The Activist Academic and the
Stigma of "Community Housework"
Amy S. Hubbard*
Department of Sociology and Anthropology
Virginia Commonwealth University
Richmond, VA 23284-2040
The Emphasis on Speaking and Writing
Speech is Free. Audiences are Not.
The Division of Labor in Academia
Community Organizing as Community Housework
A Call for Alternative Standards of Professionalism
This paper explores the special challenges faced by academics who are also
involved in community organizing. For example, activist academics face
certain risks when they espouse unpopular ideas but they are expected to
work with ideas, whether popular or not. However, as community organizers
they also engage in low-status, unpaid work which is considered unprofessional
by the academic community. This paper draws on feminist critiques of housework
and women's volunteering to argue for a deeper understanding of the difficulty
of integrating both academic work and activism.
The social sciences at the university level have long been an attractive
career path for community activists. Sociology, in particular, allows one
the freedom to teach and write about interesting social problems on a regular
basis. Doing it at a university allows one to control one's time so that
what little there is left of it after attending to professional and personal
commitments can be used for community activism. However, as many activists
find during and after graduate school, bridging the two worlds can be quite
difficult for the academic who also chooses to be an activist. Like the
competing demands of teaching and research, academics and activism require
one person to balance two very different kinds of demands.1
The difficulty in maintaining this balance has been discussed elsewhere
(see Divinski et al 1994). This paper will elaborate on the political and
occupational challenges faced by those who attempt to maintain this balance
-- activist academics.
First, I should note that this paper will not focus on the challenges faced
by public intellectuals (Jacoby 1987). Public intellectuals are activists,
both inside and outside of academia, who contribute to social movements
primarily by virtue of their radical commentary, e.g., Noam Chomsky. Russell
Jacoby has argued that true public intellectuals are a dying breed and
those who would replace them have been lured into academic careers devoted
to appealing to an elite audience of academics who are completely divorced
from the public's view and the public's daily concerns. While I share his
concerns about the current state of academia, this discussion will focus
on those activist academics who engage in direct social action by trying
to mobilize people at the grassroots level through community organizing.
They work for social change in groups of like-minded volunteers who may
engage in such events as putting on a debate or a fundraising concert,
organizing a picket line, or sitting at an information table at a street
fair.2 Both public intellectuals and community organizers face
risks because of their involvement in social movements. This paper will
argue, however, that those who are involved in community organizing at
the local level face a different kind of risk which has, for the most part,
The Emphasis on Speaking and
When we consider the risks faced by academics who engage in political activism,
we think about the dangers of "speaking truth to power." That is, academics
who say and write unpopular things, especially if they do it in so-called
"unscholarly" fashion, risk antagonizing those in power in the university,
the community, and the nation. In such cases, we focus our attention on
the ideas at stake. And why not? Ideas can be both liberating and dangerous.
Scott Nearing was fired from the University of Toledo in 1917 for expressing
the idea that World War I was a bad thing. And ideas may have either more
or less power depending on how militantly the person who has the dangerous
ideas states them. Scott Nearing had the idea that World War I was a bad
thing and no doubt he was not particularly nice about the way he said it
(Nearing 1989; Schrecker 1986).
How academics speak and write is where the struggle over right and wrong
occurs. This is the academic's unquestioned primary function; indeed it
is his or her duty to speak out with rigor and honesty in the pursuit of
truth. For this reason, one of the key concerns of the activist academic
is the preservation of academic freedom. Academics should be able to think,
speak, and write freely:
The occupational work of the vast majority of people is largely independent
of their thought and speech. The professor's work consists of his
thought and speech. If he loses his position for what he writes or says,
he will, as a rule, have to leave his profession, and may no longer be
able effectively to question and challenge accepted doctrines or effectively
to defend challenged doctrines. And if some professors lose their
positions for what they write or say, the effect on many other professors
will be such that their usefulness to their students and to society will
be gravely reduced. In brief, freedom of speech has a very special function
in the case of those whose job it is to speak (Machlup 1967:180).
At the same time, academic freedom entails obligations as well as freedoms.
