Academy and/or Activism

Source: insightintodiversity.com

This week’s readings were thought provoking regarding activism and role of the academy in the activism. We have seen activism bringing a wave of social change in the last couple of decades. However, how does one decide whether to participate in activism or focus on academia? Since starting this course a month back, I have learned a great deal about the importance and capacity of sociologists and other academics in engaging with the public and influencing policy change. We have seen movements such as Black Lives Matter and Arab Spring influencing the political discourse and initiating a revolution. As a result, my answer to the question I posed is that academics should be able to balance a little bit of both professional work and activism during their work in the academic field.

In his book “Soul of a Citizen”, Loeb provides multiple instances where ordinary citizens became socially involved for a cause and how it changed their lives. He states that “social involvement converts us from detached spectators into active participants” (Loeb, 2010). However, it comes with its own challenges as raising public issues can be daunting and may not always be accepted by family, friends, and other social circles. Loeb (2010) claims that if one believe in their convictions, they can take a stand against an issue without any formal credentials. He provides an example of Virginia Ramirez who became an influential activist without much support from her family and went to become a member of Communities Organized for Public Service (COPS) organization.

Student Activism:

In the wake of Berkeley protests, Emily Tate writes about “conversations among college law enforcement officials about campus preparedness” in her blog “Bracing for Black Bloc”. In February 2017, Berkeley students gathered in university campus to peacefully protest for the appearance of conservative writer Milo Yiannopoulos. However, this peaceful protest was soon overshadowed by a smaller group of people who started fires, broke windows, and attacked police outside Berkeley campus while wearing black masks. Tate (2017) defines Black Bloc as “a strategy intended to unify protesters through their black clothing, masks, and paramilitary tactics”. In an already chaotic situation, this group of people creates confusion for law enforcement officials as it becomes impossible to identify them from each other, consequently, misrepresenting the students who came there to protest peacefully. It has become vital for universities to increase the law enforcement presence at the protests as such unpredictable instances of Black Bloc showing up during protests are becoming prevalent.

Similarly, student activists at Howard University in Washington DC held a rally at the university campus to protest visits from any officials from Trump administration. Andrew Kreighbaum writes in his blog “Trump Backlash at Howard” that in the backdrop of Betsy DeVos being elected as a Secretary of Education, Howard students rallied to ban President Trump himself ever visiting the university campus. Juan Demetrixx, a representative of Concerned Students, 1867 explained that “Interacting with administration officials would diminish the values of the university while bringing no real value to Howard student” (Kreighbaum, 2017).

In last one month, we have seen a number of demonstrations with thousands of activists like the one with Women’s March, Berkeley Protests, and A Day without Immigrants. After President Trump’s election, we saw people like Virginia Ramirez, in other words, general public participating in some of the largest demonstrations in the country. In their blog “A New Era of Student Unrest?” Nancy Thomas and Adam Gismondi explain the how educators can leverage this opportunity and encourage “constructive, inclusive political learning and participation” (Thomas & Gismondi, 2017). They analyze the how recent political climate has sparked a new wave of student engagement with an emphasis on online activism. Not all students will show up in rallies and protests, but online resistance is visible on social media websites like Facebook and Twitter, as a result reaching thousands of people. Thomas and Gismondi (2017) offer some suggestions of how educators can deal with this widespread student unrest. Here are some of those suggestions:

  • Consider problem-based learning and approach student activism with appropriate attitude.
  • Provide students opportunity to connect with faculty and community members who share their interest.
  • Help students to positively analyze if their goal is achieved, how their ideal world will be.
  • Teach history and most influential social change movements.
  • Emphasize the importance of voting.

This brings me to the question of academic activism. What happens when academics themselves wish to be a part of the bigger picture than just their own workplace or university? Here are some of my thoughts.

Should all academics be activists?

The blog “why activism and academia don’t mix” by Fabio Rojas explains academia is different than activism because they inherently have different goals. He notes that “activism is about promoting social change, which is a different bottom line than academia, which is knowledge generation” (Rojas, 2013). In his blog, Rojas explains that people who enter academia are under a great deal of pressure of conformity, they are a part of the university for prestige, and are rewarded based on their research as well as for scholarships, not for activism. Does that mean academics shouldn’t be a part of activism? No, I think academics are at a great advantage when it comes to voicing their opinions regarding social problems, they have an ability to critically evaluate the situation, and then decide how to react to it. As an academic, one can generate the knowledge and information to inform public on the matter and initiate the gradual social change.

