Who are the radical academics today?

Bill Bunge's Detroit Expedition map 1968 - radical cartography that had a big impact (please cite it if you use this essay) We can usefully redefine what radical scholarship is in the contemporary period where universities are financially challenged, and changing their roles considerably. It is possible to hold to radical ideas of social and environmental justice as a scholar and academic, and to thrive within the university environment? Perhaps in the 1950s and 1960s, hard. The author of the map above, Bill Bunge, was such an example. Today, yes. But now there are multiple aspects of  being ‘radical’. These include vision and personal politics, adapting to a changing audience, to different media in the internet age, and working in a rapidly changing political economy.  I concentrate on three aspects particularly pertinent to scholarship. The third of these is relatively new in such debates. I think we need to break down ‘radicalism’ in the university context into three areas.

The first is  externally focussed research to promote and support justice. The ‘external’ mission (i.e. dealing with issues outside one’s immediate academic demands and  surroundings)  for a radical scholar, has evolved  since the 1960s. The period has seen the decline of state socialism and the rise of neoliberal regimes that seek the maximization of utility, rather than equality. The work of radical scholars, opposed to free market capitalism,  has anchors in several traditions of thought, particularly political economy. But in practice it includes supporting the vulnerable, environmental causes, justice in many forms, attacking corrupt regimes and institutions, and exposing hypocrisy particularly in capitalist regimes.

The  reaction to  the McCarthyism in the US in the early 1950s (the second Red Scare with accusations of communism in US life), the civil rights movement, anti-War protests, and the other liberative social movements of the 1960s aided the introduction and acceptance  of radical ideas towards the end of the decade. These included  Marxism and feminism, that have worked their way into the universities where they have stayed and enriched them (Casenave 1988). This tradition is ongoing, strong, and while perhaps too  concentrated in producing academic outputs (ideas in books, journals etc.) rather than in creating “spaces of hope” and better policy in society itself, it still has a great  importance. A generation of radical scholars have practiced what Paul Robbins calls “wielding the hatchet” – exposing the darker secrets of colonialism, capitalism, greed and inequality. As Alastair Bonnett (2011)  says, since the last 1960s “radicalism has survived by becoming institutionalised. This has allowed academic radicalism to become culturally self-sufficient, with little need to seek popular approval.” One thinks of scholars like Noam Chomsky, Don Mitchell, Henry Giroux and David Harvey, the latter still an unrepentant Marxist and yet the most highly cited human geographer.  The strength of their messages about the arms race, the hypocrisy of western governments, capitalism and environmental violence is combined with erudite scholarship. Giroux and Harvey have – sometimes against criticism – offered visions of how the world could be, not just how it shouldn’t be. These messages and arguments, and the people who produce them, only endanger their careers if they hit too close to home –  attacking potential university funders, which can include industry and government. Otherwise, these and hundreds of other radical scholars tend to  pursue successful academic careers.

Alistair Bonnet again (2011) : “Institutionalisation does not mean evisceration. But it does have consequences. One of these is having to dance to the tune of an increasingly managerial academic culture.”  In my own discipline (geography) this is most certainly the case. Radical geographers publish, obtain research grants (this is the dancing part!), and proceed up the academic hierarchies quite nicely. Many get serious accolades. Those mentioned above, and others like them, rarely had their careers blocked because of their beliefs or actions, and neither did they divert away for long periods into activism. This is because as Don Mitchell says, the academic metier is generally limited in its practical engagement, unless you choose to interpret it in radical ways as a few, like Jean Dreze have done (Mitchell 2008).

* The second dimension is about increased relevance and engagement(Stoddart 1975). Michael  Burawoy, the Berkeley sociologist, theorised that sociology can no longer restrict itself to the academic realm. He begins by noting “The dialectic of progress governs our individual careers as well as our collective discipline. The original passion for social justice, economic equality, human rights, sustainable environment, political freedom or simply a better world, that drew so many of us to sociology, is channeled into the pursuit of academic credentials.” (Burawoy 2004: 5). The same could be said of many disciplines.   “Public Sociology endeavors to bring sociology into dialogue with audiences beyond the academy, an open dialogue in which both sides deepen their understanding of public issues. Working with the public rather than studying them, liberates the academic discipline and provides new and progressive avenues for change. He includes students as partof the public constituency. ” Somewhat predictably, in the university “…advocacy of public sociology has generated much heat in many a cool place”. Indeed it has (Watts 2001 and Clive Barnett’s comments on ‘British critical geography’ 2013).

