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As the pandemic has worn on, I have found myself devoting more and more of my time to conversations with researchers who have one foot in the world of alternative economies. I talked with dozens of Ph.D. students who self-identify as scholar-activists; they don’t want to stop at an analysis of the climate catastrophe, surveillance capitalism, or the subjugation and exploitation that people experience every day, nine to five in the workplace. They ask: What are we collectively doing with our knowledge, political experience, and privilege?
Several of these Ph.D. students in the social sciences and humanities with a clear commitment to changing the world confided in me that they can’t see themselves working in a university with its arcane rituals and navel-gazing. They can’t see a place for themselves in that system and, understandably, hesitate to write about their own experiences.
This essay is meant to encourage them to speak out and collectively search for generative and supportive spaces for scholar-activists within and outside of academia-as-usual for scholar-activists.
From students and faculty to staff, it’ll be hard to find many who think that the current system of higher education is working. In the U.S., amidst the public health crisis, universities are struggling to stay afloat and for smaller, already struggling, private colleges across the country this may well be the end.
In that light, meeting doctoral students gives me anxiety attacks. “Just don’t do it!” a voice whispers in the back of my mind. After many years of doctoral studies, who will meaningfully employ a scholar-activist? And yet, in pandemic times, there is even more need for academic work that is co-shaped with communities, raising questions that can be transformative for discussions about social justice.
With roughly 1.5 million faculty teaching 20 million students in U.S. colleges, universities hold vast potential to also be spaces for professors to use their expertise and authority to change capitalism: poverty, racism, joblessness, student debt, and a lack of access to education.
My own trajectory to becoming an engaged researcher has been about zigzagging between art school, where I learned to understand art as anything a cultural producer would do that creates meaning in society, a doctoral program in Switzerland—unconventionally late—and eventually, academia where I was teaching from the Bauhaus to mostly research universities in Oregon, Arizona, and then New York.
From the age of six, my life was about drawing, later monumental installations, naked performance art about my agitated relationship to capitalism (don’t ask), and Internet art about immigration (one piece made it into the Venice Biennial). As an artist-activist, I worked with the houseless community in San Francisco and researched the situation of workers in fast food chains in Manhattan. But soon, I found my creative practice to be too solitary and shifted to academia where after not too long, with many of my colleagues having been educated at the world’s best universities, I felt like an imposter— expected to conform to the expectations of entrenched scholars who valued particular forms of knowledge and insinuated that turning to the general public means abandoning complex thinking and arguments.
But over the years, I grew more into my own practice as a community-engaged scholar and was grateful to notice its place in the world. The term “scholar-activist” makes me uncomfortable even though I used to identify using that language until not that long ago. It’s a helpful distinction but it also comes across as defensive and reactive. It almost makes it sound as if activists are not already thoughtful. Beyond that, the term “scholar-activist” does not fully capture the plurality of practices. Just as with theory and practice—scholarship, activism, and scholar-activism, all make distinct contributions and it goes without saying that there are many models of each.
Over and over, scholar-activists have to hear the same comments from well-meaning colleagues who suggest that they should meet academia’s expectations while also working with communities, effectively subjugating work with communities to a hobby after-hours. This needs to stop!
The important practice of people acting with accountability to the publics they study is sometimes called “public engagement,” which makes it sound like we “engage” publics to bring them our wisdom—one book at the time—on a red velvet pillow. On the upside, “public engagement” productively raises questions about the ethical design of community-engaged research so as to avoid the meref validation of academic work, or the one-directional value extraction sometimes referred to as “community-washing,” or “Academic Social Responsibility.”
But the Ph.D. students that I had mentioned want to do more than engage the public. They are in the academy but not of it. They want to serve communities and to know more, they have to organize more and to organize better, they have to study more.
The Many Faces of Scholar-Activism
In How to Be An Anti-Capitalist, Erik Olin Wright laid out four tasks for the scholar-activist:
1) Elaborate on the moral foundations of activism. Every scientist does this, even if it’s as simple as “being ill or harmed is bad.” Wright spoke of being guided by the values of equality & fairness, freedom & democracy, and community & solidarity.
2) Diagnose and critique the world as it is, with guidance from those moral concerns. This diagnosis and critique should be scientific and relentlessly rigorous.
3) Provide a theory of alternatives.
4) Provide a theory of transformation.
Wright cautioned that taking a leadership role in activism is probably unwise and that scholar-activists need to conduct non-ideologically driven activist research. American sociologist Sara Goldrick-Rab requests of scholar-activists “a willingness to combat self-destructive tendencies often inherent in activism, including wishful thinking, cynicism, and rigidity.” While so authoritatively laid out by Wright and Goldrick-Rab, scholar-activism can take on other forms, too.
William E.B. Du Bois, the great 20th-century African-American thinker and agitator, was a proponent of economic cooperation who argued that African Americans must become the masters of their own economic destiny. As a fighter for the equality of Blacks and co-founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Du Bois was also invested in movement building.
Also today, many scholars working closely with communities are African American and their work often clashes with the academic system.
