Tag Archives: academia

Authority and failure

2 Oct

I have come to realise the crucial role of authority. The point is not to have authority over others so as to dominate them, but rather authority over yourself, your decisions, your production, your thinking. Unless you assume a position of authority over your life, others will do it for you and use your time and effort for their own purposes, at your disadvantage and at the cost of your integrity and, possibly, your dignity. This happened to me and my work recently, and is particularly difficult to handle when the attack comes from people who have institutionalized power over my work and, by extension, over me. This is why, according to Mictlantecuhtli, “You have to have a resistance identity”. Failing an important stage of my academic work was a major blow. I’ve been reflecting on the experience over the last two weeks and, after talking to trustworthy friends and academics, I have come to the following conclusions:

1) The main cause of my failure is institutional. It is due to internal tensions and power games in my department, as well as to defective supervision.

2) The efforts I made with my work in order to patch things up, fulfill partly unspoken expectations, and obey impossible demands only made matters worse. I lost the authority I had over my work and omitted to give strong, clear direction to the project at large.

It is very difficult for me to believe in these conclusions. My immediate context is telling me that I have failed because my work was defective and I therefore deserved to fail. Failure is making me feel like an outsider, thereby further damaging my research identity and creating a pressing need for the development of a “resistance identity” to counter the process. Mictlantecuhtli writes that “Standard academic advice is designed to interdict the creation of such a thing. It says you have to work harder, work “smarter” and so on; it alleges that everything is under your control and anything that goes wrong, went wrong because you did not follow instructions.” The analysis is apt because it points out the covertly abusive nature of much of the advice we get, which only serves to reinforce the ideology of the institution. Basically, the system is right, and if you fail, you aren’t worthy of the system and must make amends (or the system may be wrong but it is what it is, so deal with it – which amounts to the same thing: subservience/compliance).

Authority must become my priority. It is not an authority that I will use to dominate others but an authority I will exercize over myself in order to become more assertive, protect my needs, and develop my project. Instead of trusting other authorities with the direction of my work, I will become self-reliant. I will no longer passively nurture the thoughts that:

– I do not have a strong enough sense of authority in the project AND I do not realize this
– I do not think of myself as the person in charge, but as a worker on the line
– I do not think of myself as the person with expertise, but as the implementer

I will make a conscious effort in order to determine why my work has value. Instead of following doubtful advice and attempting to work through distrust, I will use authority in order to define, shape and, when the time comes, defend my project against external attacks.

Academic freedom?

6 Sep

When I was a student at university, I idealized academe in spite of all the inconsistencies I saw. I believed that it was possible to be a free spirit within that institution and pursue vital, personal interests in a stimulating context of exchange. The idea that such a freedom exists is part of academia’s founding myths. Although it may look like tenure professors have the liberty to think and act freely, they can only be critical as long as they do not apply their ideas to the workplace, as long as they do not directly threaten the dominance hierarchy that constitutes the university. Jeff Schmidt says that “Academic freedom is given to those who will be least likely to use it”. You have it “to the extent that you can express views that your employer would not otherwise allow you to express”. But According to this definition, the few who dare challenge the institution stand out: “That’s what activists do: things that they weren’t hired to do”. Which is why some of them get fired.

The idealism I used to nurture also made me believe that I could sublimate my need for action by investing it into theory or that “ideas can change the world”. Rancourt points out that “truth and research are not threatening to power in a culture of subservience and obedience. In such a culture, radical-in-thought academics only stabilize the system by neutralizing the more action-minded youth”. In short, it is not enough to be a radical intellectual, you also need to engage in radical praxis. All too often, universities (as well as other institutions in my experience – when you’re lucky) promote discourse as a safe substitute for action. I have learned that I can express ideas if I lay them out in the appropriate format, carefully back them up with established sources, and cut myself off from the practical implications of the theories I develop. It seems that my credibility as a scholar depends on it. Now I increasingly wonder: is there a space for free thinkers? The more I examine the institution, the less I believe that university provides such an environment. Is academic freedom only a façade?

Can intellectuals be activists?

31 Jul

At university one learns that thought prevails upon action, that intellectual work has at least as much value as organizing. However, the principle that radicalism is to be discussed rather that enacted protects the interests of the institution. Paulo Freire said that you can only fight your own oppression. Only yesterday I wrote that “Privilege should imply responsibility” – doesn’t this suggest that responsibility is reserved to an elite which could “teach” others how to be free? At the very least, it implies that the so-called privileged in our society are free themselves, which is far from true. What is too often defined as activism can simply serve to maintain one’s rank by avoiding risks since, as Denis Rancourt points out, “There are a million elaborate and slogan-supported rationalizations to not be an activist and most involve re-definitions of activism in terms of actions that present no significant risk to one’s socio-economic status.” Rancourt’s definition of activism detaches itself from “dogmatically non-violent” forms of organizing and instead privileges direct action, and he denounces anyone who does not directly confront power as complicit with the oppressor (post). In this light, activities such as building community or political blogging do not qualify as activism, and theorizing is only”Useful as an aid to reflection for those practicing a praxis of liberation.” Intellectual thought, then, needs to serve action and reflect on it but should never stand on its own. At the theoretical level, ideas not only have limited reach but tend to maintain (and justify) the status quo.

Teachers as activists

30 Jul

“Dans ces conditions, accepter d’entrer dans le jeu des prix et des récompenses serait aussi donner ma caution à un esprit et une évolution, dans le monde scientifique, que je reconnais comme profondément malsains, et d’ailleurs condamnés à disparaître à brève échéance tant ils sont suicidaires spirituellement, et même intellectuellement et matériellement.” -Alexandre Grothendieck, declining the Crafoord prize in 1988

I remember my father saying that it isn’t teachers’ role to be politically involved (he may have changed his mind since). While teachers have no right to impose their opinions on students and should let them learn to articulate theirs instead, I do no see why this should be true. Although teachers may take risks by getting involved in radical political activities since they cannot afford to have a police record, I cannot imagine how an apolitical teacher could teach critical thinking because there is no such thing as apolotical: you either have learned to construct your own opinion or you merely convey the dominant discourse to your students without challenging it while calling it a “neutral” position. I believe that teaching how to think can only be done by people who practice critical thinking themselves.

Another aspect of this issue is that an overwhelming majority of teachers, especially in higher levels, come from a middle-class, bourgeois background and are thus members of a privileged section of the population. Too often, their attitude towards teaching aims to maintain and reproduce that privilege rather than to challenge discrimination within the institution. Privilege should imply responsibility. Neglecting to question the power that derives from privilege means that knowledge will be available only to a select few and denied to those who do not, or cannot, conform to the models already in place due to class, gender or race.

Activist teachers are working towards a better education system, one that fights against injustices and allows learning to take place by giving students more agency instead of training them to be passive employees and mindless citizens. See, for instance, Denis Rancourt‘s advocacy of radical pedagogy and the way in which his critique of the academic institution had him banned from campus. He writes that “There emerges the notion that risk is a necessary component of activism, without which one can be certain that one is not changing anything.” His is not an isolated effort to challenge institutional power or dismantle authoritarian practices in and out of the classroom. Education cannot be allowed to become the training ground of capitalism. Instead, it should aim to deconstruct systemic discrimination and encourage critical thinking. Transgression, then, may well be a necessary tool for teachers.