Some tips on surviving in the Academic Industrial Complex?

Note: I began this entry way back in January, before my semester began. I have not had a chance to return to it until now, during my spring break. When I first started writing the entry I was already feeling burnt out and disenchanted with the academy. Those feelings have greatly intensified over the course of the semester as I daily confront the limiting (and debilitating) logics of the academic industrial complex. I feel compelled to return to Smith’s essay now, and to finish writing this entry, because these questions of how to balance work and life, the personal and the academic are becoming an important focus in my queering ethics class (see here, here and here)

In the midst of prepping for my upcoming classes I came across an article that I downloaded last semester by Andrea Smith: “Social Justice Activism in the Academic Industrial Complex.” It was published in the Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion in 2007 before she was unjustly denied tenured at the University of Michigan.

In her article, which is part of a roundtable discussion on “Got Life? Finding Balance and Making Boundaries in the Academy,” Smith argues that our attempts at negotiating between academic and personal/activist lives require more than searching for ways to balance our various demands. Instead, we must ask why, as in: “Why has being a good scholar and academic come to mean that one should be working incessantly at the expense of doing social-justice work, having fun, or maintaining interests outside academia” (141)? And we must “deconstruct the logic of the academic industrial complex to see how it has trapped us into needlessly thinking we must choose between academia and having a life” (141). Yes! Finding a balance is not enough; the struggle to find that balance places the burden on individual academic laborers to adjust their lives while leaving the larger system that prioritizes academic production over personal/activist practices intact and untroubled. We need to interrogate why the academic system functions as it does and why it so often encourages (and demands) that we be unbalanced (and by unbalanced I mean an overemphasis on work over life and a dysfunctional approach to work/life that contributes to emotional/physical distress).

In this brief article (only 5 pages long), Smith has two overarching goals: 1. provide a brief description of the academic industrial complex and 2. offer up 3 key strategies for managing the academy effectively.

What is the academic industrial complex?
Smith draws upon Althusser, arguing that higher education is an ideological state apparatus “designed to teach people to be subject to colonialist and capitalist structures” (141). She also draws upon Bourdieu–most notably his book (with Jean-Claude Paseron), Reproduction in Education, Society, and Culture–and his emphasis on how the educational system reproduces cultural capital/status thereby enabling those in power to “secure the terms of discourse and knowledge to their benefit” (141). Here is a passage (emphasis mine):

The educational system is particularly important in the reproduction of symbolic capital under capitalism. The standardization of academic qualifications–a given amount of labor and time in academic apprenticeship is exchanged for a given amount of cultural capital, the degree–enables a differentiation in power ascribed to permanent positions in society and hence to the biological agents who inhabit these positions. According to Bourdieu, what is significant about the educational system is not just the set of ideologies it promotes, but the set of tacitly unequal institutional power relations it ensures through the fiction of equal access to education. However, in order to function as an ideological state apparatus, the academy must disavow its complicity in capitalism by claiming itself as a meritocratic system. That is, only those academics who are smart and work hard will succeed (141).

One damaging outcome of the academic industrial complex is that academics are not supposed to (appear to) have a life outside of the academy. After all, if you have time to do other things, you must not be working hard enough on your research: “if one appears not to be working endlessly for the academic industrial complex, that person will be condemned as being a lazy or underserving scholar” (141). And, I would add, if one appears not to be working endlessly in the right and proper way, that person will be condemned as not rigorous (and serious) enough. Here’s something that I wrote about rigor in an earlier post:

As a professional academic, I bristle at the notion of being rigorous (another definition of discipline), not because I don’t promote or practice serious engagement but because the call for rigor or the claim that one is not rigorous enough often seem to be used to dismiss ideas/theories/intellectual labor that is serious and smart and deep, but that doesn’t fit the standard of what is/who can be rigorous. (Addendum from 1.6.10: I just happened across this great post from the Crunk Feminist Collective that critically interrogates the call for rigor from within women’s studies.)

Survival Strategies:

After recognizing the unbalanced vision of the academic industrial complex, Smith offers up three strategies for survival (understand intellectual work as collaborative, manage time strategically and think beyond the nonprofit and academic industrial complexes), one of which I will briefly discuss here:

UNDERSTAND INTELLECTUAL WORK AS COLLABORATIVE While academics are encouraged to do work that proves their individual brilliance, they should be sharing in work with others, collaborating in ways that enable them to draw upon their strengths and that contribute to a “larger collaborate intellectual project” whose goal is “to perpetuate a conversation that will continue beyond our own contributions” (142). I really like this line:

If years from now no one remembers what we said, then we will have still done important work if we did our part to keep the larger conversation going (142).