The Indian activist and author Biju Matthew, co-founder of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, is also a professor. Actively involved with social movements in India. He also convened the International Alliance of Apps-based taxi workers.
In Amsterdam, Geert Lovink, is a media theorist, long-time academic refusenik, and then founding director of the Institute of Network Cultures, which has convened influential events and published countless open access publications.
Rosa Luxemburg, a Marxist theorist in the era of World War I who founded the Spartacus League that later grew into the Communist Party of Germany, was indefatigable in her commitment to building an internationalist movement of the proletariat, described herself as an orator, agitator, and revolutionary
In Hong Kong, Professor Pun Ngai helps to organize students in Mainland China, Taiwan, and HK. Professor Andrés Ruggeri at University of Buenos Aires studies alongside workers in recuperated factories.
In Design Justice, Sasha Costanza-Chock describes themselves as an “engaged scholar and design practitioner who is guided by antiracist, feminist principles and epistemology.”
Astra Taylor, the brilliant, unschooled filmmaker, organizer against student debt, para-institutional theorist, and author of Democracy May Not Exist, but We’ll Miss It When It’s Gone is another powerful example.
Crudely speaking, in terms of the production of the people working in universities, which dimensions should be expanded and which should be put aside? What kinds of outcomes do we want to see more of? What kinds of knowledge does this system produce and who is served by those outcomes?
Derek Bok, former President of Harvard University, notes in his 2013 book Higher Education in America that 75 percent of articles published in the social sciences are never cited. But we are not merely talking about a needed broadening of academic appeal and a challenge to academia’s culture of narrow specialization and over-reviewed papers. There is incentivized overproduction with a premium being given to books: to be respectable, there need to be at least two, ideally with well-regarded, academic publishers. It’s the gold standard for academic advancement. But who is best served by these publications?
From my experience working with communities around the world for many years, books are not the primary way most people I worked with build out their knowledge. They, just like many scholars, prefer videos, podcasts, recorded talks, or short blog essays. That’s not because they are uneducated but because these formats better fit into their lives. And while these formats are also more accessible in the Global South, talks are disparaged in academia.
The Global University System Should Be Less Concerned With Itself.
The global university system should be way less concerned with itself: its constant self-reinforcement of by-all-means questionable standards and medieval rituals through the tenure system has to stop.
Many years ago, I published a book and made it available for the iPad, PDF reader, as a website, and as a print book. The day after publication, close to a thousand people had downloaded it. I was not under the impression that all these people had actually read it. However, when I was asked to talk about the publication to a group of older professors, one of them responded angrily to my mention of reader engagement:
Who are we? The New York Post?
No, we should not run scoreboards ranking circulation numbers of publications. But still, I was stunned by this microaggression. I responded that I used to work in a public research university where my salary was paid by taxes, which for me, presented a mandate to create work for the benefit of the public. I also brought up the German sociologist Georg Simmel, who, in his career, had slowly shifted from publishing in scholarly journals to writing mostly for newspapers, art magazines, and literary monthlies.
I could have mentioned the Algerian philosopher and psychiatrist Frantz Fanon for whom “praxis was predicated on an ethic of mutuality between the authorized intellectual and people who have not had access to much formal education.” Or the political scientist Elinor Ostrom who described her work as “moving back and forth from the world of theory to the world of action.” Resonance was also on the mind of one of the doctoral students I had talked to (he prefers to remain anonymous): “I want to be useful. I am just not sure if waiting around for two years to get a paper published that might be read by a handful of people is the best way to do so.”
The problem is epitomized by this January 2021 tweet:
Many academics, despite being very good at the disciplinary research that they are so good at, have blind spots when it comes to acknowledging difference: different types of knowledge, community-linked ways of knowing.
Just to be clear, I am not questioning the transformative potential that scholarship can have on society. The work of Elizabeth Warren (credit problems of households and small businesses), Piketty and Saez (economic inequality), and Lina Khan (antitrust) speaks volumes.
But given that federal governments are dysfunctional in many countries, and managerial business elites don’t structurally change the shareholder-owned company, there are definite limits to historically meaningful pathways of influence for scholars. In addition to training people who advise elites, academia should be a place for a new profile of a scholar who is deeply engaged with communities.
A Deer in the Snow
One beautiful day before the pandemic, I stood in the elevator of The New School with a colleague, a steaming hot cup of coffee warmed my hand. She told me what she was teaching that day. We both speak Russian; she described a beautiful scene in Tolstoy where the protagonist looks through the window to see a deer standing in the snow. My colleague’s entire face lit up talking about it. All I could think was that I always want people like her to have jobs in universities—operating outside of the realm of direct practical, professional relevance— teaching about that deer in the snow.
The German geographer and polymath Alexander von Humboldt would likely have taken issue with scholar-activism. “Research should be unbiased and independent from ideological, economic, political or religious influences,“ he wrote. That’s, of course, a tall order when you are paying $50-70,000 a year for your education and when the world around you is falling apart. It’s not easy to be neutral on that moving train.
