What is the Scholar’s Role in Apocalyptic Times?
In an era of melting glaciers, genocide, starvation, and species extinction, what is a scholar working at a college or university to do? Many of us feel an urgent pull to be useful, lamenting our privileged position in the ivory tower. In this essay, we provide an overview of our project that examines the activist turn made by some scholars who claim activism as their purpose and identity. Blending their social-change goals with their job as scholars, they typically refer to themselves as “scholar-activists” (see, e.g., Heurta 2018). While the sense of urgency motivating scholars to adopt this scholar-activist identity is understandable, we argue that scholar-activism is a trap that will ultimately undermine the usefulness of scholarship for solving the world’s problems.
An increasing number of academic professionals claim an identity as “scholar-activists” but do not always mean the same thing by the label. Scholar-activism can refer to the practice of collaborating with community members or other forms of political activism―including, for example, joining protest marches, or teaching in a way that promotes particular social, political, or cultural outcomes. Other scholars invoke the label simply to mean that they address their scholarly conclusions to lay audiences, for instance by communicating their scholarship on a blog, agreeing to an interview with a journalist, or consulting in their area of expertise. For present purposes, our concern is not with questions regarding the popular dissemination of the results of scholarly inquiry (which warrants further thought on its own), but with the reduction of the identity or function of the scholarly vocation to “activism” understood as strategically producing political effects in one’s capacity as a faculty member.
Scholars across many fields, from evolutionary biology to geography to religious studies, have found themselves pulled between scholarship and politics in the context of a broader debate over the purpose of higher education. In its recent statement about the purpose of higher education―“In Defense of Knowledge and Higher Education”― the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) defines knowledge as “the dialogue that produces expert knowledge occur[ing] among those who are qualified by virtue of their training, education, and disciplinary practice.” In other words, knowledge is understood as a function of scholarly method. This does not mean that method cannot be employed badly or wrongly, but it does mean that adherence to method and participation within disciplinary conversations that produce and revise method, is the only way, as Bruno Latour notes, that we can get “closer” to “facts” and perhaps, in the present context, join in the cause of “renewing empiricism” (231).
The AAUP’s statement was ostensibly in response to parties outside the academy who have attacked, often with political, religious, or economic motivations, scientists and other scholars. Our focus, however, is on parties inside the academy who encourage scholars to be more responsive to moral, ideological, or political concerns emanating from outside of the academy, which is to say outside of a concern with scholarly method. Yet when scholars themselves eschew the role of the knowledge producer and assert, instead, that producing knowledge and being a political activist are one and the same, on what grounds can we resist extramural forces, including students, who wish for us to bend our research agendas, our conclusions, or our teaching to suit their political interests?
The concept of scholar-activism is particularly popular in a number of relatively new interdisciplinary fields, to which we ourselves belong—women’s and gender studies (WGS), science and technology studies, cultural studies, and communication. Those interdisciplinary fields emerged out of critiques of ideological knowledge claims masquerading as objective facts fueling oppressive social structures, placing them on the forefront of the critique of objectivity and the pursuit of “situated” knowledge (Braun 138). Now, however, they are marked by a serious tension over the place of politics in knowledge construction and dissemination.
As has been widely reported, scholars are often accused of having a political agenda and, in the United States, one that is alleged to actively undermine traditional American values. That conservatives with their own political agenda have been the most common source of these critiques may explain why so many academics tend to ignore them. We worry, however, that ignoring these critiques may be a mistake, not simply because some professors do openly embrace a left-activist scholarly identity, as charged, but because the problem is far more serious than even conservative critics recognize. Whereas conservative critics of the academy disapprove of faculty attempting to push left-leaning politics onto students, and seek a greater presence for right-leaning political messages within the academy, our concern is with identifying linking the scholarly role or function with political practice at all. Our concern is that scholars identifying as political activists, in their role as faculty—regardless of their ideological leanings—put the entire scholarly enterprise at risk.
