Engaging Academic Activism, a Preface

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  • This article was downloaded by: [Eindhoven Technical University]On: 22 November 2014, At: 20:25Publisher: RoutledgeInforma Ltd Registered in England and Wales Registered Number: 1072954Registered office: Mortimer House, 37-41 Mortimer Street, London W1T 3JH,UK

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    Engaging Academic Activism, aPrefaceBen Authers , Elizabeth Groeneveld , ElizabethJackson , Ingrid Mndel & Jesse StewartPublished online: 05 Jul 2007.

    To cite this article: Ben Authers , Elizabeth Groeneveld , Elizabeth Jackson ,Ingrid Mndel & Jesse Stewart (2007) Engaging Academic Activism, a Preface,Review of Education, Pedagogy, and Cultural Studies, 29:4, 311-316, DOI:10.1080/10714410701291095

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  • Engaging Academic Activism,a Preface

    Ben Authers, Elizabeth Groeneveld, Elizabeth Jackson,Ingrid Mundel, and Jesse Stewart

    Kalle Lasn, the founder and publisher of the political activistmagazine Adbusters, criticizes what he sees as the failure of aca-demics to engage directly with social, environmental, and otherinjustices: Most academics just ramble. Far too few raise a fist ora voice. [T]heories and explanations, he insists, are insufficient.1

    In contrast to Lasns bleak view of the academy, feminist socialcritic and theorist bell hooks presents a positive view of the poten-tial of academic work: The academy is not paradise, she con-tends. But learning is a place where paradise can be created.The classroom, with all its limitations, remains a location of possi-bility.2 This special issue of The Review of Education, Pedagogy, andCultural Studies explores the classroom as a location of possi-bility, examining ways in which educators, scholars, and studentscan ensure that our critiques, theories, and explanations contributetowards material social change. Such an effort not only involvescritical engagement with arguments like Lasns, but also requiresthat we interrogate and make productive use of our privileged posi-tions as educators and researchers, even as these positions areincreasingly threatened by budget cuts, corporatization, and policychanges.

    It is important to recognize that the academy is indeed not para-dise. The classroom is never a safe space, and always involvesasymmetrical power relations that play out in politically and ideo-logically coded ways. For example, Aruna Srivastava describes theways in which racist and sexist ideologies function in academiccontexts, shaping the experiences and opportunities of minoritizedindividuals working within the system. She states that such

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    The Review of Education, Pedagogy,

    and Cultural Studies, 29:311316, 2007

    Copyright # Taylor & Francis Group, LLCISSN: 1071-4413 print=1556-3022 online

    DOI: 10.1080/10714410701291095

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  • systemic discrimination is part of the logic of [an] institution thatconstantly works to disempower those who challenge the smoothfunctioning of its hegemony.3 Roxana Ng also draws on personalexperience to argue that the discomfort and exclusion she feelswhen working within feminist activist and academic circles stemfrom the disjuncture between her lived experience (in which genderand race oppression function as a totality) and the dominanttheoretical conventions which demand that she treats sex, class,and ethnicity as discrete categories.4 Ng insists that such divisionsare neither realistic nor productive, and argues that committedscholars should focus their inquiry on identifying the ways inwhich academic discourses have variously configured systems ofoppression in order to restrict access to institutional power. Recog-nizing these restrictive structuresas well as our own complicitythereinis a required first step towards effecting positive changeboth inside the classroom and out.

    Despite its many challenges, post-secondary education remains apowerful location of possibility with the potential to contribute towork for social justice in the broader public sphere. The humanities,in particular, have emerged in recent years as a site for the edu-cation of critical citizens. Although we, the editors of this specialissue, are all involved in the fields of literary and cultural studies,our individual research interests are quite distinct. One thing wedo share, though, is a commitment to fostering links between for-mal education, academic work, and social justice. Our motivatingquestions include: What is the point of academic work? What is(or should be) the universitys role in public life? As teachers andresearchers in diverse disciplines, what can and should we contrib-ute to struggles for justice? How can academics and other intellec-tual workers participate in broader struggles for social justice? Howdo we teach to transgress? How do our institutional contextsaffect or constrain efforts directed at political engagement andhow do those constraints vary from one discipline to another?Because such concerns are often seen to be beyond the scope ofdisciplinary-bound academic work, we decided to create a forumthat would foster productive dialogue about these issues. As partof this effort, we organized a one-day colloquium titled Raisingour Voices: Encouraging Academic Activism that was held on March11, 2005, at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada.

    The colloquium provided an opportunity to consider boththe limitations and the possibilities involved with academic

    312 B. Authers et al.

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  • work. Educators, students, and scholars working in a variety ofdisciplines throughout Canada and the United States came togetherto discuss the idea of academic activism and to share teachingstrategies and insights, successes and difficulties. The eventinitiated a number of provocative discussions concerning the rela-tionships between pedagogy, political engagement, and academicwork. Our hope was that the dialogue that emerged from the collo-quium would provide the impetus for further discussionandactionconcerning the importance of linking academic work tobroader struggles for social justice. This special issue provides anopportunity to further expand the dialogue that took place at thecolloquium by bringing the work of several scholar-activists to abroader community of readers and thinkers.

