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Both/And: The Fallacy of the Activism/Academia Divide

Originally published in Broad Magazine.

Two years ago, as one of the liaisons to my undergraduate Women and Gender Studies department, I found myself participating in the search and hiring process for a new professor.  Presented with four candidates, my classmates and I attended talks, asked questions, and ate meals with the potential hires.  We learned about their intellectual investments, what they thought mattered in the teaching process, and what formed the basis of their methodologies.  After all four visits, the liaisons came together as a group to discuss who would be the best fit for our department in preparation for presenting the candidates to the search committee.  Instead, we found ourselves engaged in a debate over the relative merits and presence of activism versus more theory based academic perspectives in our department, as well as on a larger scale.

The particularities of the faculty in our department notwithstanding, the liaison group was dominated by women who framed themselves as activists, and although I could gain some traction in my defense of theory and life in the academy, it was slow going.  While I discussed the intellectual challenge that comes with reading Foucault, my fellow liaisons talked about the importance of translating academic work into their communities and participating in grassroots organizing.  We continued in this vein for a while and finally veered off to make a decision in regards to the candidate we would support, but the conversation continued to come up over the course of the semester.  We didn’t realize that we were all advocating for the same thing.

Activism and the academy are inseparable and always have been, and to separate the two into discrete realms is both facile and false.  First, there are many people who are explicitly academics and activists, who write and publish and teach, but are also community organizers.  One of my undergraduate professors built community organizing into her curriculum, teaching theory alongside trips to low-income housing rallies, for example.  On a grander scale, academia and activism feed each other, functioning reciprocally to expand both social movements and academic fields.  The historic trajectory of feminism follows this pattern of interaction; the fight for the franchise was a social movement, as was the reproductive rights movement of the 1960s and 70s.  In the last few decades, however, feminism has been institutionalized as an academic discipline, but still the activism/academia division finds its edges blurred.  Many people in feminist non-profit organizing have Women’s Studies degrees, as do lawyers, social workers, and other people in fields more focused on outreach than intellectualized introspection.

In that original liaison conversation, I advocated for the theory side of this oft imagined split.  Since then, however, I have realized that as an academic, I couldn’t do the work that I am engaged in without activists and without framing my own work as a form of activism.  In focusing on the intersections of queer and disability studies, I am listening to what those communities are saying and am paying attention to any organizing that is happening by people with those identities.  Moreover, I am part of the queer and disabled communities, and my academic work reflects a world that I both experience as real and hope to change.  As such, when I talk about selective abortion of fetuses with disabilities in the classroom, it is not merely an academic exercise.  Rather, it is about examining the issues to produce policy change, to ensure the continued existence of disabled communities.

As aware as I have become of the fluid boundaries between activism and the academy, I still often find myself aligning with academia.  It’s a gut response, and I think it’s a reasonable one for me to have as a graduate student.  Further, time in the classroom tends to emphasize the existence of this divide rather than downplay it or demonstrate the relationship between activism and academia.  In the classroom, we speak a different language, analyze problems without necessarily seeking solutions, apply critical theoretical perspectives to academic and popular texts.  Often we work alone.  These things are distinctly other from the evident characteristics of community organizing and activism.  As an academic, it is easy to see protests on the news or hear about people organizing letter-writing campaigns and to categorize those things as activism without thinking about their relationship to your writing, or to the wider concept of activism.  I will admit to doing this.  But when I return to my work, I see pages of writing detailing new imaginings of interdependence between disabled and able-bodied communities, writing that considers new possible alliances and different manifestations of these interactions.  When I return to my academic work, I see the activism that I forget is always and already there.

It isn’t easy to give up the division between the academy and activism, or rather, to relinquish our hold on that idea.  There is, in fact, nothing to give up.  Both worlds would stagnate without the other, and that is what often gets forgotten or lost when we pursue what is framed as an academic or activist goal.  It is always an ‘or’ question, rather than ‘both/and,’ and that is the error in this conception.  When my classmates advocated for an activist professor rather than what they saw as my notion of the staunch academic, none of us realized we could have been talking about the same person, envisioned through our own critical biases.  What we saw in those candidates had less to do with their experience as activists or teachers and much more to do with the fallacy of the activism/academia divide in which we had all invested.

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