Does this sort of collaborative work actually get valued within the academic industrial complex, especially in the humanities? In a system that seems dependent on trading individual academic projects/products for increased status, can we imagine spaces for collaborative work that de-emphasize products (articles, books, fancy theories) and emphasize process (engaging with ideas and each other)? What are the various factors that get in the way of these collaborations?

There is so much more that I want to write about Smith’s essay and my own reflections on survival in/and the academic industrial complex. But it will need to wait for now. In concluding this brief entry, I want to offer up some of Smith’s final remarks in the essay:

Because the actual structure of the academy goes unquestioned–from tenure processes to grading systems to academic hierarchies–even progressives get trapped in the academy’s meritocratic myth, which either makes them insane or turns them into fascists. All the collective action we support outside the academy seems to disappear inside it–as we slave away in our offices in order to make sure everyone knows how busy and hardworking we are. Instead, we could be working together to support each other, build community, demystify the academic industrial complex, swap survival strategies, and promote life for all of us (145).

But, wait. This is what I really want to end this post with: Disco and roller skating? Who could ask for more! This video for “I will survive” conjures up memories of my fourth grade self and skating every Saturday at the rink in Salem, Virginia.

On curiosity, the pedagogy of the question and not being good

In the midst of preparing my learning exercise on women’s studies, curiosity and the pink sneaker, I came across an interview with Paulo Freire entitled “The Future of School.” Check out what he has to say about curiosity, the pedagogy of the question and not being a good boy:

I am the antagonist of pedagogy. I am the antagonist of epistemology. I am the opposite ethic. I am nothing of that, because I am the antagonist of that. And I insist, I don’t like discourses. I am not a “good boy.” I try to be a good person, but “good boy” — God forbid! If you want to hurt me, call me a “good boy.”

I am an educated person, very educated, polite, disciplined, and courteous. That I am, indeed, and more. I try to be respectful, but “good boy,” for God’s sake, no! So I am antagonistic to all this. I am contrary, the opposite of all this. I believe in the pedagogy of curiosity. That’s why I defend, along with the Chilean philosopher Fagundes, the pedagogy of the question and not of the answer. The pedagogy of the question is the one that is based on curiosity. Without that pedagogy there would not be a pedagogy that augments that curiosity.

After reading this brief excerpt from the interview, I was curious: what is the pedagogy of the question? The idea of asking lots of questions is central for my own pedagogical practices, particularly in my feminist debates class; the final part of this entry exemplifies this approach. I became even more curious when I found Freire’s book, Learning to Question. Now I just need time to read it and think about it in relation to my own practices and ideas about the question/questions. Maybe I will even assign part or all of this book to my students next fall in my Feminist Pedagogies course?

Another part of Freire’s brief remarks intrigued me as well: the deliberate way he distinguishes between the “good person” and the “good boy”.  Here the good boy seems to be a direct reference to the good student who always obeys the teacher, complies with their demands and passively absorbs information without questioning or challenging it. For Freire, not being a good boy does not suggest that one is a bad person, that is rude or disrespectful (a disciplinary problem, perhaps?). Now, what is Freire doing with this statement? Is it merely a move to prove his respectability as a teacher, scholar, person–see, just because I ask questions doesn’t mean I am a bad person, a delinquent!?  Or, could he be doing something more here (or maybe could we do something more here) with this distinction? In opposing the “good boy” with the good person, Freire could be suggesting that in order to be a good person, one must necessarily question and be curious; one must not be a good boy. So, to be a good boy is to not be a good person? Hmm…I need to think about this some more.

Note: I think it is significant that he describes it as not being a good boy (as opposed to being a bad boy). This sounds a lot like my discussion of Foucault’s notion of not being governed in certain ways or my discussion of Butler’s idea of asking why as a form of not-obeying. Excellent. What connections can I draw here?

Troublemaking and Feminist and Queer Pedagogies: Some Sources

I am fairly certain that I want to devote at least one week to troublemaking and feminist and queer pedagogies this upcoming semester in my Feminist and Queer Explorations in Troublemaking class. But what to include? Here are some sources to consider:

97804159331241. Troubling Education: Queer Activism and Anti-oppressive Pedagogy
by Kevin Kumashiro

I had initially thought about using this in my Feminist Pedagogies course this semester, but ended up going in a different direction. So, why is this book called Troubling Education? The troubling of the title seems to be about more than just education that is in trouble (as in, oppressive, unjust, in need of transformation) or education that makes trouble (as in, challenge, disrupt, transgress). The troubling of the title seems to be about both of these things and, in fitting with this blog, about staying in trouble. Here is what Kumashiro writes in the introduction:

I am curious about what it means to address our resistances to discomforting knowledges, and about what it means to put uncertainties and crises at the center of the learning process (8).

