Saturday, March 14, 2015

Theory and practice: What academia offers the world of practice

In one of my recent posts, I discussed the overarching framework of Whiteness that shapes communication practice and the ways in which Whiteness lies at the heart of the prevalent norms of communication, civility, politeness, and interaction.

My post was misread as being racist by a senior industry practitioner who took my reference to Whiteness as a marker of racism, as an indicator that I was somehow racially marginalizing members of the White community. He cited his commitment to racial harmony to chastise me.

In such instances of disagreement, engaging in dialogue offers an opportunity for working through arguments, finding spaces of common grand and articulating spaces of departure.  In these instances of disagreements with practitioners who often have the economic power of the well-heeled purse-string or the enticement of the coveted industry partnerships, it is vital to revisit theorizing as the everyday practice of academia. Moreover, it is vital to look at such disagreements as creative points of conversation between theory and practice rather than simply caving in to the economic power of the practitioner.

The moments of departure between theory and practice hold much creative possibilities. However, to sustain such possibilities calls for active commitment of academics to understanding the nature of the academic mission, grasping the relationship between theory and practice, and committing to protecting the academic value of free speech.

I have usually found such instances to be incredibly powerful as they point toward the limits of conversation, suggesting the scope of dialogic possibilities and impossibilities. These disagreements are also the creative entry points for imagination.

I have also felt that such difference between theoretical frameworks and practices of communication are representative of broader gaps between the worlds of theory and practice. That an analysis of "Whiteness" might be seen as racism by a senior communication practitioner suggests the need for vital dialogue between theory and practice, especially because issues of race, gender, class and erasure lie at the heart of communication practice. These gaps also suggest that academic work remains incomplete in reaching out to the world of practice, in touching those spaces where such conversations are very much needed. Also, such gaps suggest the continued need of informing theory through practice, and guiding practice through theory.

The exchange presented above reminded me of the need for communication scholars to critically interrogate practice, but more importantly to work hard at finding avenues for sharing this work with practitioners with the goal of generating vital dialogue.

Our critical insights, without the connection to practice, do very little in impacting the nature of the world. The critical theorist, often hidden behind claims made in obscure journals, does little in impacting the world of practice. That the idea of "Whiteness" has little resonance with a practitioner means that the work of educating practice has to be taken seriously.

Unless as an academic I find entry points to have these conversations with practitioners, especially the tough conversations that work through disagreements, I am not really doing my job well. This means that one has to work hard to find those spaces for conversations and mutual education. Just as I expect to learn about the shifting nature of practice, as an academic, I need to learn to hold my ground so I can hold practitioners accountable to read academic work and to think through the value of this work. The commitment in other words has to be mutual.

Through a series of posts, I sought to engage the practitioner, working through descriptions of Whiteness, the meaning of Whiteness, and the ways in which White privilege plays out structurally in terms of shaping global norms, ideals, and aspirations.

I argued that rather than being an attack on an individual on the basis of race, Whiteness studies seek to document the ways in which taken-for-granted assumptions regarding what is normal and what is left out shape the normative structures of communication. The conversation was difficult but one we needed to have. Our job then as academics is to find the language through which we can open up spaces for such conversations.

Practitioners too have a great deal of responsibility to foster such spaces of dialogue.

In instances when the work of the academe pointing to racial, class-based, gender-based injustices percolates into the world of practice, making our practitioner colleagues uncomfortable, there are multiple opportunities for making an impact by creating the platforms for communication.

Now, practitioners, who often because of their success with economic resources, have the power over university decision-making processes to respond to these difficult conversations by wanting to silence them. These conversations can be difficult and therefore can easily be confused as being uncivil in tone, accompanied by the gut response among practitioners of wanting to censor such inconvenient conversations. This act of silencing is particularly the case for disenfranchised voices which have to break from the existing framework of communication in order to be heard. You have stories of donors and trustees, who after having been angered by a public comment of a faculty member at a University, have threatened to withdraw support from the university unless the faculty member is fired.

Such pressures exerted by practitioners who are in valuable positions in universities as trustees, donors, advisory board members etc. reflect a fundamental lack of understanding of academic culture with an openness for multiple competing discourses and arguments. Much like my earlier note about Whiteness, the conflation between Whiteness as a concept and the notion of my supposed racism emerges out of a lack of understanding of the academic idea of Whiteness.

In such instances, to cower to the pressures exerted by practitioners often on the basis of incomplete information and theoretically-uninformed gut responses is to sacrifice the very fundamentals of academe as spaces of critique and analysis. When university leaders bow to such pressures, they demonstrate their failure at leadership. Such acts of bowing down to donor pressure and trustee opinions demonstrate the lack of leadership, the lack of courage, and the lack of academic integrity.

As is demonstrated by communication research in the critical tradition, academe can indeed provide a valuable position of entry for practice. To enable the leadership role of academe in this conversation means that university leaders need to put their commitments behind notions of academic freedom. To enable these conversations, spaces need to be fostered actively.

These are also the precise moments of intervention for us as scholars of communication.

Pointing out the instances of communication manipulation, communicative inversions, and communicative erasure can offer points of engaging practice, suggesting pathways for imagining new forms of practice that creatively foster opportunities for working toward other worlds.

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