The reduction of scholarship to a mode of politics follows the now well-worn idea that “knowledge” is inherently a function of “power.” For example, in communication studies, this has led some well-meaning academics to conclude that we should, even more than “speaking truth to power,” attempt to “speak power to truth” and even, “reframe politics as our job description” (Artz 54; Young, Battaglia, and Cloud 433). As Donna Haraway has shown, WGS scholars, in an effort to deconstruct taken-for-granted truths rooted in patriarchal ideological biases, sometimes end up leaving little room for any kind of claim that isn’t reducible to its source (579). The tantalizing logic here is that if all knowledge claims, as Latour had been keen to point out, rest upon material, ideological “conditions that make them possible,” then all “knowledge” is, in effect, the result of power (and nothing else). The work of Michel Foucault has often been glossed in this way, attributing to him the idea that because knowledge mingles with power in radiating and often surprising ways, then all knowledge claims are inherently nothing more than performances of power.
As Wendy Brown has carefully shown, however, the Foucauldian argument that power and knowledge are connected does not, and must not, lead us to conclude that knowledge should be reduced to power. For those who want to draw on Foucault to justify their identification as scholar-activists seeking to strategically affect their contemporary political context, Brown cites Foucault’s reply. He directly resists the idea that his understanding of power/knowledge means that scholars should work “for” a particular political outcome in a “contemporary situation.” Instead, he insists scholars engage in inquiry “in terms of a contemporary situation.” “The difference,” Brown argues, between “for” and “in terms of” is critical: it indicates whether intellectual life will be submitted to existing political discourses and the formulation of immediate political needs those discourses articulate, or will be allowed the air of independence that it must have in order to be valued as intellectual work for political life (43).
When scholars identify as activists and claim to be pursuing particular political outcomes as a concomitant or even constitutive aim of their identity and function as professors, they risk forfeiting any claim they might wish to make concerning academic freedom or intellectual independence. Such a reduction of knowledge to power means that, as Donna Haraway puts it, “the real game in town” is mere “rhetoric,” which is to say “a series of efforts to persuade relevant social actors that one’s manufactured knowledge is a route to a desired form of very objective power” (577). While Haraway is correctly cited as a critic of privileged assertions of wholly “objective” knowledge (unconditioned by power or location), she nevertheless insists that we “keep searching for fidelity” even as we “give up” searching for “mastery” (594). By fidelity she means “better accounts of the world” that foreground the method of inquiry that produced them–what she calls “situated” knowledge–or what she notes has historically been called “science” (590).
When scholars identify as activists, however, and not as researchers or scientists, the unique intellectual value of scholarship is clouded by questions of a faculty member’s motives. In Haraway’s language, they substitute situatedness for knowledge. Instead of humbly acknowledging and critically reflecting upon the situatedness of all knowledge claims produced through the application of scholarly method, they aim, as a matter of power-politics, to instantiate a currently favored location (which may also be capable of generating valuable insight) as the new, politically or morally authorized, location of truth.
This has led to terrible confusion among university students and members of the general public, who are unsure whom to trust. Just as the era of fake news has made it difficult to trust journalism, scholar-activism makes it hard to trust scholarship. After all, fake news is often activist journalism or journalism done with a profit motive instead of a truth motive. Latour, Foucault, and others insisted that while scholars cannot ever remove political and other biases completely, they are obligated to try to do so. In other words, we must strive for truth even if we can’t obtain it perfectly and even if better ideas will replace our own. We must generate, humbly, responsibly, and self-reflexively “faithful accounts of a ‘real’ world” (Haraway 579). Put another way, even though insight is always partial, we must not reduce that insight to a mere expression of power.