Kumashiro’s goal is to put trouble (in the form of uncertainty and crises) at the center of his own antioppressive pedagogy. Cool. I must read this book soon. I am particularly interested in the final chapter: “Addressing Resistance through Queer Activism.”

97807914732832.  Grappling with Diversity: Readings on Civil Rights Pedagogy and Critical Multiculturalism
Edited by Susan Schramm-Pate and Rhonda B. Jeffries

In this book, the authors are primarily concerned with exploring civil rights pedagogy, tracing how binaries (North/South, black/white, rich/poor) are produced and reinforced, and critically interrogating the concept of privilege. Here are some chapters that sound particularly interesting for the class (and for my own research interests): “Introduction: Imagine No Fences, No Borders, No Boundaries,” “Chapter 3: Horton Hears a Who: Lessons from the Highlander Folk School in the Era of Globalization,” and “Chapter 7: The Impact of Trickster Performances on the Curriculum: Explorations of a White Female Civil Rights Activist.”

97804159898173. Critical Perspectives on bell hooks
Edited by Maria del Guadalupe Davidson and George Yancy

Divided into three key sections, Critical Pedagogy and Practice, The Dynamics of Race and Gender, and Spirituality and Love, this edited collection critically reflects on hooks’ work. In my feminist pedagogies course, we read hooks’ Teaching to Transgress and Teaching Community. I think adding an essay or two from this collection would fit very well with troublemaking. After all, hooks’ notions of talking back and transgressing are forms of making trouble. I have only briefly skimmed the introduction to this collection. What I like so far is their emphasis on critically engaging with hooks’ work instead of merely celebrating it. I also like Michael W. Apple’s articulation of the seven tasks of critical analysis, outlined in the series editor’s introduction:

  1. Bearing witness to negativity: illuminating how policies/practices are connected to exploitation
  2. Pointing to contradictions and spaces of possible action
  3. Redefining research: who does it, how it is done
  4. Not throwing out elite knowledge but reconstructing it to for progressive/transformative aims
  5. Keeping traditions of radical work alive in relation to recognition and redistribution
  6. Relearning and developing of a variety of new skills for working with a wide range of groups and in many different registers
  7. Acting in concert with progressive/social movements

Nice. I have been thinking more about what it means to be a critical thinker: what skills do we need to be critical thinkers? What are the links between troublemaking and critical thinking? What do feminist and queer methodologies offer to critical thinking theories and practices? How can we use feminist and queer pedagogies to teach and practice critical thinking?

Here’s a story of a troublemaker…

Okay, I have been watching way too much Brady Bunch this summer. I still have the theme song going through my head. Here’s a story…of a troublemaker…who was writing ’bout her troublemaking past… Anyway, a few days ago I wrote an entry about kids-as-disciplinary-problems, Judith Butler, and troublemaking. It got me thinking about my own narrative of growing up as a troublemaker.

As a child, I was a troublemaker. But, what does that mean? Well, I had a lot of teachers who really didn’t like me (from elementary school through high school). Not because I acted out in class. I didn’t. Not because I made faces in assemblies. I didn’t. And not because I “did really bad things.” Because, I really didn’t. No, they disliked me because they could sense—somehow—that I saw through their bullshit (for more on being a bullshit detector, see here) and that I wasn’t going to simply believe that what they said was the “Truth.” I guess I was a threat to their already tenuous hold on the classroom.

I asked a lot of questions (and not hostile ones. Just lots and lots of “why” questions). I always wanted to know why things worked the way that they did. I liked exploring ideas without immediately placing judgment on them. And even though I looked the part of the good little white student, I refused to fully buy into the rules and norms that undergird the white suburban school and its goal of molding the minds of children into good little consumer citizens.

So, when I think of my own troublemaking “roots” it is not through the tradition of disrupting class or being disrespectful to teachers. For me, troublemaking was never about breaking the rules (even though I can see why many rules need to be broken) or rebelling against authority/authority figures. No, the tradition of troublemaking that I draw upon in my own understanding and practice of being in/making/staying in trouble is the tradition of posing questions…and lots of them. The question that I used to pose a lot as a kid, and the question that Butler suggests is the first act of disobedience, is “why.” As in, why is something this way and not that? For Butler, to ask “why” is to introduce the possibility that something could be otherwise, that the way things are is not they only way that should or could be. It is to open up the possibility of making ourselves into subjects-who-disobey instead of subjects-who-merely-obey. [Of course, “why” is not the only question many of us do—or should—ask. With my training in feminist/queer/critical theory, the question that I pose a lot now is “at whose expense”? This question seems to infuse the somewhat innocent “why” with an awareness of oppression and a desire for justice.]

