What is the End Game?: Moving Academics Out of the Ivory Tower

Cherise Charleswell | Education | Analysis | December 21st, 2017

As I sat on the panel for a session entitled, " Where Ebony Meets Ivory: From the Tower to the Streets (Towards a Critical Race Theory in Activism) " during the 2017 National Women's Studies Conference, I found myself asking the attendees this question. Unlike myself, an independent scholar and practitioner, they were mostly academics -- tenured faculty, adjunct, post-docs, and those trying to get their feet into the door of the Ivory Tower.

We discussed the irony of wanting to be a part of and completely beholden to the very institutions that their research and work focused on as being problematic. But, hey- folks have to eat right?

With my own professional background that involves working in biomedical and public health research, I find myself perplexed, annoyed, and frustrated with academia when it comes to the humanities, and related fields. See, those working in STEM research do so with an End Game in sight - and that is to develop a compound, drug, device, method, or intervention that will eventually go to market and be used to improve the lives or health outcomes of the public. That is the point of clinical research, that it is moved from "bench to market." The End Game for public health looks quite similar - conduct research in order to design programs, projects, and interventions that address an identified need. Now, I must admit that raking in profits is also another motivating factor, with the great irony that many of these companies that bring things to the commercial market are often making use of research developments that were funded by the public and distributed through federal grants, from agencies such as The National Institutes of Health.

Anyhow, my annoyance with the humanities (and I say this as someone who studied cultural anthropology as an undergrad) is that I truly lack the patience to theorizing in absence of action. Once again, when the germ theory was developed (first proposed by Girolamo Fracastoreo in 1546, expanded upon by Marcus von Plenciz in 1762, and later revolutionized and standardized by the work of Louis Pasteur and Robert Koch), it helped to revolutionize public health and led to vaccinations and anti-microbial medicines that have greatly benefitted humankind. Imagine if these leading scientists decided to simply spend the next few centuries theorizing, speaking in round, and never applying their knowledge. It is a reason why I wrote the article Feminism is Not Just for Academics: Overcoming Disconnect and Division , and made a point of asserting that feminist activism cannot rely on academics.

As more humanities courses, whether ethnic studies, women/gender studies, sociology, and others come under attack and go on the "chopping block" -- as was the case at the University of Wisconsin Superior, where 25 of these programs have been suspended - it is imperative to demonstrate their relevance, and much of that relies on application of scholarship. Showing how the knowledge that has been curated is actually being put to use to impact society, change dialogues, guide policy development, design interventions, and help to ensure that funding is correctly directed.

Simply stated, there is absolutely no value in research and theories if none of this information reaches the groups that were studied or whom the theoretical framework applies to, or society as a whole. There is no value in research that points out problems, but offers no insight or recommendations on how they may be counterbalanced, and there is certainly no value in research that only serves the purpose of ensuring that another person earns the right to put large letters behind their last name.

These points should especially resonate with scholars who come from minority or marginalized racial/ethnic/religious backgrounds; those who should be able to produce knowledge that betters or addresses the conditions that members of their racial/ethnic/religious group are subjected to. Historian, author, journalist and the founder of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, Carter G. Woodson, said it best with the following statement: " The large majority of the Negroes who have put on the finishing touches of our best colleges are all but worthless in the development of their people."

But being worthless is apparently what is being taught, encouraged, and reinforced to academics. In response to my question during that NWSA session, my co-panelist turned to me and said, "There is no end game." She shared with the audience words of guidance imparted on her by a senior faculty in the sociology department. He tried to throw shade by calling her an applied sociologist, and reiterated that she should focus more on publishing. He also finished with stating the following: " If my work ever reaches or is used by the public, that is fine, but that is not my focus, or concern ."

A number of scholars have pointed out why this problem of meaningless and inactive research persists: it is due to the fact that the institutions dictate that they focus on publishing and doing nothing. It is an insidious cycle -- where the research and the employment of faculty is often being funded through donations and major grants by those who actually have a stake in ensuring that the social ills described in all of this research never go away. And by focusing on theorizing, not acting - academics do not have to worry about biting the hands that literally feed them. The neoliberal academy often shares the same supporters as the politicians in Washington, D.C. and state houses across the U.S., and there lies the problem. It is why academics are unable to include a vision of an "end game."

The Hampton Institute, a working-class think tank, was actually established with this End Game in mind. Building a community for inquiry, knowledge creation, discourse and networking - are the purpose of this organization, because we realize that it is these tenets, along with accessibility, that have always made it possible to create social change. While a university education is a recent privilege for many, it was not always something that was accessible to most Americans, particularly prior to the 1944 GI Bill. Intellectualism has always been something that was respected. People read novels, newspapers, foreign books translated to English, wrote poetry and entries into journals, and even developed what is now known as town halls in order to share or debate their understanding of pressing social issues.

The Hampton Institute (HI) harkens back and takes direction from this era and other subsequent social movements - Civil Rights, women's rights, and so on. As stated on our About Us page, the organization was "founded with the purpose of giving a platform to everyday, working-class people to theorize, comment, analyze and discuss matters that exist outside the confines of their daily lives, yet greatly impact them on a daily basis. The organization was named after former Black Panther, Fred Hampton, and also cites inspiration from Italian Marxist theorist, Antonio Gramsci, as well as educator and philosopher, Paulo Freire. In order to remain consistent with its working-class billing, the HI seeks out, as well as aims to develop, organic intellectuals within the working class; both in the US as well as internationally." Further, we are "dedicated to not only providing commentary, theoretical analysis, and research on a wide range of social, political, and economic issues from a distinct working-class perspective; but also to focusing on the continuation of transforming these ideas into practical steps towards revolutionary social change."

It is imperative that in this era of anti-intellectualism we show the importance of inquiry and knowledge-creation. There is no greater reminder that there is a need for applying this knowledge and engaging in activism than the current state of affairs that has left many adjuncts impoverished , overworked, and under-valued . Some adjuncts are even dealing with homelessness and have turned to sex work . It is just a reminder to academics that they should be loyal to the working class and not the plutocracy.