F.03: Auditing the Discipline: The Ethical and Institutional Risks of Disciplining Activism and Advocacy
Reviewed by Laura Sparks, California State University, Chico, CA
Chair: Mary Beth Pennington, Old Dominion University, Norfolk, VA
Speakers: Mary Beth Pennington, Old Dominion University, Norfolk, VA
Tonya Ritola, University of California, Santa Cruz, CA
Belinda Walzer, Northeastern University, Boston, MA
In this Friday morning session, presenters Mary Beth Pennington, Tonya Ritola, and Belinda Walzer led a stirring roundtable discussion about the role of activism and advocacy in the academy, and in rhetoric and composition in particular. Central to their concerns were the ways in which activism is and is not seen as legitimate work, the possible repercussions of activist engagement for non-tenure track faculty, and the limitations caused by the disciplining of advocacy that keep activist efforts within the confines of the ivory tower.
The roundtable began with the suggestion that everyone jot down some thoughts about how activism informs our own work in the academy. The panelists then followed up with short introductions on how they were approaching this topic.
Pennington outlined her interest in how activism operates both internally (in classrooms, in our work as writing program administrators (WPAs), etc.) and externally in rhetoric and composition (in our conferences, in scholarship, etc.). As we seek to broaden our conception of legitimate work, she asked, what might be the implications of activism being an explicit part of next year’s CCCC theme? Central to her concerns were the ways in which marginalized populations risk being co-opted for academic research agendas. As we broaden the scope of what’s acceptable or useful research, we might miss the ethical implications of mining from marginalized populations. For context, she shared her own struggles as a scholar who researches a population to which she belongs, Appalachia. She warned that as much as we might want to elevate the status of marginalized groups, we might also be called to retell particular stereotypes that are themselves essentialist.
Indeed, Pennington pushed us to consider what kinds of activist work we find most valuable and what seems to be valued by the discipline. We can’t, for example, ignore the ways in which disciplinary requirements might demand certain levels of co-optation of vulnerable groups. At the same time, meaningful community-based work—or what particular communities find most valuable—might resist conventional evaluation or at least demand nonacademic language, new audiences, and so on. “Is there such a thing as benign activism?” she asked. This is an especially fraught issue for non-tenure track and contingent faculty, who may be operating without institutional support or job security. As was clear from Pennington’s talk, there is a lot at stake in attempting to wed disciplinary structures with community activism. “We are seeking to advance social progress,” she noted, “but we don’t talk about how we are trying to advance our own careers.”
Ritola’s central concern for the roundtable was one of labor. Extending some of Pennington’s observations about the implications of a public turn for contingent faculty, Ritola opened with the claim that we “need to consider the serious material consequences” of pursuing activist work. “Who has the power to engage in the public work of rhetoric?” she asked. She reminded us that 70% of our workforce is contingent, which means that the discipline is calling for the least supported, most at-risk scholars in the academy to engage in public sphere activism—to make it a part of their professional lives. Yet, as the Steven Salaita case indicates, “even personal engagement with the public sphere calls into question suitability for employment.” So what might be the “repercussions for non-tenure track faculty pursuing activist work?” she asked.
Ritola particularly urged us to consider where, and to what end, we direct our activist energies. With an implied critique of outward-facing activism, she pointed out some of the issues in which we are squarely located:
- the corporatization and privatization of the university
- the threat of competency based education
- the outcomes based approaches to university effectiveness
- the overproduction of PhDs
- the over-reliance on contingent faculty
Ritola clarified that she was not advocating that we turn inward to our institutions exclusively, but rather noted that “we have so many internal problems in our own institutional landscapes” that we might consider focusing on those problems. Given these contextual pieces, she remarked, “Why do we need to turn outward? Why do we need to turn to publics when the work of the academy is already becoming problematic?”
Picking up on the thread of outward versus inward facing focuses in Ritola’s talk and Pennington’s emphasis on the risks of co-optation, Walzer’s presentation focused on how advocacy and activism underscore the discipline itself. Walzer framed her talk with an overview of how aspects of academia, particularly the humanities, are often seen as removed from the real world. She noted that even efforts to show humanities’ broader appeal, such as Humanities Writ Large at Duke University, assume it isn’t already a part of wider publics. She mentioned the turn toward globalizing the curriculum and educating the global citizen as further evidence of our attempts to demonstrate our relevance. “In other words,” she explained, “the remedy for the sluggish humanities is to turn our gaze outward and contribute to a public good.” While this is the case, we already value the public good, she rejoined. “We advocate. Only recently has discussion introduced the possibility that this turn to activism could be mandated.” Speaking for the group, Walzer pointedly noted: “We question the field’s effort to make activism and advocacy central. What,” she asked us, “are the risks and gains in disciplining the discipline?”
Walzer’s own stake in the issue comes from her work in transnational gender studies, human rights discourse, and rhetoric and composition. She noted that “scholars mine activist work grounded in tangible struggle for their own gains”—projects that risk colonizing the marginalized—and suggested that we consider the potentially problematic role of critique in human rights discourse. Remarking on the value we place on academic language, she pushed those of us at the roundtable to consider how “the institution disallows academic work to leave the ivory tower, given the academic requirements for tenure, etc.” Echoing the concerns of other human rights scholars, Walzer asked: “What happens when we define a field on an oppressive moment?” and “How can we perform the public turn ethically so that work on social justice doesn’t reify injustice?”
With these issues and questions at the forefront, the presenters then expanded the discussion to include us at the roundtable, and the energy was fierce. As we went around the circle introducing ourselves and answering the question posed to us at the start, it was immediately clear that each of us had a significant stake in the question of where and how activism belongs in the academy, rhetoric and composition specifically. I, for example, shared my interest in human rights rhetoric, as well as my concerns and questions about the relationship of activism to teaching. Another participant shared his investment in materiality. “We like to make things,” he said, and cited his investment in information design that supports democratic goals. Still another participant questioned the oft-cited duality between academia and the real world. “It’s fair game,” she remarked, “to stand up and say 'Wait, if we’re going to do this, it should be recognized.'”
By and large, participants in the roundtable were concerned with institutional support structures—for tenure track and non-tenure track faculty alike—as well as the desired aims of the field. We wondered, given the changing profile of the rhetoric and composition scholar, should activism be part of graduate programs? How do successful scholars also work as activists? Are there models to whom we might look? How should (or can) advocacy work count towards tenure? That is, how do we assess, evaluate, and reward different kinds of engagement with publics in and out of the university? As several participants subsequently pointed out, activism often means investing in communities. And that investment takes time. To really engage with a community, you have to dwell, and dwelling isn’t necessarily supported by the either the tenure timeline or the conditions of contingent labor.