GenX women in higher ed from around the globe

On Activists and Activism

In Uncategorized on 2014/06/02 at 03:29

Today’s post in our on-going Scholars Strike Back series is from University of Venus editorial collective member, Afshan Jafar, who asks how we might unhyphenate the “scholar-activist.”

Recently, I was asked to speak at the graduation ceremony of Connecticut College’s Holleran Center  for Community Action and Public Policy. And while these remarks were directed at undergraduate students who have been involved in the Holleran Center, I think they are pertinent to feminists in Academe; especially those of us who choose to engage the public through our writing. Below is a portion of my remarks.

. . . For those of you who don’t know me, I am also the mother of two daughters and given that I teach predominantly about gender, my two daughters are often the subject of many class conversations. I’d like to introduce the rest of you to them through my remarks here today. A few days ago, Aleena, who will be nine this summer, and Lilah who will be six this summer, were talking about the White House, as they are both fascinated with architecture and U.S. presidents. They decided that they want to be presidents of the United States when they grow up and as soon as they decided that, they sat down to write a list of things they wanted to accomplish when they become president. Here are some of the things that showed up on their lists. Let me start with Lilah (and I want to emphasize that I did not guide them in anyway while they made these lists):

Stuff I will change when I am president, by Lilah:

  • I will change schools

  • I will make people not litter as much

  • I will make people sell things at a good amount

  • I will make people not follow gender norms.

And here is some of what Aleena wrote on her list:

Things to change when I am president, by Aleena:

  • Better education at schools

  • Healthier, tastier food at schools

  • Make Walmart pay their workers a living wage

  • Two days a week, every school would have a No Trash Lunch Day. On No Trash Lunch Day, kids (and employees!) would bring a lunch with nothing to throw away. (Only recycling will be allowed!)

  • Once a week, every school will take a field trip to an educational place, such as a museum. There, they will learn about the art and exhibits.

  • Once a week, US schools will go to clean up litter around the school.

 . . . Perhaps what is most surprising about their lists is that they have absorbed a basic sociological lesson: that change needs to be structural as well as cultural . . .

But that’s the problem: How do we influence something that feels as intangible, yet as permanent as culture? Culture is one of those things that we like to use to explain everything  – and as a sociologist, I obviously spend a lot of time talking about how our culture influences us. But that focus on culture, can sometimes become paralyzing. We throw our hands up in the air and say “that’s just our culture, it will NEVER change.” But cultures aren’t permanent and cultures do change. Instead of thinking of cultures as a box (one that contains things, but also one that contains us), it is more appropriate to think of cultures as fluid – changing, shifting, moving constantly. Cultures are made and re-made – they do not descend upon us from the heavens, and they do not materialize out of thin air.

But if cultures are made, then we need to ask ourselves who made them? Does everybody benefit from what has been created? . . . the answer to the second question is “No” – not everybody benefits from what has been created . . . culture is always a manifestation of social relationships and power and privilege within a society.

So how do you change cultures? One small, but I think significant, way is to re-think your identities as activists. There will be many outside of this college who will discourage you from activism and from adopting the label of activist. Even on college campuses we use words like scholar-activists to describe students like you.  Scholar-activist. The two words together, this hyphenated identity, makes me uncomfortable for many reasons. You see, while it’s supposed to be a positive phrase, one that captures the various aspects of our lives, it is a phrase that signals something limiting and mutually exclusive about the two categories on their own. It’s like using the phrase “male-nurse”, which implies that a nurse by definition cannot be male and thus we need the qualifier, male-nurse . . . I want you to think about what the words scholar and activist mean to you.

If I asked you to envision a scholar, here are some things I can guess will come to your mind: A solitary figure, working by the light of a lamp (or a candle because scholars apparently forget to pay their electric bills), somebody who is surrounded by books, and churning out even more books. In short, it is somebody who seems removed from and perhaps even above, the company of other humans. The scholar is also somebody who seems to be interested in knowledge for the sake of knowledge – an unbiased, non-judgmental, rational, researcher.

Now if I asked you to imagine an activist, chances are that you will imagine some sort of a protest, a person with his or her fist in the air.  And if I asked you to describe the activist further, chances are that you might respond with the words “angry, upset, or emotional”.  And that’s the big lie we’ve all been told and we’ve all internalized – that being a scholar and being an activist are two different callings: one is about disinterested, unbiased, scientific pursuit of knowledge, the other is defined by bias, anger, and emotions. To label somebody as “emotional” is a way to devalue that perspective in our culture. And as long as we can paint activists as situated within the realm of emotions and feelings, we can dismiss their contributions and perspectives and we can keep activists on the defensive.  Well, turns out that this definition of activists is completely wrong. A recent study from the University of Chicago revealed that people who have a high “justice sensitivity” (that’s the technical, scientific term for people like you who are interested in issues of justice and fairness), are not “emotionally-driven”. Instead, their interest in justice is cognitively driven – it is the outcome of reason, not emotion. And while I don’t want to devalue the significance of emotions, it is important to understand and remember that we, activists, are not in fact, irrational.

