Saturday, March 30, 2013

Reluctant Promotions; Or, Informal Research on the Canadian Academy

Over the course of a recent fortnight, I used any time not otherwise committed to engage in a mind-numbing and potentially pointless task: I have gone through the web sites of pretty much every English-language university in Canada looking for faculty whose declared research and/or teaching interests connect in some way to my books, customizing for each a cover letter, printing that letter, addressing an envelope, and putting the letters plus a flyer for each book in said envelope, and then sending it. While there is lots of labour that fills the everyday lives of lots of people that is orders of magnitude less pleasant than this, I still had unaccustomed difficulty forcing myself through it, and I'm happy it's done. I sent somewhere between 200 and 250 packages.

Part of the difficulty was, as I said, serious doubts about how much point there is to it. There are a number of reasons for these doubts. One is a certain amount of knowledge of how academic work is organized -- the regular need to resist distraction in the face of multiple external demands means, for many academics, deliberately tuning out that which is of genuine interest to be better able to focus on that which has to be done. So even if I do find the right people, the vagaries of academic life mean there's a good chance these letters won't get any attention and will instead go straight into the blue box or be lost in chaotic piles of paper. And targeting based on interests declared on official web pages is at best an approximation. To make it all manageable, I confined myself to History, Political Science, and Sociology, plus interdisciplinary areas like Women's and Gender Studies, Canadian Studies, Labour Studies, and a few others, so I'm sure I missed appropriate people by excluding their departments. I think I had to do it this way to make the task manageable, but I'm sure I missed people because of it. As well, I think interest in my books is likely to correlate better with political sensibility than with scholarly interest, and that is close to impossible to gauge from most faculty profiles, so there will be plenty of false positives as well as an unknown number of false negatives. However, I did the first handful of these a few months ago and actually got a supportive email in response from a Labour Studies prof on the West coast. And a friend who is a Women's Studies prof said she gets a couple such letters a month and, if they are well targeted, she does act on them. So I have persevered.

This work has been, of course, a form of research. Not only was I locating and applying the very narrow form of information that was my primary target, but as a way to ease the boredom I was also observing and processing lots of other things along the way. And in so doing, I've come up with a handful of observations about Canadian universities. These observations don't form any kind of neat whole, so I'll present them as a list rather than trying to force them into a single story.

  • Humanities and social sciences departments hire shamefully few faculty of colour, on average. There are exceptions, including a couple of quite prominent departments at quite prominent institutions, but the whiteness of the Canadian academy, at least in the areas that I was inspecting, remains intense. It really illustrated for me one of the points made by Malinda Smith's essay in this collection -- though white women continue to face barriers and at times a rather chilly climate in Canadian universities, they have been the primary beneficiaries of strategies to dismantle barriers, while women and men of colour remain the "other Other" and continue to be excluded in much more profound ways.

  • It was interesting to see what kinds of departments brought together a high proportion of academics whose work would actually interest me. Note that this is quite a different question from how many should get promo packages -- some people who work on social movements really don't do much that interests me, and my interests extend far beyond what might make people potential recipients of information about my own recently published books. And the institutional location that most consistently presented the most interesting-to-me work by the highest proportion of members was Women's and Gender Studies departments. A couple of the more obviously left-leaning Labour Studies departments were not far behind but Labour Studies as a whole was much more mixed, given the emphasis in some departments on labour relations rather than labour-as-movement. Sociology and History departments always had a real mix -- not surprising, I think -- and Political Science departments almost always rated the lowest in interesting-to-me work. (Even the supposed marxist haven of York University's poli sci department actually contains far more people doing what appears to the non-initiate at least to be fairly conventional and not-super-interesting-to-me poli sci along with the cluster of marxists whose names are well known in certain circles. Not only that, but my enthusiasm for the brand of political economy that is most often produced by some of said lefties has its limits.) There was variation in Women's and Gender Studies as well -- on the positive end of that, I was surprised to find, for instance, how many members of that department at Queen's University I had already read and liked without realizing that's where any of them teach -- but for whatever reason, even the less interesting-to-me and more politically staid Women's Studies departments tended to have at least some members whose work caught my eye.