Here are some key passages from my earlier entry on Butler and asking lots of questions:

Butler argues that asking why things are the way that they are is a form of disobedience (or is way of not being obedient if obedience requires unquestioned acceptance). The emphasis here is not on disobedience as a refusal to follow the rules or a rejection of rules altogether–some rules are necessary and important and helpful.  No, Butler wants to emphasize disobedience as the refusal to be/become subjects who accept and willingly/unthinkingly obey the dictates that we are given without question. Again, in this sense, the disobedience is not to Rules or Law or the State (although that is important as well), but to the formation of us as subjects-who-merely-obey. So, Butler is particularly interested in how our obedience or disobedience functions on the level of self-(re)making (or what Butler would call subject formation).

Now, this idea of disobedience is not just about how and who we are as political subjects who engage in those practices that are traditionally considered to be political (like voting or protesting or being a part of activist communities or even participating in civic organizations). This idea of disobedience is about how and who we are as selves as we engage in our everyday activities and as we work (intentionally and not so intentionally) on our moral/ethical/intellectual development. And it happens when we ask “why”–not once or twice but everyday and all the time.

In this earlier entry, I link Butler’s promotion of asking questions with the “childish” behavior of asking “why”:

Kids are really good (sometimes too good) at asking “why”–from the mundane (why isn’t yellow your favorite color?) to the scientific (why can’t it snow in the summer?) to the existential (why can’t Nana live forever?) to the defiant (why do I have to eat my vegetables?) to the disturbing (why can’t I eat my own poop?) to the repetitive (Why? Why? Why?). The asking of these questions can be tedious for parents, but they are (most often) not done by children in order to be destructive or disrespectful. At their best, these “why” questions demonstrate curiosity and an interest in (caring about) the world and how it works. And, they are an assertion of a self-in-process who is claiming their independence from the forces that shape them.

Posing “why” and later, “at whose expense” questions (to myself and to others) got me in a lot of trouble. A lot of that trouble was bad (such as teachers hating me, being dismissed and discounted as a problem—not so much a disciplinary problem but just a problem), but a lot more of it was good (as in helpful/productive/motivating for me). The refusal to merely accept and the desire to remain open to other ways of being (instead of just fixing in on the way I am supposed to see and/or act in the world) shaped who I am and have, I think, made me a better (happier, more responsible, aware and just) person.

I am drawn to Judith Butler’s work because one primary aspect of her philosophy/ethos/system of thought is the value of asking (and never stopping your asking) of questions. When I look to Butler it is this important strain in her work that resonates with me. Not the acting out (and acting up) that is reflected in the narrative about her as a “disciplinary problem.” This single-minded reduction of troublemaking to bad behavior and the revaluing of “being bad” as good doesn’t work for me. It certainly doesn’t speak to my experiences. And, it is not, in my opinion, a helpful resource for a feminist or queer ethics.

Butler’s emphasis on always asking questions helped me to understand what I had been doing for so long when I was younger. When I was a kid I felt the pressure of opposing forces: 1. a family of intellectuals who encouraged me to think and question and challenge and care (about justice, from my dad the ethicist, and about the world and imagining it otherwise, from my mother, the artist/dreamer/social historian) and 2. the (almost completely) white suburban, conformity-imposing, competition-driven public schools that I attended from fifth through twelfth grade. From my family (and my position as white and middle/intellectual-class), I inherited a strong sense of entitlement–of course, I should ask questions and think, I could do anything and be anything! But from the schools I attended in suburban D.C. (in Northern Virginia) and suburban Des Moines (the insurance capital of the Midwest!), I was reminded everyday that I could ask some questions but only if they were framed in the right way and only if they furthered the goals of success in the forms of being better than everyone else and of acquiring the most stuff (status, possessions, awards, knowledge-as-commodity).

