Wednesday, 12 February 2014

Don't follow me, I'm only a teacher

One of my favourite thinkers in the educational world sent me a link to this pungent piece of polemic which I thought you might like to ponder (though most of you will find it indescribably boring). It's called 'Why Liberal Academics and Ivory Tower Radicals Make Poor Revolutionaries', and it's on a site called 'Youngist', which makes me want to stuff my fist into my mouth for a number of reasons. It's entertainingly written, however.
The revolution will not be cited. It will not have a bibliography, or a title page. The revolution will never happen in the seclusion of the ivory tower built by racist, sexist, and classist institutions. Professional academic researchers in the social sciences of many colleges and universities exploit the struggles of oppressed peoples. Oppressed peoples are left stranded with little to no resources after researchers leave their communities high and dry.
My heart sinks whenever I hear the word 'ivory tower'. It usually announces the author's ignorance of the complexity of education. I'm sure there are some institutions which aren't very interested in the outside world (hello, Bob Jones University) and there are certainly some which aren't at all bothered about widening participation, such as quite a few Oxford and Cambridge colleges). Plenty seek little more than to maintain the ideological status quo, notably the non-critical business and management schools. But there are awful lot of institutions, departments in institutions and individuals in departments who are not 'racist, sexist, and classist'. We have our faults and we work within structural constraints which make it harder to avoid these -isms, but we're getting there. There isn't an 'ivory tower', there's a rich ecosystem in which lots of HE organisations are neither secluded nor bigoted.

Do social scientists 'exploit the struggles of the oppressed' and leave them 'high and dry'? Certainly there's an old tradition of Western white men sitting in judgement on supposedly subaltern groups while thinking themselves progressive, but it's no longer a major strand, though of course I can only make observations from within my intellectual and ideological paradigm. I do wonder what it means to leave the oppressed 'high and dry'? In what way does the social scientist damage the struggle by observing and researching? I'm sure they could do more, but I'm not sure that it's the researcher's duty to lead the oppressed. After all, that would surely be racist, classist and exploitative? In my tradition, the oppressed don't need or want the leadership of the bourgeoisie, however sympathetic.

Despite the rather heated language, the argument gets a little more solid:
Researchers steal value from oppressed peoples by making them the subjects of theoretical research without lending them access to information that could better help their communities. Articles, books, and dissertations written about marginalized populations are written for academics, not working people, and as such have little impact on the people whose lives are the subject of this research. Liberal academics and social scientists are more concerned about developing the wealth of academic literature than addressing the immediate material concerns of the communities they research.
Another straw man. Perhaps the author hasn't noticed, but we're moving towards open access, and I make my work freely available to the oppressed masses yearning for the latest updates on what I think 1930s Welsh writers were doing. A lot of us are desperate to share our ideas with whoever will talk to us. Do we write for ourselves about 'working people'? I'd say that a) we are 'working people' and b) it's rather patronising to assume that 'working people' aren't capable of understanding and even joining us. As to this talk of 'impact' and 'immediate material concerns': what exactly is the sociologist, for example, meant to do? They find new ways of explaining what's happening to human communities, present the evidence and hope it informs public opinion and policy. The idea that all research by all 'liberal academics and social scientists' (weird category, by the way) is socially useless is just dumb: the leftwing equivalent of the America Know-Nothing party.

After that, the article gets nasty.
Penelope Herideen is a Sociology researcher in Western Massachusetts (MA) and a professor of Sociology at the local community college from which I recently graduated…Herideen’s research is important, and yet, she was hardly involved in student organizing campaigns against budget cuts that affect low-income students.
Now I don't know about you, but I'm very uncomfortable with the idea that one person should be named as the embodiment of an entire global profession's failings. It smacks of the lynch mob. Herideen gets no voice here, and her perspective goes unrepresented. Instead, the author apparently blames her for preventing 'the revolution'. Perhaps Herideen worked away at boring committees, doing her best. Perhaps Herideen feels that the campaign was strategically inept. Perhaps she thought that student leadership was important and didn't want to appear interfering. Perhaps she doesn't agree with the campaign at all. It's her business, and critiquing her like this is dishonest intellectually and personally cruel. Herideen doesn't have to be a revolutionary and an argument built on the author's personal dislike for her teacher is not progressive.