    The first essay in this volume, Utopian Pedagogy: CreatingRadical Alternatives in the Neoliberal Age, offers an overview ofsome of the key concerns addressed throughout this collection,attending to such issues as neoliberalism, counter-hegemony, andthe role of academics as activists. In it, Mark Cote, Richard Day,and Greig de Peuter ask vital questions about how we, as criticalacademics, can work within, against, and beyond the neoliberalorder. Examining the theoretical implications of utopian peda-gogy, and describing several creative local engagements with sucha pedagogy, the authors reclaim the concept of utopian theory andpractice as something other than and outside of the hyper-inclusivelogic of neoliberalism.5 Linking discussions of the neoliberal uni-versity with counter-hegemonic politics and pedagogical strategies,this essay passionately outlines the necessity for, and existence of,radical and sustainable alternatives to the current neoliberalhegemony.

    Like Cote, Day, and de Peuter, Anna Feigenbaum interrogatesthe influence of neoliberalism on university education in TheTeachable Moment: Feminist Pedagogy in the Neoliberal Class-room. Situating her study within the context of student resistanceto feminist and anti-racist perspectives, Feigenbaum argues thatneoliberal discourses, with their emphasis on individualism andcompetition, make it difficult for students to imagine how univer-sity education can translate into social transformation. She critiquesthe perspective of scholar Elizabeth Brule who, Feigenbaum argues,implicitly blames students for resisting feminist, anti-racist, andother critical knowledges, and in so doing inscribes students asinsufficient. To challenge the model of students as lacking

    Engaging Academic Activism 313

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  • (intellectually, materially, or psychologically), Feigenbuam offerstwo anecdotes, or stories of partial perspective, that demonstratethe role of affect in teachable moments6those moments of dis-ruption, misfiring, tangents, or digressions that are spaces throughwhich teachers can re-envision students resistance. These momentsdraw attention to the role of feelings and of differently-genderedbodies in pedagogical encounters. Feigenbaum offers these anec-dotes as a way of privileging both student and teacher knowledges,and as a counter-narrative to neoliberal discourses that obfuscatethe link between bodies and oppressive power relations.

    In Teaching Feminist Activism, Amber Dean is also concernedwith forging links between formal education and material socialchange. She performs the kind of simultaneous action and reflec-tion, or praxis, advocated by Paulo Freire, as she turns her criticalgaze upon her own pedagogical practice. This article examines aseries of paradoxes arising from a feminist activism project Deancreated for an introductory Womens Studies course, raising a num-ber of insightful, provocative questions about the implications ofteaching activism in a university setting. Dean is somewhatambivalent about the future of the feminist activism project for anumber of reasons, including its potential for reifying colonialistviews of the Other. This articles movement between particularityand broader conceptual thinking offers both a useful case studyand an example of careful theorizing. While Dean is open about thelimitations and potential negative consequences of her pedagogicalstrategy, she closes with a hopeful resolution to find new andbetter ways7 to approach the project, so that it can continue tooffer students an opportunity to participate actively in creatingmore just communities.

    In I just want to cook, Christopher B. Knaus shows that academicactivism need not be confined to the classroom or to traditionalmodes of academic discourse. In this highly personal and movingpoem, Knaus examines issues of race, difference, and privilegethrough the metaphor of cooking and through reflections drawnfrom his experiences as an educator in the African American Stu-dies department at the University of California, Berkeley. Challeng-ing the all-too-common divide between theory and practice, thepoem affirms the importance of artistic expression as a vehicle forachieving positive social change.

    The final essay in this collection is Sherene H. Razacks Stealing thePain of Others: Reflections on Canadian Humanitarian Responses.

    314 B. Authers et al.

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  • In this piece, Razack further examines the issues of representation,analysis, and social justice that inform many of the papers in thiscollection, and locates them within a poignant critique of the waysin which mainstream Canadians, depicted as the compassionatebut uninvolved observer, frequently presume to knowandappropriatethe pain of others.8 A keynote speaker at the Rais-ing Our Voices colloquium, Razack argues that in Canada, thewidespread consumption of stories and images about the Rwan-dan Genocide (including the prize-winning documentary ShakeHands with the Devil) is the antithesis to genuine outrage, andamounts to stealing the pain of others.9 Razacks argument,while damning of the means by which Canadian humanitarianintervention has served to obscure the nations complicity in atro-cities like the Rwandan genocide, also points to ways in whichCanadians might assume responsibility for that involvement.Razack suggests that acknowledging the pain and personhoodof others, as well as our own material and moral responsibility,can potentially allow us to move beyond reiterating notions ofgeneralized Canadian compassion. Razack cautions, however, thatwe cannot effectively challenge the widely held belief that Canadais an innocent nation until we refuse to accept and reaffirm thecomforting myth of Canadian humanitarianism.

    Razacks essay, with which we close this issue, is an inspiringexample of the kind of scholarly work that is possible within therealities of current institutional and cultural politics. Her frankassessment of Canadas implication in ongoing injustices, and herinsistence that we must acknowledge and redress this complicity,provide a provocative impetus for further reflection, dialogue,and action. The questions that motivated Raising Our Voices arefar from having been resolved, but the essays we have collectedhere offer several productive ways to address them. Taken together,the contributions in this volume demonstrate that we, as academics,can indeed engage in provocative and effective activist interven-tions, and raise our voices in the spaces where theory and prac-tice overlap.

    NOTES

    1. Kalle Lasn, Culture Jam: How To Reverse Americas Suicidal Consumer BingeAndWhy We Must (New York: Quill, 2000), 116.

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