It has always been a struggle to navigate these forces. Why did I have to make everything so difficult? I would sometimes ask myself. Why can’t I just participate in the system like a “good girl”? [Of course, as a white, middle-class, heterosexual, I was a “good” and proper girl and my choice to not fit in was always just that…a choice. I always had the privilege to pass and fit in as normal, even if I often felt like I couldn’t force myself to do it.] How can I reconcile the desire to care about others/the world/justice that my parents instilled in me with the implicit (and sometimes explicit) command by many teachers/adults/”society” to care only about myself and how I could fit in and be very successful? Of course, this was definitely not how I phrased it as a child. But the language of feminist and queer theories and of Butler’s (albeit underdeveloped) notion of  troublemaking have given me a way in which to understand and articulate what was (at least partially) going on with my struggles to care but fit in, to question but not to outrage or alienate, and to stay open to new possibilities of thinking, being and doing.

So, there you have it. The opening chapter (or maybe the preface) to my troublemaking narrative. There is much more to say about my own experiences of making/staying in trouble. Indeed, I feel like I have barely scratched the surface.

What is your image of a troublemaker?

Here’s to the Crazy Ones, the Misfits, the Rebels, the Troublemakers, the Round Pegs in the square holes, the Ones who see things Differently.

So, when STA told me about the Think Different commercial (which I just wrote about in this entry, he pointed out something curious (and troubling): the different descriptions of “think different” correspond with particular images of individuals who embody them. For example, the Crazy One is Einstein while the Rebel is Bob Dylan. Now, here comes the troubling part: when Richard Dreyfuss says “Troublemaker” this is the image that we get:
Martin Luther King, Jr. (at 10 seconds).

Now, they could have easily used his image when Dreyfuss says: the Ones who See Things Differently or, even, the Rebels. So, why use this image with that word? Reflecting on this question, I was reminded of a kid’s book that I discussed at length earlier this summer (here and here and here): The Book of Timeouts. In this book, the author offers 14 different examples of troublemakers who behaved improperly and were punished with a timeout. In my earlier entries, I argued that these examples are meant to serve as moral lessons for kids on how not to behave and why they should try to stay out of trouble. As I was doing a close reading of the author’s examples, I remember being troubled by the one about Louis Armstrong.

Entitled, “The Horn Player That Nearly Blew It,” Lucke describes Louis Armstrong’s stint as a troublemaker:

One upon a time Louis Armstrong was just a poor boy looking for trouble. It found him, on New Year’s Even in 1912 in the city of New Orleans. A short while after that, the police showed up. He was hauled away in a paddy wagon and put in a ‘home’ for wayward children [juvenile hall aka prison for minors]. He thought it was the end of the world. But it turned out it wasn’t. His time out changed everything. While he was there he learned how to play the cornet.

Among all of the examples, which I have listed here, this story about Louis Armstrong is the only one about an African American man (And, why is it the only one? What about Martin Luther King Jr or Malcom X, for example?). The only one about a juvenile delinquent/criminal/street thug–who by nature (at least according to the author) seems to up to no good. And the only one that doesn’t offer any specifics about what exactly Armstrong did wrong. Instead, the description, “a poor boy looking for trouble” seems to be all that is needed (along with the illustration of a black boy) for the reader to understand that Armstrong was a troublemaker and criminal who really deserved a time out. Why didn’t the author provide any more specifics as to why Armstrong was in trouble? What exactly did he do that made him deserve a time out? In all of the other examples the author offers some witty connection between the behavior of the troublemaker and the misbehavior of a child (Cleopatra couldn’t share, Richard the Lionhearted cut through people’s yards, Napoleon took other people’s things). As I mentioned above, these connections are meant to reinforce moral lessons: Don’t be like Cleopatra, learn to share with others. Then you won’t get a time out. What moral lesson are we meant to learn from Armstrong? Don’t be born black or poor because then the police will find you and put you in jail?

The author’s (perhaps unwitting) linkage of poor, Black and young with criminal, deserving of prison, and troublemaker is very disturbing. It invokes a very problematic equation that influences a lot of thinking about and visualizing of troublemaker as someone who disobeys/breaks the rules: troublemaker = criminal/delinquent = black male. For more on this equation and why it is a big problem, see here or here.

This equation is also present in the Think Different ad when the image of MLK Jr pops up on the screen as Dreyfuss is saying, “troublemaker.” The image of Martin Luther King, Jr. as troublemaker should be empowering and inspiring and another example of the virtue of troublemaking. But it could also be seen as just one more image reinforcing the ideas (1) that troublemaking is bad, (2) that it is a form of criminal activity, and (3) that black male troublemakers are all criminals.

Thinking about this problematic link between black men, criminal activity and troublemaking reminds me that any revaluing of troublemaking, as something good and virtuous, also requires a deracializing of the troublemaker and a decriminalizing of the troublemaking activities of breaking the rules and disrespecting the status quo.