What is “Scholar Activism”?

This fall I’m teaching a new graduate seminar on scholar-activism. Since it’s limited to enrolled students at UW-Madison, I’m going to attempt to broaden its reach by blogging on the class a bit here. If you’d like to follow along, here’s the syllabus. I encourage the students in the class — and all of you — to add your comments to this blog as well since it will help us to extend, clarify, and enhance the discussion we have in person.

The title of this blog was the topic of this week’s class. Who is a scholar-activist and what exactly do they do? What is the difference between being a scholar-activist and a public scholar, for example? We started there, and wandered a bit…

Part 1

We began by reflecting on Audre Lorde’s description of a conference she attended, and the efforts she made to call out the disparities in the room itself. Students noted that sometimes simply being in the room is a form of activism — being where you are not in the majority, where you overtly stick out, even if you say nothing — that makes a statement. But that alone, some argued, does not constitute scholar-activism since it does not mean that the power of the scholarly work is activated and brought to bear. That requires activism, the verb and not the noun.

This reminds me of when I was included in a New York Times article about activism among faculty, which tried to argue that activism had declined across generations. It featured — on the front page of the paper — a (terrible) picture of myself and my colleague Mike Olneck, and the author attempted to argue that I was representative of the new “inactive” faculty. Well…

This was a funny assertion that overlooked the activism contained in my very existence in academia at the time. I’d just had my first child on the tenure-track, and he was sitting just off-camera when this picture was taken. I had him despite cautions offered by senior colleagues that getting pregnant would be “unwise.” I did so anyway, and spoke out about the difficulties I faced as a Mama Prof. But this wasn’t recognized in and of itself as “activism” by the New York Times — and no, it wasn’t informed by my scholarship per se (though, I did my master’s thesis under Jerry Jacobs and Paula England on gender & labor force discrimination)…

Part 2

In another part of class, we discussed the characteristics and strategies employed by scholar-activists, especially those we read for this week (in addition to Lorde, that list included Patricia Hill Collins, Craig Calhoun, and Lauren Pulido). Several stood out:

  • Direct engagement with practical problems and efforts to improve the world
  • Putting new issues on the research agenda as well as the public agenda
  • Speaking truth to power and speaking truth directing to the people
  • Confronting and making difficult choices
  • Acting with accountability to the publics you study, and reciprocating

We talked about the issues of trust and the importance of objectivity, the latter an idea that many scholars lay claim to as a defense against activism. Is it possible to do rigorous research carefully and with an open mind as a scholar-activist? Yes, but it requires being forthcoming and transparent about politics — after all, ALL research is political. Living your life as a researcher out loud, in public, is a surefire way to help your audience see everything that you are, preventing behind-the-scenes manipulation. The consequence, of course, is extreme visibility — something many scholars are admittedly uncomfortable with.

Part 3

Erik Olin Wright, former past president of the American Sociological Association, joined us for the last 75 minutes of class. He has written about Real Utopias as an anti-capitalist project and annually hosts “Rad Fest,” where activists gather in the woods for days of debate and camaraderie. He is writing a new book I expect the trolls to pounce on: How to Be An Anti-Capitalist in the 21st Century. We were grateful for a preview of its main arguments, especially a typology of anti-capitalist efforts, and I’m awestruck as usual by the rigor of his analysis.

According to Wright, there are 4 tasks facing the scholar-activist:

  1. Elaborate the moral foundations of activism. Every scientist does this, even if it’s as simple as “being ill or harmed is bad.” Wright spoke of being guided by the values of equality & fairness, freedom & democracy, and community & solidarity.
  2. Diagnose and critique the world as it is, with guidance from those moral concerns. This diagnosis and critique should be scientific and relentlessly rigorous.
  3. Provide a theory of alternatives.
  4. Provide a theory of transformation

These last 2 tasks are often missing and are extraordinarily difficult. Wright’s Real Utopias, he says, are a framing of the alternatives we can build that can help us move towards the world that we want.

He also pointed out that there are constraints placed on a scholar-activism by virtue of being a scholar. For example, taking a leadership role in activism is often nearly impossible, and possibly even unwise. For the scholar-activist also carries obligations, including:

  • A commitment to academic and scholarly rigor
  • Honesty and transparency in actions
  • The conduct of non-ideologically driven activist research
  • A willingness to combat self-destructive tendencies often inherent in activism, including wishful thinking, cynicism, and rigidity

He urged students to move beyond ideological formulaic thinking and be skeptical of one’s own practices, as scholars taking dilemmas as the focus. Avoid flattening debates, cultivate healthy skepticism, and tolerate ambiguity without losing your moral compass.

It was refreshing to hear Wright speak about the pressures from the Left to be even more radical, to engage more directly in the streets, while also acknowledging pressures from the Right to “be objective” and scholarly.

I left the class with these questions in mind:

Am I able to see things people don’t want to see? And then, as a scholar-activist, am I able to say things that they don’t want to say?

That is, for today, the project.

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