, as external reviewers, on search committees, etc. Because of the scarcity of our numbers our service load is often greater than what our white colleagues face. All of this behind the scenes labor is rarely considered.

I am not so idealistic to assume that all faculty of color have the same political commitments, but we all exist in an academy not made for us. What I am asking is that we in the academy be reflexive about our own academic practices and not simply shift the gaze to some "outside" community. I am asking that while we are quick to celebrate whistle blowers in the media, we are just as quick to honor whistle blowers in the academy rather than ostracize them. I want recognition for all the work we do. 

That's not asking too much is it?

Lisa Flores address some these issues far more eloquently than me in the latest essay of the Western Journal of Communication. Please take a look at it if you get a chance.

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