Activism As Expertise

 Eric Anthony Grollman is a Black queer non-binary feminist intellectual activist. They are an assistant professor of sociology at University of Richmond, and editor of Conditionally Accepted – an Inside Higher Ed career advice column for marginalized scholars.  In this post, they call for understanding activism as an important form of academic and intellectual expertise.    


“I came to academe by way of activism,” I announced as part of an “elevator speech” exercise to introduce myself in one of my graduate courses back in 2010.

This story is hardly novel, especially among scholars of marginalized backgrounds.  With its reputation for enlightenment and social justice, academic careers call the names of many folks who want to make a difference in their communities.  Our shared story also reflects an apparent shared naiveté about the academy.

“Oh, we didn’t beat the activist out of you yet?” the professor interrupted. Her tone suggested humor, but the content of her interruption signaled the true purpose of graduate education: to make an apolitical, detached, and “objective” scholar out of me, to de-radicalize me, to make me an expert on my communities but no longer a member of them.

No, I was not reading too much into her supposed joke.  Other professors in the program were equally explicit in telling me that activism had no place in academe.  I will give two brief examples.

Example 1: Late in graduate school, I excitedly shared the possibility of a joint conference session between the sexualities and social psychology sections of the American Sociological Association with a trusted professor.  The latter has been crucial in the study of identity, which I felt would be useful for the study of sexual identity in the former.  But, given the marginal status of sexualities research in sociology, and the dominance of white cis heterosexuals in social psychology, there was not much social psychological work on sexuality within social psychology.  Quite passive aggressively, the trusted professor responded, “ok ‘Mr. Activist’.”  I was confused what was so radical, so “activist,” about proposing a conference session on an empirical matter.  And, I was hurt that even my toned down approach to activism was still too much.  So, I dropped it.

Example 2: It seemed that no matter how hard I tried to succeed by the mainstream standards of my department and discipline, I would never fit in.  So, the growing cognitive dissonance between my goals, values, and experiences and the department expectations pushed me to become more critical of my graduate department and sociology in general.  I became more outspoken in my blogging, often writing posts about racism and activism in academia.  For example, I wrote a piece about “Blogging For (A) Change,” singing the praises of blogging as a platform for intellectual activism.  A professor in my department who maintains a popular blog devoted a blog post just to me entitled, “Why Activism And Academia Don’t Mix.”

My graduate department paid a fair amount of lip service to public sociology — any kind of work to make one’s scholarship accessible, typically speaking as an expert to lay audiences.  Basically, public sociology is an unpaid and undervalued extension of our teaching, which we do out of the kindness of our hearts. Public sociology is for liberal white people whose survival does not depend on their “service.”

Activism, however, was a dirty word.  Anything too radical (and, wow, the bar for “radical” is set low) was deemed activist, and thus inferior.  Activism is conceived of as a threat to one’s scholarship.  Supposedly, it undermines one’s ability to remain “objective.”  As such, those who are openly activist may lose credibility as researchers.  I have heard stories of scholar-activists being denied tenure or promotion, or some with tenure who have been fired.  Of course, we know that activism cannot be a substitute for scholarship, but it has the unintended consequence of leading to the devaluation of your scholarship, as well.

Now that I have gotten that critique off of my chest, I can now make a new point: activism is expertise, or at least has the potential to become a form of scholarly expertise.  Here, I dare to argue not only is activism not a contradiction to academic pursuits, but it can actually enhance one’s scholarly perspective.  And, academia loses out by creating and policing artificial boundaries between activism and scholarship.  What is particularly lost is the creativity and insights of marginalized scholars who are turned off by or actively pushed out of the academy, who are burdened by the pressure to conform, and who are disproportionately affected by the low bar for defining what is activist and what is not (think “me-search,” for example.)

I will use myself as an example.  My peer-reviewed research generally focuses on the impact of discrimination on the health and world-views of marginalized groups.  In one line of work, I examine the mental, physical, sexual health consequences of discrimination — particularly for multiply disadvantaged individuals who are at great risk for facing more than one form of discrimination (e.g., women of color who face racist and sexist discrimination).  In the other line of work, I assess how such experiences produce a unique consciousness — at least as reflected in social and political attitudes that are distinct from those of the dominant group.  The intersections among sexuality, gender, and race (and, to a lesser extent social class and weight) are a prominent focal point in my empirical work.

As an intellectual activist, I have gradually moved further into academic justice work.  That includes the creation and steady growth of Conditionally Accepted, from a blog to a weekly career advice column for marginalized scholars.  That also includes more recent work on protecting and defending fellow intellectual activists from professional harm and public backlash.

For example, in February, I organized and participated on a panel about this very topic at the Sociologists for Women in Society winter meeting.  Since the intended focus was primarily about women of color intellectual activists (as Black women scholar-activists have been targeted the most in recent years), I planned to invite women of color panelists, and had no intention of being on the panel myself.  But, I struggled to find more than the one who agreed to participate, Dr. Adia Harvey Wingfield.  Dr. Rashawn Ray and I joined the panel, as well, to offer other perspectives.  In the process of preparing for the panel, I contacted the American Association for University Professors (AAUP) for concrete advice on protecting intellectual activists, and compiled a list of advice from other intellectual activists.  What initially was a well-crafted blog post, backed by a lot of homework, became a panel, and the proposal for a similar panel at next year’s American Sociological Association annual meeting.  My blog post, “Supporting Scholars Who Come Under Attack,” is now a chapter in ASA’s social media toolkit.

As my blogging and intellectual activism has become more visible, I have been invited to give more and more talks and to participate on panels about academic blogging, public sociology, intellectual activism, and academic (in)justice.  Though I am making the case for activism as expertise at this stage in my career, I initially felt a sense of impostor syndrome.  I am not an education scholar, so I felt I had no business giving talks about matters related to higher education.

What has helped me to recover from the traumatizing experience of grad school, and to reclaim my voice as a scholar-activist, is to find role models and surround myself with like-minded people.  On the most memorable panel I have done yet, I had the incredible pleasure of finally meeting Dr. Patricia Hill Collins, Dr. Brittney Cooper, and Dr. R. L’Heureux Lewis-McCoy.  Dr. Lewis-McCoy, as a fellow panelist, casually introduced his research on racial inequality and education and his activism on racism and the criminal justice system.  These dual forms of expertise are best reflected in his book, Inequality in the Promised Land: Race, Resources, and Suburban Schooling, and his blog, Uptown Notes.

The expertise of activism comes from experience, from doing one’s homework about the issues, and from raising one’s consciousness about the social problem at hand and developing skills to solve the problem.  That expertise comes from engaging with people from outside of one’s field, or even outside of the academy, and thus being exposed to new ways of thinking.

Activism and academe do mix.  They are complementary ways of thinking, being, and making a difference in the world.  One is not superior to the other.  In fact, given the history of exclusion and discrimination, many of us have the work of activists to thank for even making our academic career possible.  And, with the rise of the adjunctification of the academy and the exploitation of contingent faculty, the fate of academe relies on labor activists working to reverse these trends.

I’m not saying we should all run out to the nearest Black Lives Matter protest.  (No, actually, I will say that.)  But, I am at least demanding that we acknowledge the intellectual potential of activism.

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