Activists are not biased – at least not any more so than any person who identifies him or herself as a scholar. The guise of disinterested, objective scientific research only serves to hide the bias that exists all around us. Activism is about uncovering those biases that exist in our culture. It is about revealing that which has been made invisible, it is about challenging that which has been made acceptable. You’ll notice that I say “has been made invisible” or “has been made acceptable”, because there is no “natural order”; there is no essential or inherent way of being. And once we accept that, we have to see that power is always implicated in who is made invisible, who is normalized, who is accepted, and who is marginalized.

But that’s the trouble with activists. They see a little too much, a little too well. And that’s the burden you have borne during your time here but a burden I hope you will continue to bear after you leave here by embracing your identities as activists – not as an addendum, not as a hyphenated identity, but as who you are. Because as the writer Arundhati Roy, reminds us: “The trouble is that once you see . . . you can’t unsee . . . And once you’ve seen, keeping quiet, saying nothing, becomes as political an act as speaking out. There’s no innocence. Either way, you’re accountable.”

I hope you will take these words with you and that they will give you the courage in those times when you most need it. In those times, when it might be so much easier to lower your voice than to speak up. In those times, when it might be so much easier to avert your gaze, than to lock eyes in defiance. But no matter what course of action or inaction you choose in those moments, Roy is correct: Either way, you’re accountable.

Thank you very much!

If you are interested in participating in our Scholars Strike Back series, please contact assistant editor, Gwendolyn Beetham.


Mental Health and the Role of the Campus

In Uncategorized on 2014/06/01 at 21:16

recently asked my fellow University of Venus writers what resources they had on campus to support students in terms of their mental well-being.  It seems that all I’ve been reading about lately is how mental illness is on the rise in Academia, along with discussions on how to take care of yourself and how, when and where to ask for help.

My question in this post focuses on the “where.” I recently read an article discussing a student at Yale University who was threatened with expulsion because of her weight – her slight physique signalled an eating disorder, and their “concern” resulted in what sounded like a form of harassment, and their advice and monitoring of her food intake almost resulted in the disorder they were so afraid of. My own institution was also recently in the news due to our low student-to-counsellor ratio. Increasingly, institutions are implementing “student at risk” protocols to address behaviours and warning signs of students with the potential to cause harm to others or themselves. There are somestrong views on what the roles and responsibilities of the University should be to address this growing concern.

As someone who struggled with anxiety while completing my master’s degree, as well as simultaneously acting in an administrative role for students and programs, I can appreciate the complexities from both perspectives. I found completing my degree to be exhausting, isolating and damaging to my ego and spirit. It also opened up a myriad of opportunities for me, enriched my life, and profoundly changed my world view.

But what exactly was the role of my professors, administrators and the Student Services Department in terms of monitoring how I was actually coping with my program? Student-at-risk protocols, Counselling Services, Department Program Committees and even the Provincial Government all intersect to provide an environment that regulates the amount of work, evaluation structures, tuition fees and support resources provided to, and imposed on students.

During the course of my degree, I began to see a therapist, was prescribed anxiety medication and was consistently applying for tuition supplements from the institution after each course. I battled my depression, occasionally had financial concerns, and of course struggled to find the time to complete my assignments while working full-time and doing mundane tasks like laundry, seeing family and trying to sustain a relationship.

The expectation in some of the programs and protocols that Universities are launching is that someone is going to *notice* that students are in crisis. Now at the graduate level, I was fortunate to have an advisor, and the classes were very small. However, in an undergraduate course of 100+ students, will a faculty member necessarily notice that a student is struggling? And will they necessarily know what to do about it if they do? These programs require training on multiple levels; is it useful to have a number of counsellors equipped with strategies and policies at their fingertips if faculty members or administrators at my level don’t know what to look for in their brief student interactions?

I have had students crying in my office, as I imagine many faculty and staff members have. However, I can’t always discern whether I am witnessing a moment of frustration, or a deep-rooted cause for concern. And therein lay the gap. We are expected to look after our students, students who are independent adults. The line between showing concern and appearing punitive is a fine one. Yale was demonstrating some laudable care with the student mentioned above, and if she was genuinely ill, they likely would have felt the ramifications of ignoring the warning signs.  I guarantee though, not one of my instructors knew that I was in crisis during my degree, as I certainly didn’t feel I was in a position to demonstrate what I feared would be construed as “weakness” to people who were both my instructors and co-workers. How many other students find themselves disguising their struggles due to a still existing stigma?