The academic is obligated to write and speak in a responsible manner whether
in the classroom or in the public arena:
An educator who does not reasonably present the pros and cons of a highly
debatable issue, who does not first examine both with decent care, who
treats unverified hypotheses as though they were invincible verities, who
plays some favorite doctrine and drags it in where it is irrelevant or
wholly out of place, is betraying his discipline and rejecting the primary
ground on which he is entitled to professional status or respect (MacIver
For these reasons then the focus of our discussion is both on the idea
itself and how it is stated.
Similarly, the current debate over multiculturalism is a fight over what
ought to be taught in the academy and published in research journals, and
whether conservatives are able to speak their minds freely in the classroom,
the scholarly meeting, or the campus committee. Critics of the academy
argue that leftist professors are blatantly political in their work, hopelessly
obscure and irrelevant, and threaten our hallowed educational system by
their so-called politically correct attacks on the canon (e.g., Kimball
1990). Granted these attacks are not just about the ideas themselves. They
are based on the implicit understanding of the power inherent in the academy's
ability to choose which works will be taught. But the focus is still on
the ideas, how they are expressed, and who may express them.
Speech is Free. Audiences are
But ideas in and of themselves are not the only problem. In the contemporary
United States, merely having an idea is not enough to make one a dangerous
radical and put one at risk of retribution. For ideas to have power, they
must have adherents or be seen by those in power as having such appeal
that they might attract adherents if allowed to spread. Either way, ideas
must be disseminated to other people before they can become dangerous.
For example, in recent years, there has been considerable debate about
who may be permitted to speak at official university functions. In 1990,
Republican Party activist Linda Chavez was invited to speak at the University
of Northern Colorado's commencement but student opposition was so strong
that the invitation was withdrawn. Critics argued that Chavez's freedom
of speech had been violated (Yardley 1990; Wall Street Journal 1990a).
But the issue was not really freedom of speech, for Chavez was free to
come to campus and say whatever she wanted. The question was whether she
would be paid for it and given the honor of addressing the university community
at a formal convocation. The speech was "free;" what was not free was institutional
support, an honorarium, and a large audience gathered for commencement.3
Therefore the power of an idea is not determined solely by the nature of
the idea. Clearly whether an academic argues for an unpopular view with
a friend in an office or to a class full of students or at a fall convocation
affects the power of the idea to antagonize opponents and organize supporters.
Thus, it is not just the idea that is important but the fact that the idea
is disseminated to an audience and accordingly can be used to amass political
power which in turn makes it threatening. After all, clear communication
requires both adequate transmission and reception. Activists and academics
may use information differently but both must transmit that information
to other people in order to have successfully communicated a view. Activists
may do it by taking complex information, simplifying it, and putting it
in a newsletter, press release, or pamphlet in order to spread it to as
many people as possible. Academics may do it by taking a simple event,
searching out complex details about it, writing about it in highly abstract
language, and sending it off for publication in a journal which few people
outside the profession read.
Other aspects of their work lives are also different. Activists often find
themselves reacting to events around them, having little time and few resources
to do more than cope with crises. Academics plan a piece of research way
in advance, taking months and years to bring it to fruition. Community
activists must be generalists who can take on an issue quickly and work
with other people to mobilize the political power necessary to have an
effect on the community at large. Academics, on the other hand, are often
specialists who are rewarded for their personal expertise, which is most
often developed on their own in the library or the lab (Divinski et al
Bridging these two worlds can be difficult. I well remember my first year
in graduate school after four years as a full-time anti-nuclear power activist.
Until then knowledge only seemed useful when I could quickly distill it
into a readable newsletter article and send it out to our mailing list.
Just to read and study for the sake of becoming an expert seemed selfish
as well as remote from most people's daily concerns. As well, research
journals seemed arcane and inaccessible. I remember wandering through the
library stacks one day marveling that my career would depend on publishing
in these slim volumes which only a few people ever actually read. Now,
having become well-socialized into the profession, I care a great deal
about what is said in those slim volumes and struggle to do it as well
as I can. Needless to say, I have been forced to cut back considerably
on writing for community newsletters in order to make time for research.
