A Case for Academic Activism

I’ve been on a pretty good tear through Critical Pedagogy literature lately, and one result has been some wrestling on my part with the issues of teaching, scholarship, and activism. In particular, I’ve often been struck at what seems to be a tension—often implicit, sometimes explicit—between “scholarship” and “teaching” at one pole, and “activism” at the other. In my discipline of History, the message is often quite explicit. As Graduate Student Me was immersed in the review literature, the point was driven home time and again: there is no place in scholarship for activism. They diverge at the beginning, and never again the twain shall meet. I always imagined if they did, the result would be something like the Ghostbusters crossing the streams of their proton guns. “That would be bad, right?” “Yes. VERY BAD.”

Your activist bias is ripping a hole in the space-time continuum!
Your activist bias is ripping a hole in the space-time continuum!

To dismiss a scholar’s work, there are few words more damning than “polemical.” Howard Zinn? He was a Political Scientist, not a historian–AND he was polemical. Is your account biased? Does your work cross the line from exposition to advocacy? Do you moralize? Are you presentist? Then you might have committed ACTIVISM. (commence anguished pearl-clutching) My profession is aware that True Objectivity is an impossibility*, but in our everyday work it’s as if we do our collective best to pretend we still lived in a Rankean golden age, when men were men and truth was Truth.** Now, this isn’t to say that there aren’t genuine scholarly problems that may arise from bias or agenda-induced research myopia—there most certainly have been and can be. But I am arguing that those are also epithets hurled at work that’s deemed too activist-y by the establishment, scholarly or otherwise; Gordon Wood’s recent tantrum against the last thirty years of early American historiography is only the latest example.

The Wood article, actually, is actually an apt demonstration of why and how “activism” and scholarship are positioned by the field’s scholarly consensus as mutually antagonistic. When one reads Wood’s piece, it is impossible to not be struck by its activist tone and its polemical heat. Yet Wood is inveighing against scholarship that he sees as letting advocacy trump argument. Pot, meet Kettle. But from Wood’s privileged position, what he sees through his interpretive lenses is the norm. And by rendering his position normative, competing interpretations are inherently less scholarly, even deviant. It’s a slick move, rhetorically, but a disingenuous one intellectually. And that—RIGHT THERE—is the problem with characterizations of “Activism” as somehow bad for, or alien to, good scholarship. Because, as Wood so clearly demonstrates, all scholarly work carries activism within it. The very act of selecting a topic of study and arguing for its significance is implicitly activist. Adhering to the field’s standards of research, citation, and professional rigor are acts of activism. Moreover, teaching is an act of activism. And teaching well, or differently, or emphasizing pedagogy in the climate of a research institution: even more so.

One could object to my definition of activism as too latitudinarian. If everything is activism, then nothing is. But I argue that it’s vitally important to see all of our scholarly and pedagogical activities as inherently activist work. Kelly J. Baker wrote an excellent piece in Vitae this week that explored the tensions surrounding activism in academia, with particular attention to where one is located in relation to the centers of power and privilege within the academy.

 I wonder what kinds of activism emerge as safe in the neoliberal university. Climate change? Probably safe. Interfaith dialogue? Only if certain religious people are included. Racial equality and justice? It depends. Labor practices of your institution? Probably not.

Baker also critiques the argument that teaching and activism can actually subvert one another, as the individual ends up having to make compromises in each area, ultimately reducing the quality and impact of both. “I want the work of the university to be paired with social change and efforts for reform. This is not an all-or-nothing venture. I would rather there be part-time activists than no activists at all,” she argues. And I couldn’t agree more. At their best (and I acknowledge that at present this is often not the case), institutions of higher education are leading agents of “social change and efforts for reform.” How could they not be, unless we reject everything we’ve ever said about the benefits of higher education for both students and society? But these efforts, this activism, cannot and must not be solely the purview of the secure, the tenured, the white, the male. If it becomes thus, then activism is not our common project, but an exclusionary means of entrenching privilege and turning what should be a raucous conversation into a stultifying monologue. That’s bad for colleges and universities, their students, and indeed all of us.

But that’s the rub: being seen as “activist” can often be fraught with danger for those whose positions make them vulnerable to being seen as outside of the tenured, disciplinary, scholarly, or cultural establishment. However, looking at activism through a wider lens helps us recapture activism as fundamentally intertwined with the mission of higher education. If we reclaim the term and its spirit from those who would define it narrowly, we begin the process of eroding the privilege that so often silences—or shouts over—new voices in the conversation. And the key to that reclamation, I believe, is in understanding and being able to articulate the ways in which scholarly and pedagogical work are fundamentally activist enterprises. This is the case intellectually because pure, “unsullied” objectivity is a myth, and practically because teaching in higher education has an activist vision at its core. Why is this important? Because if we embrace the activism inherent in our vocations, members of our community cannot be stigmatized or denigrated or excluded as ‘too activist’.

Put simply, in Higher education, activism is our job description.

We support a curriculum and teach in a discipline—or in several—because we are actively working to inculcate habits of mind, develop capacity for critical thought, shape a scholarly community, and give our students the intellectual tools to make a difference in the world. We write and speak and communicate as scholars in order to actively influence conversations in the public sphere, to shape discourse, to alter or refine or subvert dominant paradigms. We continually ask questions because the current answers aren’t good enough. And we want our students to do the same. If we allow “activism” to be defined narrowly, to be used as a cordon, to cudgel the nonconforming or new or marginal, then we have actually abandoned it in principle. We must be intellectually honest about what activism is and what it means. If we embrace the activist vision that is at the very core of what we do as teacher-scholars, we act out the very reasons higher education is essential to our society—and we do so as we create places for all of our colleagues in that conversation. So say it loud, say it proud: Academia is activism.

Now act on it.


*See Peter Novick, That Noble Dream: The “Objectivity Question” and the American Historical Profession (Cambridge University Press, 1988).

**Even if that pipe dream is based on a completely inaccurate reading of Leopold von Ranke, WHICH IT IS, but that’s another polemic for another time. (See what I did there?)


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