Then we get this:
Liberal academics and social scientists need to understand their effect on the communities and people they study. Oppressed people who are put under the magnifying glass of academic research have to live with real consequences after the researcher leaves. This is especially true in the field of women’s and ethnic studies — where class, gender, and race consciousness are a part of the research process. Researchers leave behind a stranded community with little to no resources to help them organize movements that will create real change.
I don't see any demonstration of 'effect' here. Leaving aside the difference between social science research and ethnography, in which the researcher participates in daily life, what are the 'real consequences' to that community? Are they left worse off than before the researcher turned up? If so - where's the evidence? Even more striking: why does the author assume that the 'stranded community' is so helpless? Everywhere I look, subaltern groups are developing their own strategies of resistance and fightback, whether it's Stoke's 'Mums on a Mission' or the syndicalist miners who wrote The Miners' Next Step after long shifts underground. This idea that oppressed groups are passive victims of dominant groups and selfish academics is patronising and reactionary.

But the author returns to the ad hominem attacks:
Tim Wise, a well-known anti-racist writer and activist receives thousands of dollars for speaking at various colleges and universities about the impact that white privilege and white supremacy have on communities of color. Wise has yet to give back to these communities in any real or substantial way, such as offering resources and support to the various communities he speaks of in his writings.
Again, one person is single out for his perceived failings, which come down to not 'giving back' in any 'real or substantial way'? Meaning? Money, I guess. The accusation is that rather than doing a serious and important job explaining racial oppression and proposing solutions, Mr Wise should open his wallet. Personally it sounds like he's using his talents very usefully, and I'm rather disturbed that our author presumes to know both what he should and does do with his money. One person's wallet can only go so far: one person's words can go a lot further. There's an assumption here that Wise's anti-racism is just a way of making money, and while I've never heard of him, I do worry that Ms Ouimette lacks good faith.

Sadly, she returns to the straw man argument:
Researchers in the fields of women’s and ethnic studies entering oppressed communities without any desire to change serious inequities are in direct contradiction of their supposedly “progressive” fields.
Who are these people? I haven't personally met every academic in the world, but I know enough to say that their motives and intentions are various; Ms Ouimette again seems to base general distrust on some contentious examples. She also presumes - perhaps because she's an idealist young person writing for The Youngist (as though 'the young' are an equally repressed group) - that all academics should be working for a revolution. I have to say that standing on the picket line last week, several hundred of my colleagues were notably absent. Not all of us are revolutionaries, kids. Lots of us want change without wanting a revolution and some of us don't even see the need for change. Sorry, but that's the way it is. There isn't a handbook that says all lecturers must be Maoists or whatever, so don't get disappointed when lots of us fail to live up to your personal fantasy.

Moving on, we get to the discourse of academia:
Try reading any academic text from your local women’s studies, ethnic studies, post-colonial studies, or anthropology department. The texts are almost always written so that only academics can understand. Some students and scholars call it “acadamese.” It is writing that needs to be decoded before it can be understood… Academics who use “ordinary language” are able to encourage oppressed groups to consider their own agency in the fight for social, economic and political justice. Their advisors and colleagues constantly berate academics that attempt to write in ordinary language because their writing is “too accessible.”
'Any'? 'Almost always'? Oh dear: that's the kind of comment that attracts my red pen. Sweeping statements are almost always (see what I did there) untrue. There is plenty of difficult – often bad – writing in academia, often produced by people who mistake bewildering discourse for mastery of a subject. Yet it's also true that complicated ideas require subtly and complicated explanation. All imagined communities have their interior modes of discourse (sorry Nicole, 'ways of saying things') which include and exclude. Some academics use this as a way to exclude, some don't. Some only talk in this way, lots of us don't, or don't always: it depends on the context and most of the academics I know desperately want to connect with other sections of society. And again, Nicole assumes here that 'oppressed groups' can't access this discourse – my institution believes that Knowledge is Power and equips our students to talk to power in its own language. We know they can do it and they succeed. If it wasn't such a horrible word, I'd call it 'empowerment'. Ironically, the existence of this article demonstrates our success: Nicole has a strong grasp of academic discourse and uses it fearlessly.  As to the claim that those whore write in ordinary language (whatever that is): to put it kindly, citation needed. Yes there are some abstruse corners, but it really isn't the worst problem facing the oppressed.
Academics use academic language and jargon to centralize knowledge and power in their hands. Academics would lose a certain amount of power if everyone had access to the same knowledge that they do. The division of labor in the ivory tower reinforces capitalist modes of production through individualized research and study that is hardly ever shared with those it most affects. This is how academia operates knowledge in the form of transactions that create restricted, instead of shared knowledge.
Well yes. They do. Or rather some of them do and more of us do without noticing. But I'm not certain what the 'power' referred to actually is. Do we 'hardly ever' share our findings? A contentious claim, at best. To be honest, we don't have a hermetic lore that we jealously guard from the proles. We talk of 'knowledges' actually, but that's a bit too modern for Nicole, who practices a dumb-ass version of Marxism described by Lenin as 'infantile leftism'.

