Life’s too short. Push the boundaries, kick up a fuss, organise with friends.

Some highlights from two articles by Paul Chatterton, Stuart Hodkinson and Jenny Pickerill. They were (and continue to be) influential on me around the time we established the Social Science Centre

From: Chatterton, P. (2008) Demand the Possible: Journeys in Changing our World as a Public Activist-ScholarAntipode Vol. 40 No. 3.

“Sometimes I wonder why I work in a university at all. I spend most of my time outside of it, organising community events, helping out at a local free space, supporting local co-ops, doing asylum seeker support, going to activist gatherings and demonstrations, helping with campaigns, putting on film screenings, and hosting radical speakers. I suppose I have become someone who blends activism and the academy. As a result, life is busy, challenging, confusing, but generally enjoyable.

Then I remember why I still work in a university. It’s because I’m an activist-scholar, someone who sees the value in radical education and the public debate of ideas which challenge the norm. I bring my activism into the university for a number of reasons. In spite of the way they are being re-engineered, universities are still amazing places of encounter, conflict, diversity and debate (not to mention resources), and it is crucial that we find ways to defend and expand these and open them up to others. Engaging with the activist world, while it raises the eyebrows of many senior colleagues, excites and inspires my students. It reminds me of what Paulo Freire once said about the purpose of education: it is the practice of freedom. Defending education as a path to freedom and not as a route to debt, precarious jobs, and conformity is one of the most important political tasks of our time. And it’s also an essential antidote to the endless consumer parade which student life has become, as well as to the efforts of British Aerospace, KPMG, Deloitte, and their ilk, to parcel up their futures.

So how does all this work? What does it mean to be an activist-scholar? How do you promote radical ideas and debates within the academy?

… The author provides three examples and concludes:

Our job is to make alternatives seem feasible and sensible, not crazy and left field. It is a battle of ideas, words and practices about a better world, a battle, alas, that too many professors forget once they have joined the elite club. Here’s a few things we can all do:

  • Introduce as much challenging material into our teaching as possible—including street work, innovative assessment, learning radical histories, outside engagements.
  • Push for new courses in universities which actively promote engagement, campaigning and civic activism.
  • Support open source and online publishing and challenge metrics.
  • Inform ourselves about who owns the journals and books we publish in. Which large firms are behind them? Support the ones we feel comfortable with and tell those we avoid why.
  • Spread the word on corporations who have too much influence in
    our work lives and get together with others to challenge them.
  • Try and create publicly accessible versions of our work in the form of pamphlets, tip sheets or websites.

Life’s too short. Push the boundaries, kick up a fuss, organise with friends. Don’t let management push you around! Challenge lazy, overpaid professors, connect with inspiring movements for change, and turn your work places into spaces of joy, hope and rebellion!”

From: The Autonomous Geographies Collective (2010) Beyond Scholar Activism: Making Strategic Interventions Inside and Outside the Neoliberal UniversityACME: An International E-Journal for Critical Geographies, 2010, 9 (2), 245-275.

“We need to reject the false distinction between academia and wider society in conceptualisations of valid sites of struggle and knowledge production, and to find ways to research and engage collectively and politically, rather than individually.

What unites past and present generations of scholar activists is their desire to bring together their academic work with their political ideals to further social change and work directly with marginal groups or those in struggle. This work goes beyond simply trying to understand the politics of our research and argues that our work is political.

In recent years, human geographers have sought to challenge this inertia by showcasing their own activist engagements as scholar activists, while at the same time holding a mirror up to their engagements in highly reflexive accounts. Pain (2003) usefully categorises these and reflects that there are at least three ways to engage beyond the academy. The first approach, combining activism and research, fuses politics and academic research agendas into one coherent strategy and methodology working closely with resisting others and social movements… Perhaps unsurprisingly, some have also produced valuable insights into the often torturous psyche of the academic-activist, forever caught between two worlds and sets of people with competing priorities, expectations, and pressures. These authors bring out the necessity of academics’ attempts to make their teaching and research fit together with their desire for social change, with all the obstacles, dilemmas, and challenges this poses.

The second approach is participatory research which in general aims to “improve practice rather than to produce knowledge” (Elliot, 1991: 49) and gives the ‘subject’ far greater involvement in the research (see for example, England, 1994; Pain, 2003; Hayward et al., 2004; Kitchen and Hubbard, 1999; Cahill, 2007; Pain and Francis, 2003; Pain and Kindon, 2007; Kindon et al., 2007). Within participatory research and development there is a strong critique of exploitative and unaccountable research, especially “externally imposed and expert-oriented forms of research and planning” (Cooke and Kothari, 2001:5) which are most concerned with extracting knowledge. In response, most forms of participatory research aim to place people at the centre of research agendas.

Finally, Pain (2003) argues that ‘policy research’ might be traditionally seen as ‘top-down’ and ‘reactionary’ but it “can also be a viable strategy in critical action research” (655) (see also Pollard et al., 2000; Burgess, 2005). Many geographers do get involved in policy-oriented research (see for example Dorling et al. 2007; Parkinson, 2006; Pike and Tomany, 2008). Clearly, it is difficult to assess the impact of this kind of work on pushing policy in a more progressive direction and much of it remains inside the epistemic community of policy-makers and academics, rarely belonging to, or coming from, engagement with those affected on the ground.

The authors provide examples and go on to suggest seven principles towards a strategy for scholar activism:

Drawing upon more anarchist and libertarian socialist interpretations of collectivism (the acceptance of human interdependence and the belief that society will be bettered through the achievement of collective goals rather than individual aspirations, and the importance of the commons), for us there is a need to approach our working practices with more desire for horizontality in organisation, an emphasis upon sharing and co-operation, more consensual decision-making, an awareness of inherent unequal power relations, and finally a fundamental acceptance of freedom as individuals within a collective. It is upon these broad and ambiguous fundamentals that we wish to suggest seven principles towards a strategy for scholar activism.

    1. In and against the neo-liberal university
    2. Recognise the emancipatory potential of education, research and publications
    3. Create a global knowledge commons
    4. Be aware of our own action research footprint
    5. Organise ourselves into collective action networks
    6. Be the change we want to see
    7. Make collective strategic interventions which are accountable and relevant to social movements”