Scholarship as Activism: Forming a Rebel Alliance from inside the Institutional Empire
In my last blog post, I questioned the idea of feminism being at the centre of my research. I wondered whether it necessitates an inclusive conversation of feminine bodies performing in public space.
In reflection, I have decided that it does not.
Feminism (as my only focus) cannot fully account for the number of queer bodies, trans bodies, and other feminine identifying bodies that perform in public spaces, often in radical ways. These radical performances express instances of celebration and individuality while also often resulting in feminine persons being the targets of femmephobia, transphobia, and other harms.
Long story short - I feel like I need to expand beyond feminism.
I need to educate myself in not only queer and trans studies but also in the persons and organizations that surround those communities.
I suppose I noticed this for selfish reasons. I wanted my research to be more than research for the sake of research - or research for the sake of completing a Ph.D. to one day (eventually, hopefully) be employed. I wanted to do something with my position as a graduate student.
I wanted it to mean something.
I wanted it to change something.
But, how the hell do you start a rebellion (my playful way of nodding to Star Wars - spoiler alert, it won't be the last time) from within an institution?
Art by Rachel Peshek
In the book Activist Scholarship: Antiracism, Feminism and Social Change, authors Julia Sudbury and Margo Okazawa-Rey begin by discussing the words of Sunera Thobani from a 2001 conference entitled Women’s Critical Resistance: From Victimization to Criminalization.
During her speech, feminist sociologist, academic, and activist Sunera Thobani critiqued the United States and the war in Afghanistan, citing war as one of the principal harms related to gender-based violence. After her speech, Thobani was met with hate from media outlets and other scholars, who believed that her place was in the educational institution and not in politics. In responding to this, Tobani wrote:
"I place my work within the tradition of radical, politically engaged scholarship. I have always rejected the politics of academic elitism, which insists that academics should remain above the fray of political activism and use only disembodied, objectified language and a “properly” dispassionate professorial demeanor to establish our intellectual credentials. My work is grounded in the politics, practices, and languages of the various communities I come from, and the social justice movements to which I am committed" - Sunera Thobani, 2001.
While this speech and book were published many years ago, a lot of its messages are still relevant in 2021. I share many of the same questions surrounding activist-scholarship that Sudbury and Okazawa-Rey write about in their first chapter: "What are the radical potentialities of the university as a site occupied by communities of resistance but also shaped by elitism, social inequality, and complicities with state violence... Is it really possible to bridge the activism-scholarship dichotomy?"
And, moreover, is it possible for a scholar with privilege to fully, fruitfully, and accurately participate in activism-scholarship dialogues, from within the institution of academia? If so, how?
Sudbury and Okazawa-Rey define activist-scholarship as "the production of knowledge and pedagogical practices through active engagements with, and in the service of, progressive social movements... We want to develop and argue for activist scholarship as a model of active engagement between the academy and movements for social justice."
As academics, I believe that I have a specific responsibility to pay attention to the political and sociological statuses of the world around me. I believe that I should be aware (of whatever my emotional and mental capacity is for that awareness). But that ability to be aware, to pay attention, and be responsible comes from an inherently privileged location.
As a scholar, I have sat comfortably in libraries, reading books about performance studies and philosophy, safely pondering the world. I safely considered the lives of others and the histories of others from a distance. I was safely removed from the trouble, the danger, and the precarity.
Because I could be.
Because it did not pertain to my personal experience in a way that leads me to be personally affected.
Because I had the privilege to feel safe in a large number of situations.
Which really just makes me sound like someone benefiting off of Death Star and Darth Vader, while also whining about how bad it is.
And I want to try and change that.
But that desire for change makes me feel like some sort of imposter - like I am some villain in disguise - a disingenuous person for wanting to shed my Stormtrooper garb for a pair of space buns and a rad white dress.
On the labour of activist-scholarship, Sudbury and Okazawa-Rey explain that: "this kind of work requires that we ourselves, as well as the institutions in which we work, put equal weight on organizing protest and theorizing our involvement in activism."
So, in order to give myself some kind of direction instead of wandering around directionless, I've come up with a to-do list. A grocery list of things to keep in mind as I go forwards:
Cheers to new beginnings in the deep heat of a climate-change-driven summer.
Sudbury, J., & Okazawa-Rey, M. (2009). Activist Scholarship: Antiracism, Feminism, and Social Change (1st ed.). Routledge. https://doi-org.myaccess.library.utoronto.ca/10.4324/9781315636177