Nicole finishes on a rallying note:
It is time to stop depending on NGOs and academia to create revolutionary praxis for us. They won’t. It’s up to us, the oppressed peoples of the world to demand resources for our communities that are being studied by those whose lives are spent in ivory towers. The revolution starts from below and works its way to the ivory tower. Only then will education be free and accessible for all.
Who is 'us'? Who appointed Nicole Voice of the Oppressed? She accuses academia of arrogating to itself the right to determine 'revolutionary praxis' without any evidence at all, yet she's quite happy to reply 'us' without any self-consciousness at all. I don't speak for anyone, and wouldn't dare. Nor should she. In particular, it's intellectually dishonest to claim that 'we' depend on 'NGOs and academia' for guidance: there are some armchair revolutionaries in common rooms across the world (hello, Alex Callinicos, Zizek and Noam Chomsky), but I don't see the world's proletariat queuing outside the bookshops eagerly awaiting news of the next phase: they're outside doing things already.

There are problems in and of academia. Some of them are connected to Nicole's points, but it's not a plot and it's not uniform. Nobody is 'an academic': we're citizens and workers and family members and parts of various communities. Academics have privileged access to discourse, but we lack agency, just like most people. We're part of the problem, but we're also part of the solution. Treating us like the enemy within really doesn't help.

Academics won't lead the revolution – but I don't see anyone else doing so either, and it's not because people like me are getting in the way. We're not the enemy, Nicole. I wish we had the authority and power you think, but we're marginalised and despised by the men with money and guns and laws, just like those for whom you presume to speak. Your revolution hasn't been spiked by people like me: that's just an excuse for your failure to persuade everyone that one is needed (which I personally feel it is). There will be revolutions, but they won't be yours and they won't happen where and when you or I think they will. If you want to help, 'Get Off Your Computer And Onto The Streets'.


Huw Williams said...

So general criticism are dismissed as sweeping statement, and yet when he mention individual cases you condemn him as acting like a lynch mob and singling one person out?

Also though you claim " we're moving towards open access" (who is 'we'??), that may be true, very slowly, but I am not aware (as a non academic) of any great repository of freely available academic research at the moment. Isn't the fact the you are £moving towards" it demonstrate that currently the vast majority is not open to the public.

I am not saying that I agree with his argument, like many activist he is prone to wild hyperbole to make a point, just as academic are prone to being pedantic. However some of your counter argument display some of the highhandedness that the give academic world the appearance of being arrogant and aloof, and of sneering those haven't got a PHD for not making arguments following the rules and language of academia.

Anonymous said...

I've been reading your post while thinking about an exchange I've been watching on Twitter over the past 24 hours between an Aboriginal activist and others, about whether left-inclining academics in universities do anything other than perpetuate the injustices that they're claiming to critique.

In a sketchy way I've come to the conclusion that we're not necessarily the best judges of the social impact of what we do. This isn't new.

But what is new is the degree to which what Richard Hall calls "the enclosure of academic labour" is intensifying, and has acquired a few extra levels of fencing in terms of research quantification. This isn't to prevent public access (far from it, you're right) but is justified as a way of increasing productive output rather than wasted time.

So while I think academics as workers, people who live in communities, people who engage with learners, aren't holding up the revolution, this is because we're most of us are still prepared to look at wider issues than our own careers, and universities are mostly still prepared not to broom us out when we do so.

But as we see increased use of voluntary and forced redundancy to weed out the less productive (who may be the most engaged with their communities in other ways) this fairly makeshift philosophy of trying to do good, sort of, will really be under pressure. And I think then we'll see whose commitment to social change rather than personal promotion holds up.

So I'm in complete agreement with your criticism of the generalisations in this case; but there are really tough times ahead if we want to take community engagement seriously without being able to generate measurable outputs from it, irrespective of whether those measurable outputs are valuable to the people we work with.