Monday, October 26, 2009

Dear Disgruntled Academic...

I started in my very first Ethnic Studies class a few weeks ago. In my introductory lecture, I tried to lay out for my students what the Ethnic Studies project is, and what its intellectual and political imperatives are. As I was winding up, my "take-home point" to them was about the keeping in mind the connections between theory and practice, and not falling prey to the idea that there is always already a rift between the two. Given that the project of Ethnic Studies emerged from radical, grassroots student movements, oftentimes theory is looked upon with great disdain within the field because it is presumed to signify the losing of one's roots, an act of "selling-out." I have a serious problems with articulations of such a split because it completely elides the intellectual underpinnings of the movement for Ethnic Studies, and it also presumes that grassroots work/activism is something distinct from, or other than, intellectual work. I didn't want my students to somehow come away with that idea, so I made it a point to emphasize that the rift between the two would exist only if they wanted it to; that is, it exists only in the moment of choice. And over the past few weeks, I have used the course readings to keep coming back to this point, so that they don't think I'm being an apologist for academia, or just pulling stuff out of my arse... but they actually see the connections manifest in the work assigned them.

The sad and frustrating thing though is that numerous academics themselves buy into this rhetoric about the split between theory and practice. It irritates the life out of me when I hear academics piss on intellectual work because it has no "real life implications." My response to these is, just because you don't see the connections doesn't mean they don't exist! The inability to note how intellectual work, theory even, impacts the everyday, and vice versa, signifies either a weakness of one's mental abilities (ok, I'm being a bitch), or a simple laziness. The dismissal of intellectual work doesn't make one somehow more radical; it makes them less capable of recognizing and confronting the socio-symbolic violences that pervade our world. It means that one has little understanding of how the world and human existence is constituted. The structures that we find ourselves confined within, subject to, aren't just a given - they are the effects of intellectual work. If you want to transform them, you've got to understand them in all their complexity... or else, you've lost the battle and the war.

I am sick too of those that valorize the 60s as if they represent a pure moment of political activism, untainted by intellectualism and "theory-heads." That form of idealization, in my opinion, does a deep disservice to the intellectual investments of those involved. It over-simplifies what was a complex, contentious moment of the political and intellectual re-writing of the U.S. Academics seriously need to re-think their mythologization of the 60s. This is especially true right now, in the context of the crises facing higher ed institutions, specifically the UC system.

I have heard folks complain that the acts of protest at the UCs are just an instance of the privileged acting out against pay-cuts and furloughs. First off, this is an oversimplification of the what's going on. The crisis also involves massive tuition hikes, larger classes, job loss among staff, etc. So the budgetary decisions in play have a more far-reaching effect than some seem to recognize - especially with regards working class and of color communities, as well as academic programs, like Ethnic Studies, that are, in fact, their heirs. Moreover, the conditions that have produced this crisis, and the effects they are bound to engender, closely mirror those in play in the 60s. Had students and activists in the 60s refused to walk-out, protest, and strike because they were intellectually and politically paralyzed by the fact their lot was better than those dying in wars in Asia, perhaps today we wouldn't have the language, the tools and the legacies that enable us to do the kind of anti-violence work that is actually possible today.

I am not trying, here, to deny that we are privileged to be in academia. I agree that as academics it is our responsibility to be aware of and continue to critique the conditions that make this privilege possible. But that doesn't mean we should piss that privilege away by merely complaining about how bad it is. We need to learn to use that privilege productively instead! That is crucial to the work of an academic!! We have an extraordinary opportunity to enable some form a social impact... we either use it, or get out of the way because there's many more deserving folks waiting to for a spot like ours.

Also, the next time someone talks to me about privilege with their Prada bag in sight... Internalize your critiques please!!

I am myself pretty disgrutled and cranky with academic right now. And in trying to rein in my frustration, rage too perhaps, this post may have turned out a little awkward. But, a couple of years, I wrote something similar for a student of color newspaper at Oberlin. I am pasting this here because I think it articulates a little better my displeasure with cranky academics.


As I write this, I have just returned from a protest at Thurgood Marshall College, one of the six colleges at the University of California, San Diego. Marshall College, established in 1970 through a student movement initiated by fierce and radical scholar-activists such as Angela Davis and Herbert Marcus, was created specifically as a space for the intellectual and political growth of working class students and students of color. Central to the College’s academic requirements is the Dimensions of Culture (DOC) Program, an “interdisciplinary sequence that has Diversity, Justice, and Imagination as its main themes. In this course, which includes intensive instruction in university-level writing, first-year students study American social issues and gain an awareness of American cultural perspectives” (

Over the past few years the DOC curriculum, has been substantially “watered down,” which is evident, for example, in the replacement of the study of critical race theory with that of “downward assimilation” theory, a concept that argues that if new immigrant groups intend to successfully “Americanize” or assimilate, they must “avoid” interaction or integration with certain ethnic groups. Such spectacularly problematic, ignorant (and may I add, “pin-headed”) curricular changes were made in response to complaints from some “concerned” parents regarding the “indoctrination” of their children. Further, a college that was founded with a radical mission to serve underrepresented and disenfranchised students, now serves numerous (over-)represented and (over-)privileged students who chose to attend Marshall College because of its proximity to the beach and its wonderful residence halls.

