- No Bubble:Contemporary Lives in the African Academy
We all know the power of the maxim "The personal is political." It freed a whole generation of feminists—the generation that Professor Kerber describes in her piece—from fighting every battle over demeaning, discriminatory, and exploitative practices in the home or workplace, alone. It meant that theoretical frameworks could be applied to help people discern the often-invisible operations of asymmetrical social power in their lives. And once delineated, strategies could be devised which would help to counter that power.
The upshot of Professor Kerber's article is that there is a further step: "The personal is professional." Women scholars generally seem to be confronted by this more than are the bulk of their male counterparts, as women are still the shock troops on the front lines of personal and family logistics. Two concepts are woven into "the personal is professional." First, one's personal life is always actually inextricably intertwined with the content and direction of one's scholarship. Second, when university administrators acknowledge the first point through workplace structures that allow the inevitable personal and family challenges that arise in adult lives to be addressed as challenges and not exotic obstacles, they facilitate excellent scholarship. Professor Kerber rightly points out that academics will have to bravely take risks to bring their institutions around to acknowledging and acting positively upon these concepts.
The risks should not be belittled; but then the rewards of being able to fuse one's personal and professional lives should also be acknowledged. Nancy Richards's Angles of Reflection: Logic and a Mother's Love is an example of the intellectual excitement and power that can be generated by such a fusion—in the context of tremendous personal and professional risk.1 It examines in detail the way that her scholarship and her life as an academic were transformed through the experience of dealing with her son's serious illnesses. By thinking about herself as a parent and an intellectual, whole realms of enquiry were opened into the subject of her academic work—an intellectual biography of a nineteenth-century mathematician. Richards is subjected to something like the maelstrom of personal emotion and dogged search for a scientific paradigm that may help heal her son that is portrayed by Susan Sarandon in the 1992 film Lorenzo's Oil. Of course, Sarandon's character is not an academic; but she delves into esoteric and difficult research to find an answer to her son's illness. Richards similarly has to learn [End Page 133] to be the mother of a child whose brain tumor and broken bones involve challenging both orthodox treatment and the rigid patriarchies of professional medicine. Any mother who has had to face off against the medical establishment will understand how asking questions can simultaneously be so empowering and exposing. But Richards came to a new and more multifaceted view of mathematical enquiry through the development of her maternal lens, and vice versa. Her book presents a wonderful picture of both: fused, complete.
As an academic based for the past twenty-three years on the African continent, I think that there is a further element here to the personal–political–professional conceptual trajectory for male and female academic staff. And that is, "The personal is national and international." When I have worked in U.S. institutions, there was a strong sense of the boundaries of the campus being stable and relatively impermeable—almost as strong as the inner, rigid structures of the academy. In a sense, academics lived in a bubble—which, certainly, many chose to leave, tried to puncture, or built bridges out of. National politics sent tentacles—and now increasingly strongly—into the university, to be sure. But there was a buffer zone between "out there" and "in here." And international power shifts and struggles were, in every sense, far away—a mention perhaps confined to page 5 of the campus newspaper.
But in the African academy, there is no bubble and there are no buffer zones.2 Academics are not just confronted by personal and professional challenges. Sometimes it feels like every national political and international financial shock reverberates...