I’ve learned the hard way how the world of academia treats folks who break its unwritten covenants. The ones that say accept all of our strictures about what to publish, how to write, when to write it, about tenured/tenure-streamed vs. non-tenured, adjuncts and graduate student TAs and unionization, among so many others. Those of us who make trouble, who question the archaic wisdom of those in our world, are often cast out, rendered invisible or otherwise completely forgotten about.
The funny thing about going against the grain of academia — or at least, my fields of US/African American history and American education/ed policy — has been that criticism can serve as a better sign of acceptance than hearing nothing at all. It was like this for me in grad school at Pitt and Carnegie Mellon, and even my first five years after finishing my doctorate. Whenever someone said that my work on multiculturalism and Black history was “interesting,” the flatness with which a professor or grad student said “interesting” was the key for me. If the “interesting” was completely flat, it meant “but I completely disagree with your line of research” or “this thing is too simplistic and boring for me as a scholar to get excited about.” If the “interesting” had a lilt to it or even a slightly raised eyebrow, it meant that one of my colleagues or more senior folk really found my work intriguing.
That term “interesting” was my indication that some people acknowledged and understood the importance of my work, and that some absolutely couldn’t and wouldn’t. But over the past decade, as I’ve complained about the nature of academic writing, about the limits of scholarship and about the changing nature of academia itself (from a hiring perspective), the one thing I’ve noticed the most has been academia’s silence. The collective silence has been deafening, so much so that I finally concluded it meant not only disagreement, but a shunning as well. Like the Amish, only without the Rumspringa.
I had fleeting moments when I noticed the silence, like at my second OAH presentation in Los Angeles in ’01 on Black women intellectuals and multiculturalism. Even though my research was sound, I knew I needed to work on drawing clearer connections between how I’d been defining intellectual and connecting it with notions of cultural pluralism, and thus, multiculturalism. With forty people in the audience, and with thirty-five minutes of Q and A, no one asked me a single question. No one in the audience, it seemed, was interested in multiculturalism or historical contributions to the idea from Anna Julia Cooper, Zora Neale Hurston, Mary Church Terrell or anyone else.
I noticed even more as I submitted my first book Fear of a “Black” America for publication with the university presses prior to ’04. At least with the likes of Praeger and Farrar, Straus & Giroux, I’d frequently get a detailed response, good and bad. But with the university presses, it was deadly silence. I guess me working full-time in the nonprofit world and only teaching ed foundation courses part-time was one of my deficits.
The final set of hints of silence that came my way was in the year after I published Fear of a “Black” America. I decided in ’05 to write an article on the overuse of the term scholar-activist, an article I published in Academe Magazine that fall. Grad students tended to like it, activists outside of academia have cited it hundreds of times, and my immediate circle of friends in academia loved it. But my relevant fields within academia remained silent about it. They were silent about my argument that exercising academic freedom doesn’t automatically make one an activist, and that academic writing, even writings that lean hard to the left, don’t make an academician an activist either.
I realize then I had evolved as a writer to the point where I wasn’t just uncomfortable with academic writing, the tenure process and the lack of unionization for adjuncts and grad students — I’d been uncomfortable for years. No, I wanted a teaching, even administrative relationship with higher education for sure, but not one where all of my eggs were in the academic writing basket. Unlike Joshua Rothman’s grand assumption in his “Why Is Academic Writing So Academic?” piece in last week’s New Yorker, that “[p]rofessors live inside that system [of academic writing] and have made peace with it,” I have not and will not make peace with this. Ever.
I think Nicholas Kristof is a hack, and that most of the columnists of The New York Times are hacks as well. But in knowing the sadistic silence of academia as well as I do, I also know that this world of higher education can and does grind many of its participants up, often without making the slightest sound. It’s a wonder that I’m still teaching and writing anything at all.