In response to the growing critiques made by students and Teaching Assistants to the changing curriculum, the College recently fired 2 T.A.s for their political activism around the issue, defending its curricular changes and the firings through the rhetoric of “academic freedom.” The day’s protest, then, was to challenge these bogus claims of “academic freedom” and to demand the restoration of the critical, progressive mission that the College was founded upon.

I begin with this story because the on-going events at Thurgood Marshall resonate with my own memories of Oberlin, and will probably resonate with numerous other Obies, past and present. This is not to say that the events and circumstances at Thurgood Marshall are identical to those at Oberlin, or vice-versa. Instead, it is a comment on the non-uniqueness, un-exceptional-ness and non-isolation of the regressive changes occurring in various “social spaces” across the United States. Too often at Oberlin, we complain about the “Oberlin bubble.” But over the years I have come to realize that, while Oberlin may be spatially and socio-economically distant from the “real world,” it is in no way immune from, unaccountable for, or non-complicitous in the changes occurring “outside.” In fact, the “Oberlin bubble” is a microcosmic reflection of the “real world” – that space that we, so often, are tempted to valorize. As one of the speakers at the protest mentioned, what does it mean when an academic institution tells us that race and indigeneity and gender and class and nation are “controversial,” or worse still, “do not matter,” when each day people continue to die while crossing the border, and indigenous communities continue to encounter the violation of their environments and cultures, and immigrant communities of color continue to be subject to slave labor?

While academic institutions may not contribute directly to these unjust and inhumane circumstances, are they not perversely complicit – in line with the militarized nation-state and the corporatized global economy – in eliding the all-pervasive violence that communities continue to encounter across the various local and global spaces? I am not attempting to suggest here that academic institutions are as violent as, say, multinational corporations; rather, the point I am trying to make is that H/history, as living past and multiple futures, does not stop at the boundaries of Oberlin College, Ohio. The “Oberlin bubble” is part of the limitless, fluid and intersecting “bubbles” that constitute H/history. That is why it matters who Oberlin serves and what it teaches; whose voices are respected and whose dismissed; what is spoken and what remains mired in ghostly silences; what Oberlin values and what it proactively strives for. And more importantly, that is why the tireless and relentless social justice work of students, staff, faculty and alums at Oberlin, is crucial – it is not isolated action, restricted within the time and space of Oberlin, and it is definitely not any less “real” than that which occurs “outside.”

Yes, those of us in academic institutions are substantially more privileged and generally enjoy a greater level of security and comfort, at least within the space of academia; and while it is crucial to be critically aware of this privilege, to get bogged down by “privilege guilt” can be paralyzing and unproductive. Over the past few months, as a graduate student at UCSD, I have come to realize that non-complicit action is impossible – mired though we may be in the rhetoric of individualism, we are all intimately and violently linked to each other though oppressive systems and structures. Therefore, what is crucial to social justice activism is how we chose to insert and position ourselves, and our work, within such always-already complicitous frameworks.

I apologize for turning what was meant to be a “reflection piece” into a political spiel. However, I chose to write this because it is, in fact, what I have learnt through my time Oberlin. I owe Oberlin my life. While this statement may be somewhat of an exaggeration, it is not totally off the mark. I am where I am and I envision my future as I do because of Oberlin – because of my relationship with students, faculty, staff and alumni who were committed to social justice. It was at Oberlin that I came to consciousness, and learnt to be socially aware and active; it was also at Oberlin that I learnt to be angry, hurt, cynical and suspicious. But working through the pain and disappointments of Oberlin has been crucial to my ability to develop, what I perceive to be, a broader and more productive view of social justice work.

Oberlin is special, a friend (and also an Oberlin alum) recently said to me, while we were reminiscing about our time there. Yes, I responded, but it takes a lot of distance to recognize that. Oberlin has an uncanny ability to burn people out, but I hope that after some wounds have healed (even partially), we can “come back” to Oberlin to support those who come after us, and who continue to struggle for an Oberlin reflective of the revolutionary changes we envision for a global society.

1 comment:

manong danny said...

"Had students and activists in the 60s refused to walk-out, protest, and strike because they were intellectually and politically paralyzed by the fact their lot was better than those dying in wars in Asia, perhaps today we wouldn't have the language, the tools and the legacies that enable us to do the kind of anti-violence work that is actually possible today."

Support. It doesn't feel like the (personal, sociopolitical, and cultural) connections people of color and other marginalized populations made with the overseas "victims" during the 60s are seen anymore. Or, at least, not explicitly. The privilege gap causes more self-disdain and self-loathing than desire to create a bridge with the tools academia (i assume) so readily provides.