Most academic conversations about the relationship between scholarship and activism begin with the assumption that connections between the two are good. This assumption is particularly prevalent in fields of study formed by social movements of the 1960s and 1970s—race and ethnic studies; women’s, gender, and sexuality studies; and migration and diaspora studies. But this assumption can lead one to overlook how connection to action outside the academy has also gained the status of common sense in an array of academic fields and even among university administrators. Although progressives, including progressive students, are often concerned about a potential “gap” between academic and activist work, we also need to take into account the ways in which the university makes use of certain forms of “real world” activity—for example, through rubrics of civic engagement and service-learning. Particularly in the contemporary university, with increasing bureaucratic concern for accountability, building links between academic and real-world undertakings is not only possible, it is made imperative by administrators, trustees, and regents.
In the contemporary academy, where the connections between the university and governance are being tightened through imperatives like “effectiveness,” academic institutions may well seek out connections to activist practice that is similarly focused on governance.1 In the name of community service, for example, students participate in programs where they learn to manage the lives of those without access to college education. The connections between academia and governance are relatively direct in fields like policy studies or economics, but fields associated with social movements may face conundrums in the current climate. If academics focus on critique as a form of knowledge or make connections to activists who are critical of governance, they may be accused of failing to be effective. Yet, as this forum makes clear, collaboration with the university can incorporate activist-intellectual projects into “the governance structures of a settler academy” (Scott Lauria Morgensen) and/or have a “depoliticizing effect” (Mara Kaufman), and/or enmesh activist projects within “the mighty forces of academia’s individualism and its participation in [End Page 827] ongoing imperialism, neoliberalism, and genocide” (Aimee Carrillo Rowe).
How to avoid these traps is a particularly acute question for fields of study (whether disciplinary or interdisciplinary) grounded in the humanities and humanistic social sciences where critique can be a primary focus. Sometimes the choices seem particularly stark—either the distortion of both academic and activist pursuits by the imperatives of govenmentality, on one side, or utter irrelevance, on the other.
There are potential ways to navigate this dilemma. Here I propose an approach that can preserve and build on the power of critique valued in humanistic circles, even as activist-academic collaborations contribute to both knowledge and action. The Barnard Center for Research on Women (BCRW) has worked for the past several years on collaborative projects with community-based activist organizations in New York City. Some of the leaders of these projects had a chance to reflect on activist and academic work in a recent panel discussion at Barnard, including Ai-jen Poo of the National Domestic Workers’ Association; the activist dancer and choreographer Sydnie Mosley, who created the Harlem-based “Window Sex Project”; Amber Hollibaugh of Queers for Economic Justice; and Ana Oliveira of the New York Women’s Foundation, which provided grants to seventeen community-based organizations for a citywide project on reproductive justice.
As Sydnie says in the discussion, academic research and resources can provide helpful supports to developing activist and artistic work, providing materials necessary to “create the new” as Ana puts it. The resultant projects avoid certain dangers (while doubtless encountering others) by moving across various boundaries: intermixing advocacy and critique, the empirical and the humanistic, as well as academic and activist knowledge production—sometimes “using” academic knowledge in activist pursuits and sometimes synthesizing knowledge produced in activist settings.
For example, Amber spoke of the “Desiring Change” project, which started with a problem in organizing: why does desire keep dropping out of organizing projects, even projects that explicitly intend to connect desire to multiple issues? Amber’s point here is not about LGBTIQ people per se but about desire, including both erotic desire(s) and desire for...