But despite these differences, both academics and activists are dependent
upon dissemination for success, whether success means creating political
and social change or adding to knowledge. For example, apply the old saying
-- if a tree falls in a forest, does anybody hear it? -- to the activist
and the academic. If you carry a picket sign in the forest and nobody sees
you picketing, have you challenged power? If you give a paper in the forest
and nobody hears you, have you added to truth? Both academics and activists
use knowledge. Both rely on dissemination to proper parties to have an
As an activist, this was never more clear to me than after the Three Mile
Island nuclear power plant accident in 1979. The worst civilian nuclear
accident in US history took place over several days during which no one
was certain exactly what was happening in the reactor core. (Later it was
determined that the plant had suffered a partial meltdown. If the reactor
core had melted down completely and breached the containment vessel, thousands
of people could have been hurt or killed and hundreds of square miles of
land contaminated.) During that time, pregnant women and young children
were encouraged to leave the area. Many others evacuated on their own.
Shortly after the accident, news broadcaster Walter Cronkite did a special
news program on the problems associated with nuclear power, such as inadequate
evacuation planning. None of what Cronkite said was new. The antinuclear
power movement had been raising these same issues for years. But it was
the first time a prominent (and trusted) figure such as Cronkite had raised
these questions before a national television audience. At the time, I fervently
hoped that the average viewer felt that if Walter Cronkite had questions
about the safety and efficiency of nuclear power, then perhaps the antinuclear
movement was not a bunch of hysterical troublemakers mindlessly opposed
to all forms of technical progress but rather were concerned citizens with
The means of dissemination used by activists and academics are also profoundly
different. Academics teach classes, publish in journals, and occasionally
give talks to community groups when invited to do so. Activists give press
conferences, distribute pamphlets and newsletters, sit at literature tables
at street fairs, give speeches to community groups (including college classes
at times), engage in debates, picket, rally and commit civil disobedience.
Of course, the arenas for dissemination are normally quite different, but
the key here is that the process of dissemination is also quite different.
An academic who seeks to be an activist at the grassroots level is not
just the bearer of potentially threatening ideas but he or she also engages
in a kind of work which is not considered "appropriate" for a professional.
The Division of Labor in Academia
The academic functions within a highly bureaucratized division of labor.
The modern university is able to serve hundreds and thousands of students
by dividing up the tasks necessary to disseminate knowledge to them. I
teach courses and publish in research journals. When we talk about knowledge,
we focus on what I do -- the writing and speaking of knowledge. But in
order for it to become available to students and other researchers, the
actions of many other workers are involved. My efforts to disseminate knowledge
to my students are highly on dependent workers in Admissions who recruit
students for the university; Financial Aid officers who help students get
funding; workers at the Records office who keep track of students' grades;
maintenance workers who ensure that the room I teach in is clean; and the
various technical workers who maintain the heating and cooling systems
in the building.4 When I publish, I am also dependent upon many
other workers such as assistant editors, reviewers, secretaries, printers,
and mailroom workers.
Therefore, in order for me to speak and write effectively, I require the
assistance of a wide range of people who, for the most part, occupy positions
which pay less than mine and have lower status in the wider community.
Without them, my ideas have much less power to sway anyone for good or
ill. Yet my valuable contributions to truth are viewed as if they appeared
without the aid of those other workers. Indeed, their contribution to my
work has become, for all intents and purposes, invisible. It becomes visible
only in the event that someone attempts to withhold official recognition
of my work by keeping me from teaching or refusing to publish my work.
But even then the visibility of their contributions is as an anonymous
structural apparatus, not as the contributions of individual workers.5
My work is also considered more valuable than others' because it involves
working with abstract intellectual ideas after an apprenticeship of many
years in graduate school. Many of the tasks involved in disseminating my
work, such as fielding phone calls, filling out forms, and organizing mailing
lists, are seen as simple tasks which anyone could do with a bit of training.
