Open Scholarship As Intellectual Activism

VCU Open Access Talk

In March, I participated on a panel on open scholarship at Virginia Commonwealth University.  I was invited because of my use of blogging to make academic knowledge more accessible, and being fairly visible as a scholar on social media in general.  In my presentation, I introduced the concept of intellectual activism and spoke about the risks associated with such work, particularly for marginalized scholars.  You can see the text from my talk below.

Open Scholarship as Intellectual Activism

Progress has been made toward making academic research, knowledge, and resources accessible to the broader public.  This is a great cause. It is certainly a matter of justice and equality.  Ironically, a number of scholars – particularly those from marginalized communities themselves (women, people of color, LGBT people) – cannot or are hesitant to participate in the move toward open access.  However, many scholars, particularly marginalized scholars, participate in a different form of open scholarship: intellectual activism.  My primary aim is to introduce what intellectual activism is, what it looks like, and some of the benefits and risks of this kind of open scholarship.

“Professors, We Need You!”

I want to start by sharing an op-ed by Nicholas Kristof in the New York Times, entitled “Professors, We Need You!”   Kristof argues that scholars are irrelevant, or at least not as relevant as we should be, to important national debates, policy-making, etc.  Academic disciplines have become too specialized.  Some are too left-leaning.

A basic challenge is that Ph.D. programs have fostered a culture that glorifies arcane unintelligibility while disdaining impact and audience.  This culture of exclusivity is then transmitted to the next generation through the publish-or-perish tenure process.  Rebels are too often crushed or driven away.

I think that he raises an important concern, albeit supported by some problematic claims.  But, his characterization of scholars’ efforts to engage the broader public fails to give us enough credit.

 “Open” Research

There is evidence of open scholarship on each of the three major tasks of every academic’s career: research, teaching, service.  The primary meaning of open access is to making published articles freely accessible to the general public, most likely online.  Some progress has been made on this front.  There have recent developments in my own discipline, Sociology, including the creation of Sociological Science, an independent open-access journal, and a new open access journal that the American Sociological Association will soon launch.

One weakness of this approach is that open access does not necessarily translate into accessibility.  As Kristof pointed out, there is a great deal of academic writing that cannot be understood by most people outside of academia, possibly scholars’ own discipline, or even their subdiscipline. I share each new publication with my parents – keeping up the practice since I was finger-painting in kindergarten.  Some articles they understand, and can either comment or ask questions, and to others they just smile and say “good job.”  In the latter case, I am sure they haven’t a clue what the article is about.  My point here is that even passing out free copies of the latest issue of American Sociological Review, the top journal in my field, would do little to advance open access.

“Open” Teaching

On the teaching side of open access, there are a number of scholars who advance open scholarship as a means of educating the broader public.  This may be actually explaining one’s research in understandable language, rather than simply making one’s publications available.  Others, for example, maintain blogs through which they explain difficult academic concepts and theories in accessible terminology.

I blogged for the Kinsey Institute for five years, as a graduate student at Indiana University.  The site offers short, accessible posts on sexual health and the latest research on sex and sexuality.  There are other scholars who maintain blogs that serve almost as an introductory course, in the form of blogs.   But, often connect to current events to keep the content relevant.

In addition to blogging, a number of scholars use Twitter, sometimes using a hashtag (e.g., #SaturdaySchool) to advance accessible teaching.  Using #SaturdaySchool, several scholars will decide on a topic to discuss, and, essentially as a conversation, you have multiple perspectives on one issue.  Again, the issue remains regarding who can afford to pursue these efforts.  Many of these sites are maintained either by tenured professors, or professors at liberal arts institutions where such work may hold greater value – maybe as teaching, but most likely as a form of service.

Intellectual Activism

Finally, one can be “open” as a scholar as a component of academic service.  But, my own personal interest here is in using it for community service and advocacy.  There are debates about public scholarship within sociology that come and go.  In late 1990s, a push for public sociology was revived by Dr. Michael Buroway, which he advanced during his tenure as president of American Sociological Association.  More recently, Dr. Patricia Hill Collins, a sociology professor at University of Maryland and former president of ASA, published a book on intellectual activism.  Collins defines intellectual activism as “the myriad of ways that people place the power of their ideas in the service to social justice.”  At the heart of this is the inseparable connection between activism and scholarship.

There are two components of intellectual activism.  First, one may speak truth to power: “this form of truth telling uses the power of ideas to confront existing power relations.”  This is done by developing alternative frameworks for investigating social inequality – challenging dominant and mainstream approaches that overlook certain aspects of social inequality and certain oppressed communities.  Collins’s own scholarship has advanced a perspective to interrogate the intersections among systems of oppression like racism, sexism, classism, and heterosexism, rather than viewing each axis in isolation from the others.  And, such intellectual activism is done within academia.  The second component of intellectual activism is to speak truth to the people – speaking truth directly to the people.  Collins notes, “such truth-telling requires talking, reason, honesty, love, courage, and care.”  This is real engagement, be it virtual or face-to-face, with members of the community.