How hopeful then, am I that scholar-activism in its various forms will start to count for promotion and reputation-building within academia? Could movement-building be a qualifying track for tenure processes? How would the Ph.D. students mentioned show—with some rigor— that their work impacted networks, communities, or movements?
I’m not too optimistic! Too often, non-tenured faculty are “domesticated,” de-facto forced—through soul-crushing rituals like ‘blind’ peer review—to produce work that solely speaks to the mandates of academia, teaching, and managerial service. It’s a process of legitimization and I’m afraid: a global feedback loop.
Being an academic then refers to a code of conduct, a self-assured exclusive framing of what constitutes merit, and a treasured set of implicit or explicit rules governing careers that are mutually affirmed by this worldwide group of institutions, deeply but not exclusively rooted in Catholicism. The structures of universities as we know them today—courses of study, exams, and credentialing—were shaped by the Catholic Church in the High Middle Ages. Much of the energy of universities in the 21st century is going toward tasks that simply keep the nine-century-old machine running.
To ask what universities could do to support radically new professional profiles among its ranks may be like asking a lion to become a raw vegan. Corporate boards largely decide the direction of universities. Beyond that, asking people in large numbers to step away from their identity is a vast challenge. That’s not what they had signed up for. Such systemic change stands contrary to the innermost logic of the private university.
In 1915, a founder of The New School, the pragmatist philosopher John Dewey, emphasized that education does not only take place in schools and that it ought to prepare learners for democratic citizenship. But how can any university claim to prepare learners for a life of participatory democracy (or tout other grandiose ideals) when students see that even faculty have no meaningful deciding power in their own workplace? Or, when they realize that the digital learning platforms that they are using are owned and governed not by the people who rely on them but rather a group of one-percenters in Silicon Valley who could fit into a single Google bus.
The more productive question is probably: What would a learning institution look like that is helping to put an end to the current converge of crises?
First of all, I hold free access to PUBLIC education as a thing of value. But I also think of the student occupations of a few years ago, institutional diversity, and the many do-it-yourself universities that emerged on the heels of the student protests of 1968. Remember the Free University Movement in Berkeley, Berlin, and many other cities or Hampshire College in Massachusetts, launched as an experiment of a small consortium of colleges in Massachusetts. Learn about The Zapatista’s Little Schools of Freedom. Today, there are countless non-accredited initiatives that take these approaches and join them, to various degrees, with the possibilities that the Internet affords. There is the Global Education Futures project that started in Russia. In 2017, the Cooperative New School for Urban Studies and Environmental Justice was founded in Birmingham, Alabama. Other examples include the Peer to Peer University, Florida Universitaria in Spain, Edu Factory, Occupy University, The School for Poetic Computing (founded by former New School faculty), University of the People (accredited since 2017), and the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research, which frames its practice as: “working in partnership with local businesses and cultural organizations, [to] integrate rigorous but accessible scholarly study with the everyday lives of working adults and re-imagine scholarship for the 21st century.”
While these learning collectives differ in their approaches, most of them, as I said, do not offer accreditation, and it really is that state-level approval that matters to many prospective students. Perhaps, the proven ability to place students in meaningful jobs, might in some cases replace the need for accreditation.
A Cooperative College as an Alternative
In 2012, I suggested a new, cross-generational cooperative college to The New School. The university president at the time politely heard me out talking about the countless experiments underway and R.H. Tawney’s Cooperative College, founded in 1919 in the UK. An accredited cooperative college, with in-person instruction and a vibrant digital learning platform, could take some cues from Mondragon University, founded in 1997 in the Spanish Basque country. The university is an umbrella cooperative of 4 autonomous, multi-stakeholder co-ops (departments), students, and regional companies. These departments—Engineering, Humanities, Business, and the Culinary Faculty— are all responsible for their own financial sustainability. At the same time, thye are backed to an extent by the university, which is now some 5,000 students strong.
There are also other nascent co-op experiments in education, online and off. And this is not solely about the learning of people behind the firewalls of co-ops; it is about broadly applying the cooperative multistakeholder model to higher learning.
A cooperative university, offering accreditation, would be owned by all stakeholders, including students, faculty, and staff. Students and everyone in the college, from janitors and cashiers to cooks, staff, adjuncts, and faculty would be better served through community-based ownership and democratic governance. Membership in such Co-op College would entitle member–owner–learners to democratic decision making, transparency of the algorithms used on its digital platform, and shared ownership of the data. Such a multistakeholder university, in part, would be a place where knowledge is generated that resonates with external time frames, formats, language, and importantly, a sense of what is needed. It will take a different essay to spell out if such college will be funded through an employee-owned trust and if it even requires a brick-and-mortar presence.
Black swan events like this pandemic are unexpected, rare, but high-impact moments of transformation when new institutions for community-engaged researchers are needed more than ever.
Thank you to all who quibbled with me about the ideas in this essay: Aneesh Aneesh, Elettra Bietti, Jonathan Bach, Tim Marshall, Ed Mayo, Salonie Muralidhara, Mark Graham, Yochai Benkler, Heira Hardiyanti, Terry Perlin, and Aman Bardia.