Yet the fact that there is someone else available to do that work frees
me up to do the intellectual labor, which is then rewarded more highly.6
One good example of this is the use of professional advisors at large universities.
Advising students is one of the jobs which faculty members have traditionally
been required to do. However, faculty are not always the best equipped
to advise freshmen and sophomores who have not chosen majors since it requires
a knowledge of the university at large. Also, it may require an ability
to talk to a young person who is going through a difficult period of emotional
adjustment, which requires training which a faculty member is not likely
to have. At large universities, it may be in the best interest of the student
to consult with professional advisors at the freshman and sophomore level.
The faculty member is best able to mentor majors in the discipline with
whom she or he shares a common interest. However, when universities do
hire professional advisors to aid their students, these advisors are likely
to have lower status and be paid less than the faculty member. The faculty
member has been freed of this extra task which then allows him or her more
time to devote to teaching and writing. But the person who takes on the
advising task does not reap rewards comparable to those enjoyed by the
Community Organizing as Community
The community activist has a different challenge. The activist works in
a group of volunteers who have varying levels of expertise. The activist
is not in a position to order anyone to do anything since all are volunteers
and presumably will quit if they are dissatisfied. The activist has to
work as a member of a group which decides on the appropriate strategy and
then plans how to break that strategy down into tasks which group members
volunteer to carry out. For example, people must be willing to fold, staple,
and sort newsletters, sit at tables at street fairs and ask passers-by
to sign petitions, copy press releases, phone the media and remind them
of conferences, set up chairs, put out coffee, put up posters, sell tickets
and so on. As a member of the group, the activist almost always has to
be willing to do these same things. In effect, the activist must be involved
in both the work of disseminating the ideas as well as developing the ideas
themselves. He or she must be willing to perform low status, unpaid work
on a regular basis.7
Those who would engage in both academics and activism find that crossing
back and forth over the line that divides the two worlds can be disconcerting.
One activist academic had organized around Central American and Middle
East issues before and during graduate work in philosophy. Later, as an
assistant professor he was asked to speak about US involvement in the Gulf
War at a meeting organized by local activists. (Note that he was an authority
on the Middle East because of his activist work and not scholarship and
yet he was invited in his role as a professor.) He found that people regarded
him quite differently as an academic than as an activist:
I was coming as a professor from [a local university]. I remember having
people come up and talking to me afterwards while people were cleaning
up around me and I was thinking to myself that I should be cleaning up
and [I was] realizing that nobody was expecting me to clean up. What was
strange...was that I identified with the people who were cleaning up because
that was John Clemons, activist. But John Clemons, academic, gave the talk,
had people come up afterwards, and could leave his coffee on the table
if he felt like it.
Therefore an activist academic who engages in community organizing as well
as teaching and writing within the walls of academia has violated traditional
professional norms on two counts. First, he or she may very well be "speaking
truth to power" and risking his or her academic career because of it. But,
as well, she or he is likely to be engaged in a form of support work considered
inappropriate for a professional, particularly in light of the fact that
this support work, which is normally invisible within academe, may become
visible because of the academic's involvement in it.
Feminist scholars have been particularly effective in developing this concept
with regard to gender relations. Women are consistently engaged in work
which is very important in maintaining the family, the community, and the
nation. Yet it is work for which they receive little credit, whether they
are upper-class volunteers whose unpaid labor provides for the smooth functioning
of important nonprofit community institutions (Daniels 1988) or women whose
housework keeps the family afloat on a daily basis (Hochschild and Machung
1989). Feminist scholarship on housework is particularly useful here. Without
someone to manage the home, it is difficult for anyone to go out and hold
a job in the outside world. Someone has to do the laundry whether it's
a family member, a servant, or a laundry service. John may be a well-respected
lawyer who has many powerful clients but he is dependent upon Mary to do
his shirts (as well as raise the kids, do the shopping, cook the meals,
organize the entertainment schedule, etc.). Together they may work as a
team, each doing his or her share. But in the outside world, John is paid
for his labor and is regarded as highly successful. Mary benefits indirectly
from John's recognition but should she divorce John, her years of laundering
John's shirts will reap her little reward in the long run.
