CAUTION: THIS IS NOT A HOW-TO.
A few weeks ago I promised this post, and I want to start out by saying very clearly that I am not arguing that academia is the perfect activist career, or that it is an activist career of any kind. Academics do sometimes make this claim. Colleagues have at various times said that “teaching is my activism now.” I do not agree. While I think there is a role for activism in academia (and find it to be a good place for me), I don’t think anything about academia is inherently activist and I disagree that teaching in an institutionalized setting is in and of itself activism. Even more radical forms of university teaching are not actually the same as activism. That seems to be committing the same fallacy as believing that activism begins and ends with “awareness.” But making people “aware” of a social problem, no matter how important that may be, doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with changing that problem or encouraging people to act. And it certainly doesn’t lead directly to any kind of collective action (usually just the opposite) which is likely to be the only way such problems will change. Good education encourages more engagement than that, but I feel strongly that it is no substitute for engagement itself.
OK, so being an academic doesn’t make you an activist. In fact, as Bodhi and Potato have been pointing out vividly, academia compares to other work environments as “same shit, different pay scale.” There are, however, some things about it that make it, for me, an excellent base for struggle. One is that while it compares poorly to non-jobs like being active in the struggle, it compares well to other jobs one can do in the capitalist economy. It’s not-for-profit, so while I may be participating in maintaining many forms of inequality (my classes, like most other college classes, certainly contribute to the reproduction of race-class-gender inequality), I am participating much less explicitly and directly. I am not aiming to increase anyone’s profits and everyone has to at least give lip service to having an interest in a more altruistic and intrinsic value to the work. I like that.
Even better, parts of my job can be successfully combined with things I’d do anyway as an activist, reducing the conflict I feel between how many hours a week I need to work in order to pay my rent and the time I can spend on activist projects. For my dissertation research I spent a lot of time participating in a movement as a member and doing the work of that movement. I’m now beginning another research project, and I’m hoping with this one to engage my students in some community activism and to use the format of a class to gather some useful data for community activists. I’m still ambivalent about whether the publication of this research constitutes activism, but the fact is that I can do grassroots work in my community and count those same hours as research instead of logging two separate activities in the same constrained time frame.
Some other advantages: (1) academic freedom–what’s left of it–prohibits my employer from firing me for my activism (unlike in the private sector); (2) I can use other job duties like reading and keeping abreast of advances in my field to keep myself informed in ways that make me useful to the wider community in which I participate as an activist; and (3) I remain in touch with young college activists, who are energetic, have a few fresh ideas, and most importantly are much less cynical than my own cohort.
Of course the most ethical thing to do is quit my job and join the struggle full time, amassing no possessions or career of my own. However I have found that very few people are able to sustain this attitude over any length of time, and in the long run it seems like having some slightly less committed folks engaged for decades in meaningful community work challenging power is probably better than having totally committed people who give up completely in a few years. This is what I meant by the “pursuit of lifelong militancy”; the university provides me with a salary and enough stability to reduce the possibility of burning out as an activist while placing those things in less competition with activism than they would be in most jobs. At this job, my responsibilities will not continue to increase if it seems like I have “too much time” to spend in the community (although the side-glances of my colleagues might increase and that is more true if I am not white). But I feel that academia complements my activism most of the time, especially the less invested I am in my prominence and success within it. Perhaps that’s whyacademia is so deeply under attack in the US today. I feel extraordinarily lucky to have found this base for myself. It’s not a bunker apart from racism, classism, and sexism, but I think it can be a haphazard lean-to in the capitalist storm.