The debate about relevance and application of scholarly ideas is something I treat in a forthcoming book, but the gist of the argument is that, following Burawoy, it is perfectly possible to pursue classical scholarly work (“professional” in Burawoy’s terms) while doing much more – working with constituencies outside the university completely, designing initiatives together, and committing to practical rather than only to in-theory concepts of justice. This does not demean the academic profession, and indeed outside certain rather goal-oriented Departments, this can and does occur across the social sciences. But if engaged and public work does not result in referred outputs and lucrative grants, it again troubles the neoliberal university model where we use metrics to judge the faulty based  on research output. As Dick Peet said (AAG, 2013), frankly  a lack of research output can put a radical scholar in trouble with the university and emperil jobs. But a focus on engagement is quite radical in its own way, and its practitioners do not have to be formenting revolution to be deemed ‘radical’ .  This point is debated  (Castree 2000).

The third dimension of radicalism today is one that scholars are far less anxious to talk about. It is about ” the ethics by which and toward which knowledge is produced” (Michael Coughlear, EAnth listserv,  February 25, 2013). Scholars are nested within departments,within universities. Their practices in this space  can be radical, politically conservative, helpful to others, or selfish.  We are no longer in the situation where radical scholars feel constantly hounded, oppressed, marginalised, and attacked in the university (at least not in western countries, in those with relatively liberal employment regulations). We need to redefine what radical scholarship is in this context. A radical scholar is a term that now includes something more than a certain type of scholarship, I think.  It is also about  rejecting conformity with the  behavioral norms that neoliberal, cash-strapped universities have forced upon us. It is about solidarity with those in the university sector that are oppressed – e.g. low wage, those threatened with dismissal, and the thousands scraping a living on adjunct status. But it is more than that – it is also about doing what the neoliberal search for cash tends to marginalize – teaching, helping others, niceness/goodness, and selflessness (Cahn 2010, Martin 2011). I almost  never see these latter behaviours linked to radical scholarship – commentators on this blog (below) think this comes from a different tradition.

On this latter point, I find some of my colleagues in the higher education sector (at research institutions) are so driven by publication and research (some of it radical, of course) that the other things that are required in our contracts – teaching and service, including reviewing the work of others, supporting younger scholars, etc., working in the community  – are avoided or certainly marginalised. This, of course,  leaves much of that work to other people prepared to step up (usually those with the shorter cvs and the nicer and more helpful dispositions), or to adjuncts. Every time a teaching/research faculty member gets a higher research percentage in their contract,  or refuses to do something that they are best placed to do, others have to cover the work (permanent people in some cases, poorer paid adjuncts in others). So, while teaching brings in far more money that research in almost all cases in the social sciences (despite being less prioritised or ‘prestigious’) and doing it is for the greater good and for that of the students, it sits in the second tier of responsibilities among many radical scholars.  This is not universally true, but my experience since 1995 has been in research universities, where it almost always is.

Teaching is one forum capable of imparting some radical and challenging ideas – e.g. a forensic analysis of corporate behaviour or the capitalist state. But ‘writing time’ is what faculty always  complain is lacking, not teaching time. In addition, writing academic tracts that are narrowly read and often inaccessible behind paywalls  is part of the old publishing order that will hold back debate and marginalizes the social sciences (I develop this here – academic publishing decisions also have a social conscience).

‘Service’ is a North American term that encompasses  the glue that holds universities together. Some of this is best done by academics – from sitting on committees to recruiting students.  It also includes  refereeing  the work of others to enable publication, and generally assisting students and fellow faculty (despite these things being less prioritised for individual advancement). Avoiding these things is not comradely, but depends on your stage of career. The new managerial class in universities – those who are not coming through the academic ranks – are often annoying to radical scholars. But in order to require less of those people, the radicals actually have to do a fair bit of that work themselves. You will actually see some radicals in top university positions, and this is a good thing. ” Being oriented to helping is a counter to the usual self-interested preoccupation  with workloads, status and personal advancement, and is likely to contribute to a greater sense of satisfaction” (Martin 2011: 54).