Who does the housework is particularly important for couples where both
partners work at jobs outside the home. In her study of two-job heterosexual
couples, Hochschild and Machung (1989) found that women were more likely
to provide what she called "backstage support" to the men in their lives:
Both male and female workers come to work looking the same. Yet one is
"poorer" in backstage support than the other. One irons a spouse's uniform,
fixes a lunch, washes clothes, types a resume, edits an office memo, takes
phone calls or entertains clients. The other has a uniform ironed, a lunch
fixed, clothes washed, a resume typed, an office memo edited, phone calls
taken and clients entertained. (Hochschild and Machung 1989:254-5)
Grassroots community organizers are responsible for organizing and participating
in their own "backstage support" at the community level. Academics receive
backstage support in the workplace by virtue of their position in the university.
The activist academic combines these roles and receives backstage support
at the university while sacrificing it in his or her role as a community
Dorothy Smith (1987) developed this argument further by claiming that this
gender-based division of labor is divided between two different modes of
existence. The world of the male professional is organized around the "abstracted
conceptual mode of ruling" whereas the world of the housewife and female
support workers is based in the "local and the particular," the world of
direct bodily experience. For example, two hundred years ago, a person's
daily life was completely anchored in the immediate environment. Families
worked out of their homes. Children learned much of what they needed to
know at home. If one ate eggs, they came from chickens raised by the family
or a neighbor. The "local and the particular" was all that one knew.
However, today, society is organized and structured by social institutions
based on abstract rules which affect our lives even though they are outside
our daily experience. For example, a housewife might organize her schedule
around getting her husband ready for work and her children ready for school
but she does not see her husband's employer or her children's teachers
in her daily life. The eggs she fries for breakfast have been raised on
factory farms designed to make production as efficient as possible based
on capitalist principles. The eggs' freshness is also regulated to some
degree by guidelines established by the appropriate government authorities.
The rules and procedures which these institutions have in place and which
affect her family are what Smith calls the "extralocal relations of ruling."
Her local and particular existence is structured by the abstracted conceptual
mode of existence.8
Working in the conceptual mode is considered to be the highest level of
functioning, one which society rewards well. Nevertheless, functioning
successfully in this mode still requires that a person's bodily needs be
met and that the person be freed from the distractions of the local and
particular world. Those distractions could be the threat that the local
and particular world will interfere with abstract thought, such as too
many phone calls about petty matters. Distractions would also be the amount
of time and effort needed to make abstract thought concrete, such as administering
surveys for the purposes of collecting data for research. Smith argues
that women as a class have been relegated to caring for the local and particular
world so that men may devote themselves to operating in the conceptual
mode. Women must mediate the concrete so that men may be free to focus
exclusively on the abstract:
Women keep house, bear and care for children, look after men when they
are sick, and in general provide for the logistics of their bodily existence.
But this marriage aspect of women's work is only one side of a more general
relation. Women work in and around the professional and managerial scene
in analogous ways. They do those things that give concrete form to conceptual
activities. They do the clerical work, giving material form to the words
or thoughts of the boss. They do the routine computer work, the interviewing
for the survey, the nursing, the secretarial work. At almost every point
women mediate for men the relation between the conceptual mode of action
and the actual concrete forms on which it depends. Women's work is interposed
between the abstracted modes and the local and particular actualities in
which they are necessarily anchored. Also, women's work conceals from men
acting in the abstract mode just this anchorage. (Smith 1987:83-4)
Academics rely on many workers (a great many of whom are female) to help
them speak and write their truth, and yet they would never dream that anyone
besides themselves (except for acknowledging, of course, their colleagues'
constructive criticism) was responsible for making their truth the truth.
Grassroots activists cannot depend upon other workers to perform concrete
tasks so that they may concentrate on the abstract. In fact, the "concrete"
may be so demanding that they have little time left for abstract intellectual
work.9 It is true that activists may have lower status in the
community because of their radical ideas and the fact that no one wants
to pay them for their work. But they also have lower status because they
are engaged in a kind of community housework. They are the secretaries,
the bookkeepers, the maintenance workers, and the mail workers.10
And this is how academics risk being regarded when as activists they have
stepped outside the boundaries of the profession.
