Academics Against the Privilege of Academia

This essay was originally posted on the Imagining America PAGE blog on September 13, 2017. The Blog salon explores themes of intersectionality and public scholarship, important topics of the Imagining America national conference on October 12-14, 2017, in Davis, California.

As a Cultural Studies scholar, one of my primary concerns is having my scholarship be legible to broader communities. In my role as a cultural worker, I employ theoretical frameworks as a tool for getting at social issues from other angles in an attempt to “tell better stories about what might be going on” (Grossberg). I believe that public engagement is an ongoing process that goes beyond the binary of success/failure. I am convinced that “undoing, unmaking, not knowing may in fact offer more creative, more cooperative, more surprising ways of being in the world”. Failure, when it shows up, can and should be understood as a richly informative approach to performing public scholarship (Halberstam). I also believe that the opportunity for public scholarship is immediately foreclosed upon when the scholar prioritizes legibility in the academy above audiences in non-academic communities.

One of the community engagement projects I started in 2017 was a Seattle community reading group entitled “Rethinking Social Justice.” I invited everyone from my activist, queer, of color, and working class networks to participate in reading and discussing core texts on radical black feminisms, decolonization, disability studies and more. These were readings that I was assigned in my Cultural Studies classes, and I immediately recognized the need to take them outside of the classroom. What sprung from the very initial discussion was an acknowledgement and excitement that theory as a liberatory practice is indeed for everyone, not just academics, and that theoretically grounded discussions on social justice were necessary for maintaining a growing commitment to social justice work. It continues to be a dynamic intervention into combating the anti-intellectualism that tends to springs from leftist activists who fear association with any and all forms of power.

While the project is still young, conversations with group members frequently buzzed with excitement that such a space exists. Academic research and writing that were produced by scholars speaking from lived experiences, such as black feminists, constantly resonated with community readers. In asking myself, why am I doing this, and is public scholarship a worthwhile endeavor for me, I think about the work and principles of the Design Justice Network. This network of designers and techies emerged from the 2015 Allied Media Conference, and have come up with exploratory processes to move towards design justice, rather than maintaining the status quo of white supremacy, anti-blackness, imperialism, and so forth. To riff on their Principles, I see public scholars as facilitators in community, not experts. As a scholar, I seek to collectivize knowledge across networks, rather than claim it for my professional goals or for the academy. When I enter into public spaces as a scholar, designer, and a writer, and on equal footing with other community participants, I am fulfilling my role as a public scholar.

“Design Justice Network Principles.” Design Justice,

Grossberg, Lawrence. “On the political responsibilities of cultural studies.” Inter-Asia Cultural Studies 11.2 (2010): 241-47.

Halberstam, Jack. The queer art of failure. Durham, NC: Duke U Press, 2011. Print.