Activist Scholarship in a Post-Tenure Key
I’ve been blogging a lot during sabbatical. It’s been great to write pieces that feel relevant and have them read by more than just those who can afford an $80 hardcover. It’s one way I’ve been responding to a part of my feminist spirit that’s been unsettled lately.
I have a great teaching job at an institution where faculty have a high quality of life. I don’t take this for granted.
But, I got into academia because of my social justice commitments: what began as a journey into liberation theology thinking more like a grassroots activist, turned into a brief flirtation with pastoral ministry, ended up as a PhD and a tenure-track job. Now here I sit, three-years post-tenure wrestling with hard questions about whether academic life really honors my passion for justice. (I’m sure Andy Smith would rightly relate these questions to the reality of working in the academic industrial complex.)
This wrestling has gotten more intense at my last few academic meetings as I’ve wandered around with a cohort of beloved justice-committed feminist friends. I keep hearing a nagging voice asking: how many people are we really speaking to beyond ourselves?
I’ve felt unsatisfied with my own answer to that question.
The voice got really loud during James Cone’s plenary at the 2013 Society of Christian Ethics meeting. Speaking on The Cross and the Lynching Tree, Cone moved into passionate cadence about the onslaught of devastation still faced by Black, Latino and Native communities. He got really loud and said something like this [my paraphrase]: You realize there were 8,000 scholars of religion gathered right here in Chicago, only eight weeks ago? Do you know what 8,000 people could do for justice if they actually cared about it? When I look around at what Black people still go through I just have to ask, what exactly is it you all sit here talking about?!?
I, and others I deeply respect, absolutely do spend a lot of time writing and talking about justice, and working to create more just structures in the academy itself. I believe in this work. But I definitely did not feel let off the hook by Cone’s question.
I feel aware that “The Academy” often feels like Reality itself to those of us who spend so much time in it. (Every time I hear Mary Hunt speak, she challenges me to remember this.) It’s seductive. Of course, I understand the academy is part of reality: issues of labor, educational access, the ways ideologies impact on structures, all of these and more are reality. But what happens when the academy becomes a thing unto itself? When we believe prophetic speech within its corridors translates easily into social impact?
These discomforts have fueled my interest in blogging and my desire to push on the term “activist scholar.”
Don’t get me wrong I love the term. I believe it’s meaningful and want my work to be an accurate picture of what it looks like. I reject the false binary between “scholarship/teaching” and “activist/social change agent” that “activist scholar” intends to disrupt. Yes, social change requires good, critical analysis and interpretation, and the dissemination of persuasive accounts of what our world might become if we made different, justice-filled choices. Yes, I’ve seen students leave my classes transformed because they’ve engaged feminism, critical race theories, liberation ethics and anything I can expose them to that argues for justice as the heart of our human vocation.
Yes, this is what activist scholarship looks like.
But it isn’t complete.
So maybe all I’m about to accomplish is outing myself as a really bad feminist. But the fact is I haven’t been deeply involved with any serious grassroots organizing in a very long time.
I was acutely aware of this when I walked into a meeting of A Mid-West Organizing Strategy (AMOS) last January. The meeting was called to begin organizing against the ways Iowa’s criminal justice system is decimating African American communities. After spending a few hours with folks from all walks of life I wondered what had taken me so long to get there.
I told myself part of the delay was two children under the age of five (good excuse or not, it’s true!). Then I realized that my self-perception activist scholar might have contributed to the delay. It’s great that I write and teach in support of the ideas AMOS is trying to make real. But achieving those transformations requires bodies showing up—lots of them.
I have a friend who says she writes about social change because she’s a “lazy activist.” She’s mostly kidding, but not completely. I can write a blog these days and disseminate it in a few hours. But the work I started to become part of that night was a holy wholly different beast. It’s work (time consuming at that) to collaborate with a few hundred people on an agenda, organize to contact legislators, train court observers, brainstorm how to pressure school administrators to stop calling law enforcement when a guidance counselor will do. The folks in that room—who were there long before I showed up—were activists.
I’m feeling increasingly clear that if “activist scholar” doesn’t demand this kind of embodiment from me, then it’s a term I need to use with much greater caution. Meanwhile, I’m also clear that putting my body more often where my teaching and writing already are may go a long way to letting my feminist spirit live more fully than it has in quite some time.