This is not to say that an activist academic's colleagues will consciously
refuse him or her tenure because they do not like the fact that he or she
is involved in folding, stapling, and organizing a bulk mailing. If anything,
it is their colleague's unconventional political views which will aggravate
them more. Even then, they may profess themselves to be more concerned
with his or her lack of scholarly publishing, or unpopularity in the classroom
than they are about politics. The question of the appropriateness of low
status work would not even be considered. And, after all, sometimes people
suffer consequences in academia just for having unpopular ideas. (For all
I know, Scott Nearing may have never sat at a literature table!) But it
is also true that housework has been a low-status, invisible occupation
which has only been made visible recently by feminist scholars who view
it as real work. Its lack of public significance did not mean that it was
indeed insignificant. The fact is that some kinds of work are considered
far more important than other kinds but all are needed, whether we seek
to maintain our careers, provide for our families, or change the world.
The lack of conscious concern over the community housework taken on by
the activist academic merely signals how insignificant such work is among
those who work in the abstract conceptual mode.
A Call for Alternative Standards
What is the solution? In the past, my colleagues and I have called for
a restructuring of academia (Divinski et al 1994), but the fact is that
such demands are quite unlikely to be even seriously addressed -- let alone
enacted -- during this period of serious academic retrenchment in the 1990s.
At a time when a single tenure track position can attract 200-500 applications,
it would be foolish to expect academics to strongly support radical approaches
just as it would be wrong to encourage graduate students and junior faculty
to ignore conventional standards. Even those programs which are hospitable
to combining community activism and academic work are trying to survive
in a hostile environment within the university locally and the profession
For example, members of my department have recently met to write our mission
statement and formulate a faculty workload and leave policy. We work at
an urban research university where teaching is considered important but
still not quite as important as research. The administration is also pushing
for orienting research towards the local community. In specifying faculty
rewards, we decided as a department that we would reward teaching as well
as research if the faculty member was involved at the national level in
developing and promoting teaching innovations, such as publishing articles
about teaching or giving workshops through the American Sociological Association.
We also agreed that we should reward faculty whose research reaches a wider
audience among the general public and not just those faculty who publish
in respected scholarly journals. In addition, we are trying to move our
graduate program to greater involvement in the local community. However,
even as we were writing these new standards, my senior colleagues warned
me that as a junior faculty member I should concentrate on my research
above all. No matter what my department put on paper as appropriate standards,
I would have to be acceptable to the university rank and tenure committee
and they were likely to be most concerned about the depth and breadth and
scholarliness of my research.
Others may argue that academia is part of the problem and that intellectuals
are more likely to be activists outside of the walls of academe (Jacoby
1987). While Jacoby was writing specifically about public intellectuals,
nevertheless his criticism also applies to academic activists involved
in community organizing. The rewards for success in academia are attractive
and as long as the path to success remains open, academics will be tempted
to play strictly by conventional rules. There are still a few plums that
come with being a successful college professor, attacks on the academy
and tightening budgets notwithstanding. Ehrenreich has also argued that
the professional middle class struggles long and hard to maintain its privileged
position and in doing so becomes isolated from the working class and the
poor (Ehrenreich 1989).11 Perhaps if academics were struggling
for respect on the outside of the ivory tower, instead of wrestling with
our souls on the inside, we would take more chances. Perhaps it is a mistake
to think that anyone could successfully combine an activist life and an
academic life and the only way to stay true to one's principles is to leave
the professional life behind.
