Bridging the Scholar/Activist Divide

Over the course of the semester, my blogs have mostly been a critical interrogation of various “problems.” There hasn’t been much talk about solutions, and I feel as if it has become way easier for me to critique something than offer up a solution. So I’ve decided to dedicate this blog to a solution, so to speak: ACTIVISM. It’s sometimes easy to become overwhelmed in graduate school, especially if you are studying “social problems”—not only because there are so many—but also because its hard to imagine being able to balance your scholarship and activism. I argue that there needs to be a reframing of the notion of “scholarship,” one that includes, but is not limited to, “discovery (pure research), integration (informed connections across disciplines), applications (service that bridges the world inside and outside of academia), and teaching” (Boyer 16). Thus the full scope of academic work should be legitimized and encouraged to be explored. Unfortunately, most people in the academy maintain a very restricted view of scholarship. Because of this view, being an activist scholar may seem daunting. Although this may be the case, I believe that it is imperative that we, as scholars, have a responsibility to work toward and aid in the project of social transformation, and this mostly takes the form of producing scholarship/ knowledge that aids in this project.

Are You an Activist Scholar?

I got the impression in our last class that we have all (before our graduate school career—when we had more time) worked with organizations that are working toward social transformation at a local or global level, and I know that I once had way more time to take a more “hands on” approach to activism/social justice. Although it seems as if we may never learn how to balance scholarship and activism, it is possible. I found this great framework about how to bridge the scholar activist divide on a blog, “geeks & global justice,” that I wanted to share. This framework is guided by a simple statement: “Be the change you want to see in the world.” There are four parts to the framework:

1. Public dissemination of research/ideas: The case of Open access

2. Civic engagement: Walking the walk

3. Subversive Teaching

4. Norms-based research

Breaking it down:

  1. The activist scholar shares her/his/their knowledge production with the broader community—through public lectures, media interviews, and popular and academic articles. According to “geeks & global justice,” “this strategy counteracts monopolies of knowledge, which Innis identifies as biased idea structures that control and legitimate – or authenticate – knowledge. They further promulgate and reinforce power imbalances within society while at the same time concealing such imbalances.”
  2. The activist scholar “walks the walk.” She/he/they must engage in civic life and be involved in local communities, which can take myriad forms: “joining campaigns, attending demos, supporting student-organized events, volunteering for community groups” (“geeks & global justice”).
  3. The activist scholar, if teaching, focuses on a “revisioning” of the practice of teaching. She/they/he must see teaching as an “ongoing process, rather than a finite action repeatedly taken up” and must consider students as another “link to the ‘real world’” (“geeks & global justice). The classroom becomes “a portal on the world and a terrain for the change-making [the scholar activist] want[s] to provoke” (“geeks & global justice).
  4. “Geeks & global justice” does a great job articulating the last point, so I am just going to copy what they have said: This final strategy for teaching survival is fairly self-explanatory. But then again, maybe it isn’t. As critical, radical, activists scholars, we need to:
  1. Dispense thoroughly with the myth of objectivity. There is no such thing as the objective researcher. No research is unbiased, neutral for nothing touched by human hand, heart or brain lacks subjectivity;
  2. Conduct research on subject matters that matter, where outcomes have social value and use. Research should not be commoditized, nor commandeered by the state
  3. Be human: research should be sensitized to the communities being researched; avoid at all costs establishing a dichotomy of the “knowing researcher” and “ignorant research subjects”; this leads to irrelevant, out of touch work.

Barnard Center for Research on Women: Activism and the Academy 

This week in my feminist methodology class, we watched a discussion about activist scholarship that was filmed at the Barnard Center for Research on Women Activism and the Academy conference. I thought I would share it because I found it to be super valuable and interesting.

There are also a ton more videos and podcasts (all about birding activism and scholarship) available from the conference  here.

How do you see yourself bridging the activist/scholar divide?

Works Cited

Boyer, Ernest L. Scholarship Reconsidered: Priorities of the Professoriate. San Francisco: Jossey Bass, 1990.

“Geeks & Global Justice.” Web. 17 April 2012.


One thought on “Bridging the Scholar/Activist Divide

  1. Meshia says:

    “There is no teaching without learning” -John Dewey

    The philosophy behind this quote speaks to the interdependency of teaching and learning. In order for students to learn they must be taught, and taught in a way that stimulates and inspires learning. For me, teaching is activism. It can have the same response as a candidate inspiring a nation to change or an activist at a rally calling for justice. Have you ever had goosebumps from a teacher? I have, and it was because what I was learning moved me in such a way that it was felt and imprinted on my body. The role of the teacher is therefore one of the most important hats a scholar activist wears. Just as it may be seen as a responsibility to “bridge the gap” and “walk the walk,” it is also our responsibility to be great justice-centered teachers. It is a responsibility that we should always be looking to improve and cultivate. As an ethic of researchers we should be “doing no harm” to our participants. Let’s take this ethic to the classroom, if we fail to teach our students, are we doing harm?

    Thanks for your post, very thought provoking on my role as a learner of teaching!

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