There are various ways in which scholars may engage in or pursue intellectual activism, some of which blur into a broader online presence; some blur both components of intellectual activism.  As I have already noted, some scholars work to make research findings accessible.  But, not simply to make publications available; rather, they actually make the content understandable in terms of language, and made relevant to the lives of laypeople.  Beyond one’s publications, intellectual activism can entail making academic knowledge in general accessible and understandable.  It can also serve as a vehicle for social justice advocacy, to empower disadvantaged communities, criticize injustice and oppressive practices, and provide commentary on current events.

Intellectual Activism To Change Academia

Beyond serving the general public, or specific communities outside of academia, scholars’ openness – namely use of blogs, Twitter, Facebook, and other forms of social media – can serve as a form of advocacy within academia.  There are many examples of online sources of advice and resources for scholars.   For some, social media can be used to foster scholarly communities; for example, the #ScholarSunday hastag on Twitter, created by Dr. Raul Pacheco-Vega.  Or, it can be used to advocate for change to academic cultures, practices, and norms.

Last summer, I created this blog, specifically for marginalized scholars, where I and guest bloggers write about experiences of discrimination, isolation, and harassment, and offer critique of policies and practices within academia that hinder the careers of marginalized academics. A number of similar sites exist. Some bloggers criticize the adjunctification and corporatization of academia.

Other bloggers aim to increase transparency about experiences and injustices in academia. For example, in October, two women scholars wrote publicly about being sexually harassed by editorial staff at Scientific American.  Dr. Danielle Lee, a Black woman biologist, wrote about an exchange in which she turned down an invitation to be a guest blogger because she would not be compensated.  The editor responded: “Because we don’t pay for blog entries? Are you an urban scientist or an urban whore?” She wrote about it on her blog, Urban Biologist. And, Monica Bryne, a writer and playwright, wrote on her blog about being sexually harassed by the editor of Scientific American, Bora Zivckovic.  Other women subsequently came forward about being harassed by him.  This brought about a bigger online conversation about sexual harassment and gender discrimination in the sciences.

Risks Of Intellectual Activism

Collins notes that demands placed on academics have made this kind of open scholarship a luxury in light of the professional risk – a concern that other scholar have raised, as well.  Unfortunately, some of these risks are either heightened for or unique to marginalized scholars.

First, open access publishing may not “count” professionally as much as publishing in traditional journals.  At best, this is seen as form of academic service, or a personal hobby.  Too much of it, particularly if one does not have the research or teaching record to “compensate” for it, may cost you.  For marginalized scholars, as well as those doing research that remains at the margins of their discipline, open access publishing is an opportunity they cannot afford to pursue.  Let me make explicit here that inequality exists in academia – too often, in the form of discrimination.  So, these scholars often have to work much harder than their privileged colleagues to receive the same rewards like tenure.

This is captured in a blog post, published in August, by Dr. Isis (a pseudonym), a Latina woman tenure-track professor of biology, on her blog – Isis the Scientist.  She pushes back against the increasing pressure to publish in open access journals because such publications may not count as much toward tenure.

Larger than the open access warz, I feel I have a moral responsibility to increase the access to science careers for women and minorities.  I can’t hold the door open for those folks unless I am standing on the other side of it.  That means getting tenure and if someone tells me that I can get closer to those goals by forgoing Open Access for a round or two, I’m going to do it.

She concludes:

To paint Open Access as the greatest moral imperative facing science today condescendingly dismisses the experiences many of the rest of us are having.

This links to my opening comments, that the very initiative to address inequality through open scholarship may actually be having the opposite effect in the absence of institutional rewards and support for open access publishing.  It is too risky for some of us.

Second, there is little institutional reward and support, and it varies by school and department.  There are some instances of blocking scholars’ social media use, or sanctioning it.Earlier this year, the International Studies Association considered a proposal to bar members of editorial boards for ISA journals from blogging, unless it was for the journal.  But, ultimately the organization tabled this proposal.  In addition, Kansas University has adopted a policy regarding social media use in which faculty, including tenured faculty, may be terminated for “improper use” of social media.  This includes any use deemed contrary to the best interest of the university, or that impairs discipline by superiors or harmony among co-workers.  This was passed by the KU board of regents in December without faculty input, eliciting intense criticism that this reflects a threat to academic freedom.

Third, online presence opens scholars up to criticism, hostility, even harassment and threats.  Unfortunately, this is particularly true for scholars of color and women scholars.  Given the professional and personal risks, many scholars use pseudonyms online.  But, even then, they run the risk of being “outed.”  Dr. Isis, whom I mentioned earlier, was outed by Henry Gee, an editor at Nature magazine, with whom Dr. Isis has had a long feud.

Concluding Thoughts

Scholars’ online presence is quite common.  But, academic institutions lag in rewarding and supporting online scholarship.  Open access is a great direction, but at the moment it is not a one-size-fits-all opportunity for scholars; and, there are multiple ways to be “open.”  The reality is, a scholar can still remain “traditional,” staying behind paywalls and be successful professionally.

I encourage those advancing open access scholarship to be critical of the uneven and, in some cases, unequal, advancement of such initiatives.  But, I am a bit pessimistic that, even as institutions begin to value and support open scholarship, intellectual activism will remain seen as something outside of traditional academic work, and thus unsupported and stigmatized.

12 thoughts on “Open Scholarship As Intellectual Activism

  1. Thanks so much for the shout-out, Eric:)

    Like

  2. Thank you for this. I’m an early career academic just entering this valuable space: thank you again.

    Like

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