Certainly, this occurred to me one night at a recent celebration at an
expensive restaurant in Washington, DC. My husband and two of his colleagues
had just received tenure and we wanted to celebrate this monumental achievement
in the best way possible. We arranged to meet the colleagues and their
wives (who were untenured faculty at the same university) at an exclusive
restaurant. As my husband and I walked toward the restaurant where we would
eventually spend $140 on dinner, we passed a mobile soup kitchen across
the street. A long line of poor, mostly African-American residents of Washington,
DC were waiting in line for free food in a city which is in a deep economic
crisis. Inside, we enjoyed a lovely dinner and good conversation about
academic politics with the two other couples. The other diners in the restaurant
appeared to be well-to-do, or at least financially comfortable. One of
our companions pointed out Robert Rubin, Secretary of the Treasury, at
a nearby table where he was having dinner with five or six other well-heeled
It was hard to get the soup kitchen out of my mind. Before dinner we all
talked about passing the line and wondering whether we could enjoy dinner.
We made comments about how we really ought to give the money for dinner
to the people in line but no one was serious about it. I reminded myself
that this was a special occasion -- you only get tenure once, my husband
pointed out -- so it should be enjoyed. Furthermore the Secretary of the
Treasury may eat regularly at places like this but this was a rare occasion
for us. I've gone beyond thinking that my giving $150 away would make much
difference in the scheme of things but I did review how much we had done
to support good causes recently and it was quite limited. But the most
disturbing part of the evening was realizing how attractive the whole world
inside the restaurant was and how very much I enjoyed eating gourmet food
in proximity to the wealthy and semi-famous. I chose a profession because
I wanted control over my work and the freedom to think independently but
the material rewards can be seductive as well. It is difficult to enjoy
them and at the same time keep a clear head and see them for what they
are, dazzling baubles which distract us from the daily injustices taking
place in the world around us.
The story about the restaurant is also disturbing because it appears to
offer only two possible paths -- one must struggle to join the rich and
famous or be left helpless and homeless among the poor and exploited. To
argue that activist academics can only work in solidarity with the poor
and exploited by leaving the academy is not only short-sighted, it's pointless.
Such assertions are not likely to be followed by even a small exodus from
the ivory tower. On the other hand, it is far too easy to meekly follow
the traditional path toward success with little deviation from it and attribute
all our choices to the fear of not getting tenure or not being promoted.
If we are to combine an academic life and an activist life, we need to
establish alternative standards which provide a model for committed professionals
who seek to work as part of a community of workers inside the ivory tower
and part of a community of citizens outside. I am not sure what those standards
should be. I am not suggesting that we now simply credit all the registrar
clerks and maintenance workers who have helped us along in the acknowledgments
of our books and papers. But we do need to start thinking about how we
could conduct our work differently and we need to do that in dialogue with
Simply put, we need consciousness-raising groups, whether face-to-face
on campus, through e-mail or on the telephone. Obviously, this is not a
bold or even a new suggestion. However, given the solitary nature of academic
work, even the most politically sophisticated activist academic can slowly
lose touch with like-minded, supportive colleagues. For example, I spent
most of last year in my office by myself worrying about writing papers,
giving lectures, grading tests, and attending conferences. Those of us
on the graduate program committee had been planning all year to talk about
restructuring the program to emphasize greater involvement in the urban
community but there had never been time at our short meetings to talk in-depth
about the larger goals of the program. We finally scheduled several retreats
at a colleague's house this summer. It was there that my senior colleagues
warned me against taking the alternative paths to faculty rewards which
our department had endorsed on paper. Nevertheless the act of talking about
our hopes and dreams for the department and sociology as a discipline was
an important reaffirmation of principles which I had de-emphasized in the
struggle to survive professionally. It was only a small step toward a much
larger dream but those small steps are important.
In fact, those small steps are critically important. As a teacher of social
movements, I am often reminded by my students' comments in class just how
much initiative is required to take even the smallest of steps like writing
a simple letter to Congress. Many people have a distorted view of activism,
often expecting it to be some grand and glorious affair, a problem which
is -- at least on college campuses -- exacerbated by stories about movements
in the 60s which have been elevated to the level of myth in the 90s. Activist
work can be grand and glorious. More often, it is simple and, one hopes,
occasionally satisfying, even though there are moments when we would all
like to throw up our hands and go home. Activist academics should be engaging
in a nationwide discussion of the role we can play in working for social
change, in particular how we can recognize the ways in which our work is
supported and enhanced by other academic workers, and the ways in which
we can connect and work together with those other workers. That's a big
enough step for now.