Universities often try to be one-stop-shops. I’ve seen campuses with hairdressers, banks, doctors, lawyers, grocery stores and more. But the mandate of a University is to educate, and I would argue that one is not only there to learn how to cure White Nose Syndrome, but also to become  more resourceful individuals – and if our sorely overtaxed Counselling Services are only able to offer a referral, then perhaps that is the wiser path. But where does that leave the students who need our help?


Public Engagement Under Attack

In Uncategorized on 2014/05/31 at 06:08

The latest post in our on-going Scholars Strike Back series comes from guest blogger Alison Piepmeier, Associate Professor at the College of Charleston. Piepmeier examines the link between challenges to academic freedom and academics’ engagement in the public sphere, especially when that engagement is deemed “controversial.”

On Monday, May 12, the interim Senior Vice Chancellor at the University of South Carolina Upstate informed Merri Lisa Johnson, faculty member and director of the Center for Women’s and Gender Studies, that the school was closing the Center.  This incident seems like yet another painful piece of evidence that for many of us in Women’s and Gender Studies (and this spring particularly in South Carolina), the academic work we do intersects the public world, and vice versa.

In the fall USC Upstate offered the book Out Loud: The Best of Rainbow Radio, and in the spring semester the South Carolina House began the process of cutting the college’s budget (along with the budget of the College of Charleston, which had offered Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home to its incoming students).  South Carolina legislators expressed repeated, unapologetic homophobia in public statements, fundraising letters, and even informal emails and Twitter conversations with undergraduates.  As the semester progressed, things got worse:  the Center for Women’s and Gender Studies hired comedian Leslie Hendrix to perform her show How to Be a Lesbian in 10 Days or Less as evening entertainment at their annual Bodies of Knowledge Symposium.  At that point state legislators representing that part of the state became increasingly furious, which led to the administrators at the campus canceling the performance.  Then in May, the administration closed the Center.

These legislative attacks, and the responses of USC Upstate administrators, have demonstrated how powerfully public responses can affect academic decisions.  This has led to an environment in which Upstate faculty feel professionally threatened. The idea of USC Upstate being a hostile work environment was denied—with what seemed to be legitimate surprise—by Senior Vice Chancellor John Masterson, who had closed the Center, and Chancellor Tom Moore.  They truly seemed baffled that this would be a realistic description of their university.  And yet a number of the faculty I spoke with used that very term in describing their jobs at Upstate.

Almost every faculty member who talked with me had tenure, and tenure is supposed to be the ultimate form of protection, the security no other profession offers.  If you have tenure, you’re supposed to be free to say what needs to be said, no matter how controversial it is.  But this isn’t necessarily true, particularly if you’re a faculty member addressing and supporting marginalized populations.  In those cases, public engagement can be dangerous.

I broke the story of the Center’s closing on May 13 in the Charleston City Paper; USC Upstate didn’t offer its press release until the next day.  It’s entirely possible that I was able to get the information so quickly, and that I’ve been able to talk about these issues openly, because I’m connected to some of the faculty who are involved, and they know that I’m trustworthy.  They know that I won’t reveal their identities, nor will I make arguments that endorse the homophobia of our legislature and the potentially ignorant homophobia and sexism of the Upstate administration.

And this leads to another challenge of responding to and attempting to challenge some of the public intersections with the academy:  academics often aren’t comfortable writing for the public.  We’re generally trained to speak only to other scholars trained in our discipline. These elite voices don’t help us speak to the public. Although I was certainly trained that way, I’ve had the opportunity to become more of a public writer, starting with a personal blog, then with work with the OpEd Project that helped me to write op-eds and columns for online spaces like the NYTimes “Motherlode.”  My public pieces led to an invitation to become a columnist at the Charleston City Paper, and in these public venues I’ve had the opportunity to develop a broader voice.  Indeed, even my academic work these days is moving toward accessibility to a broader audience—a thoughtful mainstream audience interested in the issues I’m addressing.

In the wake of this spring’s public/academic debacles, I’ve been doing extensive (and let’s admit, exhausting) public writing.  Virtually every week—and sometimes twice a week—the offensiveness has become so visible and toxic that I’ve had to speak out.  This is part of my academic work, and the fact that administrators at my college have not challenged this writing is, of course, essential to my ability to keep doing it. I’ve never wanted to be a scholar who only spoke to the elite, and I don’t feel that I have to play that role.  I’m allowed to be a scholar whose scholarship connects with activism, whose feminist training provides very useful expertise, and whose attention to the public world may lead to meaningful change.

Alison Piepmeier directs the Women’s and Gender Studies Program at the College of Charleston. She is the author of several books, including Girl Zines: Making Media, Doing Feminism. You can read more of her work on her blog.

If you are interested in participating in our Scholars Strike Back series, please contact assistant editor, Gwendolyn Beetham.



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