Academics, not Academia
On seeking liberation through solidarity with those who reject the premise
I know I’m a stubborn person, but I’m also a person whose brain does not transmit dopamine in the typical fashion, and as such, I have trouble being extrinstically motivated, among other things. What that means is that I am very, very bad at completing tasks just because I’ve been told to do them, especially by people who I don’t yet trust. I don’t mean I never do anything I don’t want to do — I have a child, after all, and he needs taking care of even when he’s yelling — but I am allergic to busywork, I genuinely struggle to fill out lengthy forms, and I bristle when people turn into Celine Dion in explaining why something needs to happen.
In other words, just because something is usually done a certain way doesn’t mean it needs to be done that way. And I think of this often when I run smack into the supposed rules of academia, or of writing more generally.
I’m not some influential maverick hero at this point. I have two published journal articles, I have a couple more in the hopper, a bunch of chapters due to be released in edited volumes, and a book that has yet to be edited. By the time the book comes out, maybe I’ll have some shine, but for now, I’m just thinking and sharing my thoughts with you. Among those thoughts is the fact that The Way Things Are Done is precisely how we got drapetomania, phrenology, eugenics, the word gap, the achievement gap, and grit classified as valuable scholarship. It’s all part and parcel of the same thing, people following the protocols of their time and having a harmful impact accordingly.
I’m not sure you can truly achieve any sort of liberation by attaching yourself to the assumptions made by the broader system of academia. That doesn’t mean that no one employed by a university is doing good work — indeed the entire point of this essay I’m deciding to write late on a Tuesday evening is that I truly do believe in the capabilities of many, many academics, and I belive their brilliance is blunted by the structures around them.
Some will point out that this is due to the neoliberal bent of recent decades, and that surely hasn’t helped (nor is it unique to academia). But, as I mentioned before, academia considered eugenics a viable form of expertise for decades — the harmful nature of all this isn’t new at all.
The journal system, objective though it pretends it is, favors a certain type of scholarship, and even if there are smaller journals that allow writers to experiment, the supposed high-impact outfits traffic in the same old ideologies that the people I trust have always been fighting against. Recent class for cluster hires in anti-racist pedagogies seem like a good sign, but how much do you want to bet that the mostly white academics doing said hiring will still choose the “best” candidate according to the checklists they’ve created, and that that candidate will look a certain way? Does anyone honestly believe that the machines of academia are capable of evolution?
There are many good people bound up inside this goobledegook. People I trust, cherish, and love. And, hey, if my inability to shut up doesn’t freeze me out of all such consideration, I may yet work within academia someday myself after I graduate. (Truthfully, any place that ever hires me is going to know how I feel and enjoy All Of This, because it’s not like I can hide it, so I might as well tell the truth.) Especially if you’ve been working poverty wages for nearly a decade as a TA and a postdoc, take the job that will feed you. There’s no fully ethical consumption or employment in our current economic system, so we’re all making compromises.
I write this to say that I know there are a great many of us out there looking at who gets to set the tone in academic discourse, who gets to rise to prominence, who is truly set for life, and we all see that it’s not the people who reject the very premise of the system. It wouldn’t make sense for the system to reward those who doubt it.
I am, however, never going to run out of faith in the people who are desperately trying to advance new ideas. Truly novel ways of thinking that force established institutions to reconsider their approach. Terms and phrases that unsettle the people who thought they’d pushed the discourse as far as it could go. People, like all these friends of mine, who knew that just following the path set out before them wasn’t going to be enough.
We cannot achieve any sort of liberation by bowing before the god of academia. But we can get somewhere close to it through solidarity as scholars, as people not satisfied with what we were told to accept.
I don’t really love academia. But I do love (some) academics. And we’re all we need.