*My thanks go to the following people for their comments and assistance
in developing the ideas for this paper: Richard Kendrick, Randall Divinski,
Jane Noll, David Meyer, Karen Beckwith, Douglas Imig, Robert Kleidman,
Todd May, Mark Lance, fellow contributor Thomas Jenkins, and editor Randy
1Which in addition must always be balanced off the demands of
one's personal life -- no small consideration if it includes a spouse or
partner and children.
2This is a role which Jacoby seems to consider less important.
In discussing members of the New Left who were once slated to become major
social critics (1987:112) -- Tom Hayden, Norman Fruchter, Robb Burlage,
Mario Savio, Dick Flacks, Bob Parris and Carl Oglesby (cited from Newfield
1966) -- Jacoby argues that now "none...could remotely be considered major
social critics or prominent intellectuals." Some have remained "active
in urban, regional, or peace politics." He claims that this does not mean
their contributions don't have value. Nevertheless, the comparison implies
that merely being "active in urban, regional, or peace politics" is insufficient.
3In fact, the university offered to pay her the same fee to
speak at an open forum the following year where there would have been "an
interactive discussion of issues rather than a unilateral presentation
which a commencement speech implies" ( Wall Street Journal, May
4This becomes most clear when my students ask me questions about
the mechanics of registering, expecting that I ought to know how many signatures
they need to add a course or where to go for various forms. Since one person
in my department does all the advising, I know very little about what students
need to do to graduate. I just teach them about sociology, try to help
them think more analytically, and write more clearly. (Fortunately no one
ever expects me to know how to fix the cooling system!)
5During the 60s, New Left theorists argued that students belonged
to a new working class of exploited knowledge workers laboring under the
yoke of an information-based capitalism. Others have argued that students
belonged to a professional-managerial class growing in wealth and influence
and which was asserting control over other classes rather than being proletarianized.
(See Breines 1982 for this debate.) While I would argue that middle-class
college students and in turn faculty are exploited by the university system,
nevertheless the extent of their exploitation is not as great as that of
other workers in academia.
6It should also be noted that the more elite the university,
the higher the level of support available. A sign of having "made it" is
having office managers, work-study students, and graduate assistants who
can be trusted to work effectively and efficiently in a supporting role.
7This picture of community activism is one drawn from middle-class
white progressive social movement organizations in the United States. It
may be inappropriate to apply this model to communities where community
activism is organized more hierarchically.
8Mills had a similar approach and argued that ordinary people
were deeply affected by those who "are in command of the major strategic
command posts of the Social Structure" but he did not envision this division
to be based on gender inequality (Mills 1956:4).
9In my full-time activist days, I remember the night that I
noticed a volume of Pablo Neruda's poetry sitting on a friend's bookshelf
and how much I regretted not having the time to read books like that just
for the sake of reading them. It is true that academics also rarely have
time to read books purely for enjoyment but at least sociologists can convince
themselves that some of what is really just reading for pleasure is actually
meant to broaden their teaching or research.
10However, there is also a division of labor in the activist
world, which, in some cases, breaks down along gender lines. There is the
citizen expert on the issue who is invited in to speak at educational events,
press conferences, and rallies. This person generally tries to stay as
knowledgeable as possible about the issue in order to advance arguments
at various events for public dissemination. There is also the person invited
to speak because he or she is perceived to have higher social standing
in the community and can thus convince more members of the general public
of the rightness of the cause. That person is not likely to be involved
in a community organization on a regular basis. Then there are the people
who are responsible for organizing those events, who are more likely to
work behind the scenes. While I have known many talented male organizers,
bright female citizen experts, and a few female "pillars of the community,"
it still appears to me that even in social movements men are more likely
to play a role grounded in the abstract while women attend to community
housework. However, this argument needs further research.
11However, Ehrenreich's solution is not to leave the professional
middle class but to try to overcome isolation and work in solidarity with
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