  • Getting this kind of overview of the work that gets done in Canadian universities reinforced my existing sense of the disciplinary boundaries and other aspects of the social organization of knowledge and its production in academic settings as arbitrary and weird. I know the arguments for having disciplines with continuity over time, and I can get behind at least some of them -- for instance, having agreed-upon standards and practices that are changed incrementally is one way to ensure that knowledge production is a collective, cumulative enterprise, and there are at least theoretically social benefits to doing that rather than having all knowledge production organized as a series of neoliberal and individualized ad-hoceries. I also can appreciate that however you organize such semi-stable traditions, there will be arbitrary aspects. That said, my own sensibility when it comes to both politics and knowledge production (are they even worth naming as separate things? :) ) is towards seeking connection, and towards broad acquisition and synthesis. And getting to take a bit of an overview and see some of those lines across which many academics would say, "Oh, well, that over there has nothing to do with me and my work" really made it clear to me that there are serious problems with how it all works in practice.

  • A much smaller proportion of the work that gets done, at least in the areas I was looking at, is truly as irrelevant to people's lives as populist objections to academic knowledge production usually claim. The connections are not always obvious or direct, and sometimes they are not at all good, but complete absence is not as ubiquitous as some people think. (And, anyway, I want to live in a world where pursuing something because it is beautiful or interesting is something open to anyone, so while I'm all for criticizing how universities use resources in a world in which so many people's lives are organized into exploitation, oppression, and need, I think we want to be strategic in how we do that.)

  • Another populist objection is that universities are overrun by radicals. This is, sadly, not true. The kernel of truth at the heart of this is that universities have developed ways of producing knowledge that are generally rule-based, which increasingly powerful right-wing politics of knowledge production exemplified by Fox News tend to object to on principle, and are often either already open to or can with struggle be opened to considering inputs that those right-wing politics of knowledge production would rather rule out of bounds on principle. Being rule-based and having a certain kind of openness are aspects that make academic knowledge production useful to capital and to the demands of ruling, so they are not easy for powerful institutions and interests to just dismiss. The rules and the shape and the limits, and particularly the institutional relations and practices in which all of them are embodied and enacted, often have serious problems with them, when considered from the perspective of movements seeking justice and liberation, but the very fact of being rule-based and having a certain kind of openness provides openings for struggle. The right would rather not allow even those openings. All of that said, the actual proportion of knowledge production that happens in universities that you might describe as "critical" remains a fairly small proportion. And much of what is nominally critical sounds radical but is actually pretty ungrounded so it is not in and of itself threatening to established interests. I think much of that class of knowledge can, with work, be reappropriated and reformulated in ways that are more directly useful to movements, but far too little of it already, in and of itself, serves the kinds of radical goals that its internal rhetoric might claim. And the proportion of academically produced knowledge that is already both critical and grounded is quite tiny.

  • A very significant proportion of the knowledge production that happens in universities happens in the service of ruling. Which isn't to endorse the blanket rejection of anything with any connection to the academy as irrevocably tainted, which you sometimes run across -- there is still the "critical and grounded" and "critical but ungrounded" material, and even some of the knowledge that is produced in the service of ruling can be reapporpriated and reoformulated for just and liberatory ends. And choices about how to relate to at least some of the knowledge produced in the service of ruling is complicated by the fact that much of it happens in the name of a kind of top-down version of societal "helping" that mixes ruling in with the allocation of certain sorts of social goods to meet real human needs. But it is still ruling. Even with those provisos, however, the involvement of academics in projects of ruling (many, I would bet, without any real appreciation that this is what they are doing) is extensive and depressing.

  • Finally, in line with a number of the other points above, this exercise has, for me, affirmed my conviction of the need for much greater support for knowledge production grounded in movements, including that which is committed to building movement-useful knowledge from the ground up but also academic and community-based knowledge production that is open to "steal[ing] from the university" -- work that will "abuse [the academy's] hospitality" and be "in but not of it" (from here).

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