The problem, to sum up this third point,  is that many full time research/teaching  academics like me are hired to do a multi-task job, but spent a lot of time preferring to escape from certain tasks to focus more on others (usually research – evidence of 20 years of conversations and observing). They are also set within a system that generally facilitates this, while actually asking for teaching as well, for financial and symbolic gain for the university, causing junior people to work very long hours on both. So a radical scholar that is good at both can go very far. The question raised above is whether they have to push anybody out of the way to do this. Focusing on personal advancement in the university sector is not actually radical or helpful when it has negative effects on others. Inger Mewburn from ANU on her blog writes about the problem of academic “assholes”. These are the selfish people. You know who they are…..it is all about personal status maximization for these guys, and  “Some ambitious sorts work to cut out others, whom they see as competitors, from opportunity” she says. Since the neoliberal research university prioritizes research performance and grant income, above all else (followed by teaching) and if that is what you do, some find it tempting to act in a  cut-throat and non-collegial way to protect their research area or their time. And in most circumstances you get away with this, especially if your research  fame is established – basically you will not get fired to being rude and unpleasant. Especially if protected by tenure. Some people in university cultures are just guilt free and unpleasant in this way, as an article in the THES 2013 says.

There are other options too – think of  Ted Trainer in Australia as well as Jean Dreze in India, both of whom keep one foot in the university sector while pursuing radical and exemplary lives outside of it (see forthcoming book when out). As Ben Wisner pointed out to me (6/4/13), the  argument needs to recognise life stages – early career scholars have to scramble to an extent, while a middle career stage, perhaps with family, may necessarily involve less activism and more do-able research and teaching tasks. The need to do everything drops away at retirement.

Conclusion Academic radicalism is now situated in an altered social context from the period of its formation. In the context of the mainstream neoliberal university today, assisting others in and outside  the sector and doing your share, is actually progressive, even radical. While research and writing  is a vital part of what we do, and provides the evidence to support social change, it does not make you a progressive or radical scholar to behave unpleasantly while carving out the time and space to do it. If this hurts others, or leads you to ignore them or any sense of obligation to them. This  is the case even if your substantive research is ‘radical’ or progressive  in its content. If you are rude and selfish, drop the radical label. You don’t deserve it.

I have begun to think about where ‘radical and critical’ geography sits in all of this. Among people with secure teaching and research jobs, I actually think we should redefine it to include dimension two and three (radical internal) rather than just dimension one (radical external).  So I think doing your teaching and service commitments while fully employed, and engaging more widely as well is actually radical, in a neoliberal university. But there are very few examples. You can do ‘radical’ research as part of your job for sure, but the other side of this is retaining commitment in the workplace while you are actually doing that work. If personal radical research projects went slower because of  the publically engaged nature of scholarship or a lack of ‘writing/research time’,  I think this would illustrate a greater commitment to social justice. To change the status quo, which discourages people from being nice and radical at the same time, we need better leadership and new norms. We need institutional recognition that working hard on other things is equally as valid as research and revenue-raising. This means redefining  the  criteria for academic promotion, for those who are in such positions (many are not).  Although I am not a great supporter of the tenure system in North America, because it is exclusionary, a fourth criteria  could be added to tenure criteria – some measure of  goodness or collegiality (the current three are research, teaching and service).   This is not unproblematic  (watch candidates for promotion, who have been told to do more service or to help others, suddenly step up, then drop off again once promoted!).**

This does not exhaust the discussion.  There is much more to say about radical teaching initiatives  for example (one of which I ran for 3.5 years) and ‘occupy’ campaigns. A fuller  assessment the role of the radical academic in mainstream western society  is not offered here. I am happy to debate this ‘new radicalism’ idea or take any suggestions. In the meantime, avoid the assholes, radical or not (and they usually are not) if you can! * Dick Peet suggested to me (AAG meetings, 2013) that when Dick Walker finally achieved tenure at Berkeley in 1982 was a moment at which time radical geography entered ‘the US academy’, if not  the mainstream, in a more obvious way. He is right – Walker himself said “Leftists had never gotten tenure at Berkeley before my peer group, the 1968ers, came along. Michael Burawoy, Michael Reich, Ann Markusen and I were all up at the same time and we were the first to break that barrier” (Walker 2012).  But the shift from ‘outsider’ to ‘insider’ was for many people not so obvious  – I wonder if it was simply a transition aided by civil rights, the Vietnam war, and other global movements in which more radical positions moved more to the centre. (this was stressed by several people at the AAG meetings). **Note this very suggestion came up in a June 2013 report by US academics.