We have always heard people say “choose your battles”, it is very important for an academic to consider this when it comes to participating in activism. I think academics shouldn’t just choose their battles but also their battlefields. They should spend their time and resources on campaigns that can be productive and bring about any political or social change. For example, the professor who attacked and harassed Ivanka Trump on the JetBlue flight was not considering if his actions may resolve any social or political problem. Activist academics may find comfort in the sense that their work contributes to the greater collective good, however, they have a responsibility to choose appropriate channels to convey their disapproval or resistance. In my opinion, combining activism and academia is difficult as it involves considering their own professional commitments to research, ties to universities, and resistance from the scholarly community. Activist academics are also often targeted by attacks as they can be facing opposition from political actors. I believe that with appropriate avenues and strategy academics can be influential and effective activists as they have the most powerful tool at their disposal: knowledge.

 

References,

 

Kreighbaum, A. (2017, February 14). Trump Backlash at Howard. Retrieved February 22, 2017, from Inside Higher Ed, https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2017/02/14/howard-students-protest-trump-devos

 

Loeb, P. R. (2010). Soul of a citizen: living with conviction in challenging times. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin.

 

Rojas, F. (2013, March 31). Why activism and academia don’t mix. Retrieved February 22, 2017, from https://orgtheory.wordpress.com/2013/03/31/why-activism-and-academia-dont-mix/

 

Tate, E. (2017, February 13). Bracing for Black Bloc. Retrieved February 22, 2017, from Inside Higher Ed, https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2017/02/13/wake-violent-protests-colleges-prepare-chaos

 

Tennery, A. (2016, December 23). Passenger removed from JetBlue flight after Ivanka trump tirade. Huffington Post. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/ivanka-trump-jetblue-passenger_us_585cc2abe4b0de3a08f4e4c3

 

Thomas, N., & Gismondi, A. (2017, February 7). A New Era of Student Unrest? Retrieved February 22, 2017, from Inside Higher Ed, https://www.insidehighered.com/views/2017/02/07/do-recent-student-demonstrations-signal-new-trend-activism-essay

 

 

 

4 thoughts on “Academy and/or Activism

  1. Rucha,
    Great post and thanks for sharing. Great question in your introductory paragraph regarding how one might decide to engage in activism and/or academia. I was unaware until reading through our course readings this semester the scope of advantages and disadvantages that can be considered by academics who wish to also get involved in public engagement. The question seems simple enough to answer but it turns out that is not the case. Loeb’s text reads to me a bit like a self-help text for those considering activism and public engagement. There are great examples of people engaging in social activism and what I find most engaging is that they are not all professionals, in fact many are “regular” people who become a voice for an issue they believe in-such as your quote in paragraph two regarding standing up for one’s convictions. You provided great examples of recent movements that show some of the challenges of activism and I can see some reservation from academics to want to get involved in what turns out to be a safety concern versus an effective protest and voice from unified audiences. I enjoyed reading your points from Thomas and Gismondi, providing positive responses to student unrest. The younger student demographic is by its nature impressionable although they would deny it, and activism without cause unfortunately occurs when students protest more out of idleness than vision. As you mentioned in your paragraphs regarding academics as activists, it is true that academic and activist are not always alike or have the same motivations. There are some academics that are not interested in activism and as a strength and motivation want to produce professional, valid and effective research data. Likewise, some activists are not academics, and as Loeb’s writings detail, effective activism can take place with a college degree. It is important though for those academics who do have the resources and strengths in activism to engage in these opportunities. It is these academics with multiple skill sets that are the spokespersons for the gap between public audiences and academic professionals. In my opinion the field of sociology and other social science and sciences that have large scale community impacts that professionals within those fields have a system of identifying, designating, and utilizing its academic professionals who also want to be involved in activism.

  2. Rucha, good points here about choosing your battles, especially for academics given the demands and expectations in other areas of their careers. Do you think there is a special responsibility for sociologists, however, to pick a battle to fight, given that we are sociologists? I remember being in my master’s program and so frustrated that everyone seemed to study poor people, but no one knew any. That sparked me to become interested in public sociology and making sure that my work was directly connected and impactful to communities outside of the academy.

    1. Dr. Katz,

      Absolutely. We do have a responsibility to stand and fight for as many causes as we can and we don’t always have to choose our battles. However, I do feel that we can make a real difference when we focus on the problems and campaigns we are passionate about and can make a valuable contribution through our professional experience. I feel that considering the current political climate, we need a strategy to deal with each and every social cause with the help of academic activists who are experts in their field. They can bring the knowledge to masses, analyze the technicalities, and policies related to the situation.

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