Be vital. Be involved.

I have spent quite a bit of time thinking about this Gerald Berreman quote from a recent Savage Minds post:

“Our professional obligation is to present what we know and the inferences we draw from our knowledge as clearly, thoughtfully, and responsibly as we can. This is a value position with practical and humane consequences and with scientific legitimacy.

His call to be vital and involved has me thinking about what our professional obligation is as anthropologists (and perhaps scholars in general). This preoccupation started in earnest a few months ago, when I went to see Michelle Alexander speak about The New Jim Crow. While the talk was fascinating, equal parts enraging and inspiring, I have spent the most time since that event thinking about the question and answer session. 

To be honest, I only really remember one woman, who identified herself as a member of the community. She told us how her son, after fooling around with some of his friends in a local park, was arrested and detained without bail or concrete charges. How she went to visit him in this facility and saw a room full of black boys ages 18-25. How when the bail was set, it was so high she had to mortgage both her house and her parents’ to pay the fine. She was at a loss to figure out how to get the best legal representation for her son. In desperation and frustration, she e-mailed faculty members across the region who studied mass incarceration, and none of them responded. For her, this was a source of outrage and shock. How could no one have responded to her? What were we here for, studying this stuff, if we aren’t going to help community members as they need it?**

Since then, I have been thinking about what activism means in the academy, and what implications an activist orientation has for our scholarship. More than that, though, what are our obligations to go beyond the production of socially-relevant information? To what extent can and should we be available to our communities? While I had previously considered the extent of my engagement to be the clear, thoughtful, and responsible presentation of my findings, I am wondering what else I should and could be doing in the future to engage ethically in research?

This issue has continued to vex me because like many physician-anthropologists before me, I do not have a neutral stance towards the phenomena that I study. Additionally, as I become more aware of feminisms of color and womanism, I am increasingly thinking of praxis as central to my scholarship. This is all to say that I have a perpetual eye for change, and believe it is my ethical obligation to consider: How can I make use of my position as a physician & a scholar to fight oppressive structures? How can I work to change the systems that I am a part of that contribute to human suffering and inequality?

Academic Activism

This is a perennial topic, and I am certainly not the first student to wonder how to integrate their activist leanings with their scholarship. I recently read  Eric Grollman of Conditionally Accepted’s  response to Fabio Rojas‘s critique. Can academics and activism mix? I think, ultimately, I am likely to agree with Dr. Grollman, and cannot imagine engaging in this career without an element of activism. I’m hoping to avoid the beating that grad school promises (wishful thinking, perhaps?).

For my part, I do not want to be separated from the work of, in my case, thinking critically about health care and access. On the one hand, academic critique, rigorous data collection, and creative dissemination of research findings can be instrumental in raising awareness. Dr. Alexander’s cross-country travel to promote her work highlights one way that we can become clearly involved in shaping the discourse around key issues in this country. One the other hand, in some ways I decided to become a physician, and to some extent an anthropologist, because I am attracted to the particular. I’m interested in reaching out to *specific* individuals and leveraging the resources and institutional privilege I have to make change. 

I also wonder what I should be doing now as opposed to later. On the one hand, I’m full-time in a strenuous program, and in some ways I feel stretched thin already. On the other hand, I long for more involvement. I long to do the work. I want to be more in touch with what I told myself I’m here for. Many of my grad school friends (especially this last, first, semester), express a feeling of disconnection – from ourselves, from the work that sustains us, and from communities that support us. I do feel less active, less involved, and more distant as I slowly surround myself more and more with books and spend the day strapped to my computer. 

It is becoming clearer, however, that attention to poverty and inequality does not limit us to working outside of academia. Karen Kelsky’s recent PhD student debt survey revealed the ridiculous amount of academic debt and poverty in the academy and took my breath away, and numerous articles drive home the point that the academy is in serious trouble. Additionally, a recent Tenure, She Wrote posts breaks the silence surrounding poverty and the amount of inequality that exists within our own ivory walls. Activism is no longer something we do to help “them” outside of the walls of academia, but an attention to the staggering numbers of contingent faculty and unemployed PhD is vital for us all to address. For now, when I feel like I never leave the academy, becoming more knowledgeable about the issues in academia might provide an outlet for me to be involved in meaningful change in my institution. 

** I think I should be clear that I don’t mean this post as a critique of the faculty, but more a musing on what the place this sort of engagement holds in anthropology.

2 comments

  1. […] graduate student — including Michelle’s recent post on activism in academia: “Be vital. Be involved.“  “I think, ultimately, I am likely to agree with Dr. Grollman, and cannot imagine […]

  2. […] after reading Michelle Munyikwa‘s post, “Be Vital. Be Involved.” She writes of a woman’s plight to seek legal justice for her son, who has been jailed. […]

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