Activism vs. Academia?

When thinking about how best to actualize positive change in a community, does it ever seem like it comes down to activism versus academia?  Does the pursuit of one and not the other result in a burden of guilt?  For those who dread binaries as much as I do, this just doesn’t seem like enough options.

I am currently working full time and “trying to write my Masters thesis.”  The working full time part came about as a result of feelings like the ones exemplified in these lyrics:

“When I’m all locked up in my room to study/ Away from the fight with my head getting muddy/ I wonder how I got so far from what matters/ And so close to the theory that constantly shatters/ My beliefs in my abilities to affect change around me/ My understanding of how people come together compounding/ The message that the world isn’t right for so many/ And change can be slow… but it also is steady/ My mother didn’t need a masters to change the world for me/ She had a voice in the streets and boardrooms without a degree”

I had finished all my classes and was spending a lot of time avoiding my thesis.  I was also spending a lot of time not doing the kind of activism I was used to doing before going back to school.  I missed the rally planning, radio producing, and collective organizing previously fueled by my undergraduate learning experience (and consequent sense of injustice!).  While some of this learning came about through my classes (Thank you Sociology cross-listed with Women’s and Gender Studies!  Thank you Feminist Philosophy!), most of it was a result of the people I met.

Once I was done classes and isolated from campus culture as a grad student in a new city, I wasn’t getting my activist and learning fix.  So I started applying for jobs that would fill my feminist activist void.  Fortunately for me (and unfortunately for my poor thesis), I found what I was looking for.

Only later, give or take 5 months into my new job, did I realize just how relevant my thesis still was to the work I was doing.  The same issue I had set out to analyze was staring me in the face yet again.  Only this time, I had been thinking AROUND the issue.  Reading other people’s (published) ideas on how social systems continue to affect the issue.  Finding my own way into the topic, slightly different than anyone before me.  I had taken a step back (or several) to think about WHY it is that this issue persists.  This kind of experience can only ever add to the impulse to do the work to change things.  For the kind of work I want to do in the world, it was crucial for me ethically to work on a thesis that wouldn’t only result in a few more letters after my name and a minimally better chance of getting hired.  It had to have some impact.  It would have to be readable, applicable, or at the very least arm me with enough thought ammo to be some help to someone somewhere…

For some, the beauty of academia is scholarship for scholarship’s sake.  Like art for art’s sake, it’s something we simply feel the imperative to protect.  We need it to be alive for our understanding of humanity to make sense.  We want there to exist somewhere a space where people are doing the work of thinking, analyzing, and writing about the world.  Is that because it’s comforting to know someone’s considering how things are going?  Do we want it to be socially just work?  Does that mean activism?  Are thinking, analyzing and writing enough to be considered activism?  I think that depends on whether or not one believes in neutrality and objectivity.

Do I believe academia can fuel and inspire social change work?  Yes.  Do I believe academia inherently does this?  No.  I think there is a lot of work being done by academics who believe what they are doing can be neutral and objective and considered separate from the fact that someone is deciding how, when, why and whether or not to do the work in the first place.  The choices we make always come from somewhere.  A lot of theory and research never see the light of day.  You and I will never read or even hear about it, though it may impact us in some way depending on who is funding it and why and what the implications are.  When I think of activism and academia symbiotically (and I do sometimes!), I think about the professors doing popular theatre in the community, the chemists who teach youth of all backgrounds the wonders of science, the educators who are making damn sure there won’t ever be another generation where only one woman or one person of colour graduates from their program.

The academic system itself is a classed, raced, gendered, (you-name-it) space.  It is not open or accessible to all.  But that doesn’t mean the work that can be done from within it is less valuable than that which can be done from any other space riddled with inequity and injustice.  Nobody ever changed the world all by themselves.  Tikkun Olam isn’t a solo project.  I’m not about to kick academics out of my movement.  For now, I’m comforted with the idea that changing the social reality of unjust systems is something I am doing alongside millions of other people.  We all get to decide what our piece will be.  Vikki Reynolds speaks to this beautifully.  I’m still trying to reconcile my academic identity with my activist one.  It’s ongoing.

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