“To be truly radical is to make hope possible rather than despair convincing” 

   -Raymond Williams (1921-1988)

** Outside the constraints of the 6 year-to-tenure model in America there is more freedom to redefine these criteria for advancement and to embed these as a process, not as a hurdle. We actually have a weak version of this at my own university, where there are multiple criteria of performance assessed annually including ‘engagement’, and a workload model in place.

References

Alastair Bonnett. 2011. Are radical journals selling out? THES 3 November 2011
Michael Burawoy 2004  For public sociology. Address to the American Sociological Association (August 15, 2004)  AMERICAN SOCIOLOGICAL REVIEW, 2005, VOL. 70

Castree N, 2000. Professionalisation, activism, and the university: whither ‘critical geography’? Environment and Planning A 32(6) 955 – 970.

Cazenave, Noël A..1988.From a committed achiever to a radical social scientist: The life course dialectics of a “Marginal” black american sociologist.The American Sociologist19, 4, pp 347-354

Martin B. 2011. On being a happy academicAustralian Universities’ Review, 53,  1, pp. 50-56

Mitchell D. 2008. Confessions of a Desk-Bound Radical. Antipode 40 (2008), 448-454.

Cahn SM. 2010. Saints and Scamps: Ethics in Academia. new edition. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers

Stoddart, D.  1975. Kropotkin, Reclus and ‘Relevant’ Geography. Area: 188-190.

Walker, R. 2012. From the Age of Dino-Sauers to the Anthropo-Scene: Reminiscences of life in Berkeley Geography, 1975-2012. Retirement talk, Department of Geography, University of California, Berkeley, April 25, 2012

Watts, M.J.  “1968 and all that…” Progress in Human Geography 25: 157-188.

(book mark – read this http://www.guardian.co.uk/higher-education-network/blog/2011/jun/15/univeristies-radical-academics-jobs-training and this http://theoccupiedtimes.co.uk/?p=4533)

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12 Comments

Filed under academic relevance, engaged scholarship

12 responses to “Who are the radical academics today?

  1. Krzysztof

    Thank you for this piece! It made me think of my own academic priorities.

  2. Simon, this is articulated brilliantly. The third dimension of “goodness” must become a personal commitment to self and species, and the world will greatly benefit from far more of us taking it seriously. I never placed it as “radical” in the neoliberal university system… but I fear you are absolutely correct. Thanks for the inspiration to continue down this path.

  3. Long discussion on this post from Don Aitkin, former VC of the University of Canberra http://donaitkin.com/the-radical-scholar-in-todays-universities/ and syndicated here http://www.onlineopinion.com.au/view.asp?article=14851

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  5. Cited in – Jackson, S and L. Crabtree. 2104. Politically engaged geographical research with the community sector: is it encouraged by Australia’s higher education and research institutions? Geographical Research 52(2):146–156.

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  11. Really interesting perspective on the topic, Simon. However I see a challenge in actually defining what is meant by “radical” in the early 21st century. Ideas which were radical in the 60s, for example, are now mainstream e.g. equal opportunities for women, non-segregation, anti-apartheid, environmental care, etc. I accept that some of these were not wholly successful in their outcomes but the individuals and organisations that are working towards once radical goals are often far from radical themselves, e.g. Friends of the Earth, RSPB.

    In my own field (biodiversity and its conservation) there’s very divided opinion on whether scientists should be activists and campaigners, rather than simply neutral providers of data and ideas for environmental activists (and others) to use. This post from earlier in the year might interest you:

    https://jeffollerton.wordpress.com/2015/04/03/should-biodiversity-scientists-be-campaigners-and-polemicists/

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