Friday, July 13, 2018

Claims to social justice and academic life



Let's consider this narrative account:

Thanuja left her long cherished position as an Administrative Manager in an academic department because the harassment she was being subjected to by a clique of academics was becoming untenable. She had held this job for a decade and knew her job well. Her colleagues enjoyed working with her because they trusted her competence and assertiveness. Faculty members relied on her for getting things done.

Things quickly changed when the clique started coming in and forming itself. The clique felt that a non-academic should not have so much say. It was threatening to see the degree of trust Thanuja enjoyed. She had to be cut to size and shown her position as a non-academic.

Threatening emails. Insults couched as instruction. Insults in face-to-face meetings. Public shaming. Shouting at Thanuja, and taking turns shouting. Reminding her she is not an academic.

The everyday stress was taking a toll on her body.

The academics would come in like a pack of wolves ready for the hunt, subjecting her to various forms of insults, calling her names, telling her she is incompetent, and accusing her of fabricating things. They would perform as if in a well-rehearsed play, with the script being mapped out, finding various phrases and scenarios to insult her.

Thanuja found herself in a situation where she could not breathe and the very idea of going to work suffocated her. The stress of the harassment was moving through the fabric of her cells. She shared these accounts with the Head of College Administration. She even filed a complaint, which took all her energy to do.

The academics who were carrying out the attacks on Thanuja called themselves social justice scholars, and made careers out of writing about social justice. Other academics who watched this scenario unfold called themselves Cultural Studies scholars. Yet other academics who silently observed these everyday harassments were Critical Theorists.

Thanuja's account is not so unfamiliar for many of us in academe.

Our theorization of social justice, activism, social change is often so deeply separated from our everyday practices in academe that we don't pause to consider the everyday contexts of the oppressions we participate in and perpetuate.

In other instances, the performance of the social justice position simply becomes a branding strategy, a strategy of self promotion, far removed from our everyday interactions. We live this lie so deeply that we seduce ourselves into believing the jargon we spout while participating in these very forms of everyday oppression.

A great starting point for social justice scholarship is to reflect upon the immediate context of our everyday life in academia. The mistreatment of non-academics by academics and the protection of their own class interests by academics is a critical site of intervention for social justice work.

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