Academics, whether they embrace or avoid the scholar-activist label, can still find themselves the object of activist attempts to censor or steer their scholarship for their political purposes. Academics also get censored by groups inside academia, when their scholarship appears to have political consequences that appear offensive to some group, as in calls for retractions of academic articles that appear politically offensive. The uncritical and enthusiastic embrace of scholar-activism has fueled such anti-intellectualism and moralizing–which ultimately work against the role the academic professionals can play in making the world a better place.
If we don’t want flat-earthers, creationists, and climate-change-deniers to control or steer what we teach and study, then we must not let any activist groups, inside or outside the academy do it either—whether we agree with them or not. If we want our scholarship to help people find solutions to problems, we must be credible and trustworthy. We can only be trustworthy and credible if we rigorously adhere to methods in our field, and hire, promote, and accept for publication work that does so.
The fact that the planet is in the midst of a climate crisis is rooted in the work of scholars, and it is scholars’ rigorous, methodical pursuit of insight that makes such claims credible and trustworthy. Scholars and their detractors alike need a framework for understanding power/knowledge and politics/scholarship to preserve the ethical role of the scholar whose primary political purpose is to produce, if not full or final truth, then at least insight.
Orienting scholarship around the goal of generating insights that engage social, political, and institutional problems avoids both the twin temptations of objectivism and reducing scholarship to politics. It also offers a way for members of the public to understand the value of academic work. Perhaps even more importantly, it suggests a rhetoric to which scholars and universities can commit themselves that does not so easily give anti-intellectual, chauvinist (in all its senses) revanchists an excuse to defund academic institutions for failing to remain committed to pursuing, to the best of their abilities, their distinctly academic, overtly non-ideological, mission. Apocalyptic times, insofar as they do exist, require insight from credible scholarship. When things are truly bad, we need scholars who produce knowledge that is neither regarded by outsiders nor framed by scholars as mere expressions of partisan leanings or ideology.
Martha McCaughey is Professor of Sociology and faculty affiliate in the Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Program at Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina, U.S.A. Her work traverses the topics of gender, violence, technology, and privacy. She is the author of Real Knockouts: The Physical Feminism of Women’s Self-Defense, and The Caveman Mystique: Pop-Darwinism and the Debates Over Sex, Violence, and Science.
Scott Welsh is Associate Professor and Interim Chair in the Department of Communication at Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina, U.S.A. His work explores rhetorical practice in the context of democratic politics. He is the author of The Rhetorical Surface of Democracy: How Deliberative Ideals Undermine Democratic Politics.
American Association of University Professors. “In Defense of Knowledge and Higher Education,” https://www.aaup.org/report/defense-knowledge-and-higher-education, 2020.
Artz, Lee. “Speaking Truth to Power: Observations from Experience.” In Activism and Rhetoric: Theories and Contexts for Political Engagement, edited by Seth Kahn and Jonghwa Lee, 47-55. New York: Routledge, 2011.
Braun, M. J. “Against Decorous Civility: Acting as if You Live in a Democracy.” In Activism and Rhetoric: Theories and Contexts for Political Engagement, edited by Seth Kahn and Jonghwa Lee, 137-46. New York: Routledge, 2011.
Brown, Wendy. Politics Out of History. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001.
Haraway, Donna. “Situated Knowledges.” Feminist Studies 14, no. 3 (1988): 575-99.
Heurta, Alvaro. “Viva the Scholar-Activist!” Inside Higher Education, March 30, 2018. https://www.insidehighered.com/advice/2018/03/30/importance-being-scholar-activist-opinion
Latour, Bruno. “Why Has Critique Run Out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern.” Critical Inquiry 30 (2004): 225-48.
Young, Anna M., Battaglia, Adria, and Cloud, Dana L. “(UN)Disciplining the Scholar Activist: Policing the Boundaries of Political Engagement.” Quarterly Journal of Speech 96, no. 4 (2010): 427-35.
Photo: Brussels, Belgium. 31st January 2019. High school and university students stage a protest against the climate policies of the Belgian government | Shutterstock
Published on March 10, 2020.