Academics Step Outside The Ivory Tower To Enact Social Change

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There's some redemptive work in pulling up the stories of people who have been silenced. That is activism.

On February 15, 2014, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof published the op-ed “Professors, We Need You,” calling on academics to publicize their knowledge as a catalyst for social change. “Some of the smartest thinkers on problems at home and around the world are university professors, but most of them just don’t matter in today’s great debates,” he lamented.

In response, scholars took to social media and the blogosphere to defend themselves against Kristof’s characterization of professors as cloistered “like medieval monks.” Through the hashtag #EngagedAcademics, scholars shared and continue to share, the myriad ways they use their expertise to expand public discourse and promote social justice. 

Some academics refer to their efforts to educate the public about various social issues as “intellectual activism” or “public sociology.” Rhonda Ragsdale, an Associate Professor of History at Lone Star College who runs the virtual Twitter teach-in #SaturdaySchool, created the Black Towns Project to document historically black towns, and gives regular talks and workshops on topics like microaggressions, calls her work “social justice education.” 

“When I started my grad program at UNT [University of North Texas], I told the advisor that I wanted to be a historian activist, and she said, ‘that's not really a thing . . . it's fine if you want to be an activist and a historian, but there's not really a place for that’ . . . but I realized that was just her opinion."

Ragsdale succeeded in combining her academic life with activism by researching self-segregated black communities that had been omitted from history, which grew into the Black Towns Project. "There's some redemptive work in pulling up the stories of people who have been silenced. That is activism,” she said.

As she received more and more education, Ragsdale found it unfair that not everyone had the time or money to learn about the ideas that had impacted her so deeply. “Why can't other people have this information?” she wondered. So, she set out to change that.

Through the #SaturdaySchool teach-in, Ragsdale and her guest hosts engage in another form of activism by giving everyone with Internet or a smartphone access to academic concepts. Topics of the weekly, all-inclusive conversation have included sexual shame, police brutality, and bullying. Ragsdale said someone emails her nearly every week to tell her how Saturday School exposed them to a new point of view or validated their own perspective. The online event even inspired one man who had not received education past the fifth grade to go to college. 

Lisa Wade, Associate Professor and Chair of the Sociology Department at Occidental College, similarly inspires people outside of academia to engage in intellectual conversations through her blog, Sociological Images, along with many other writing and speaking engagements. You may have come across some of Sociological Images’s viral posts, such as one comparing “Blurred Lines” lyrics to words used by rapists.

Rather than identifying as an activist herself, Wade appreciates her work’s potential to facilitate activism by giving people data and paradigms they can reference to back up their positions on social justice issues. She said she likes to picture her students going home during Thanksgiving and convincing conservative relatives that racism exists, for example.

Wade has seen some very concrete changes as a result of her work, such as Abercrombie Kids pulling a push-up bikini top from its website after she posted about the product as an example of the sexualization of girls. 

Some academics are inciting concrete changes by working directly with nonprofits and the government. Pam Oliver, Professor of Sociology at the University of Wisconsin, began researching racial disparities in arrest and imprisonment when she volunteered to help put on a forum on prison issues. “I started using my sociological skills to look up why people were in prison and what the rates were, and I realized how bad Wisconsin was,” she said. 

Since then, she has presented her research to numerous government and community organizations and served on several nonprofit and advisory boards to rectify these disparities. Now, her work is widely cited among both policymakers and academics to establish the existence of racism in the criminal justice system and compare this problem in different states.

While Oliver’s activist work informed her academic research, David Lisak, formerly an Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of Massachusetts in Boston, left academia to focus entirely on his roles as a forensic consultant, trainer, and lecturer on sexual assault. 

While Lisak was still a professor, lawyers involved in sexual assault cases would contact him regarding his research on the motivations and impact of sexual abuse. Though there was an enormous amount of research being done on the issue, Lisak noticed “there was almost no awareness of it for law enforcement and prosecutors. To do all this research and see that it was not being used where it needed to be used really drove my motivation to do my applied work.” 

On college campuses and through news outlets like NPR, Lisak still uses his academic background to educate the public about sexual assault. He has been training the investigative services within the U.S. military on sexual assault cases for over 12 years, during which he has seen enormous improvements in the investigations. He also is the President and a founding member of 1in6, an organization to help men who have been sexual assault victims.

Universities have a responsibility to apply their research, Lisak said, and this application enhances the jobs of academics: “Stepping out of the office and putting the research they have accumulated to use in the world adds an enormous element to their lives, to the meaning of their work.”

Ragsdale also believes that sharing her knowledge is part of her responsibility as an academic. "I have been given a lot of information, and I believe when much is given much is required,” she said. 

“I see ‘professor’ as a social role, not just a job. We have access to information other people don't have, and it is our responsibility to pass that information along—especially when our silence maintains injustice, which it frequently does."

At the same time, Oliver pointed out that not all academics can do social justice work when they’re worried about keeping their jobs and getting tenure. “It's sort of unrealistic to expect capitalistic institutions to pay you to dismantle capitalism. The academy is inherently an elitist hierarchical structure,” she said.  

Even when academics are working tirelessly to publicize their knowledge, many wish more of these processes were built into universities themselves. The shortage of public academic knowledge is “not out of disinterest,” said Wade. “I think it's just that colleges are wearing a lot of different hats already and people haven't figured out how to communicate with the public about research, and we don't know exactly whose job that is.”

Yet despite these limitations, and despite claims like Kristof’s about the self-enclosure of the Ivory Tower, academics are engaged—and if it seems like they’re not making a difference, maybe it’s because we need to engage back. 

“This is how know-it-alls and smarty pants grow up,” Ragsdale described her line of work. “The first time I got called a know-it-all, I thought, ‘If you would listen, you'd know it all too.’"

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