This week’s selection from Feminism For Real was something a little different than the typical anthology essay. Instead, we had Shaunga Tagore’s slam poetry piece titled “A Slam on Feminism in Academia.” Reading this piece brought up a lot of personal connections for me as a person who — though privileged in some respects when it comes to access to institutions of higher learning — has been at odds with the demands of academic life for as long as I have found myself working within and against it (most of my adolescent and adult life).
Since this is a poem, and line-by-line commentary doesn’t seem to fit the form very well, I want to share with you a few excerpts from the piece and then some of my personal reflections.
A Slam on Feminism in Academia by Shaunga Tagore (pp.37-41)
why did you let me in this ivory tower
filled with hippie feel-good activist academics
debating about feminist organizing in high theory discourse
while barely-paid migrant workers prepare lunches
for seminars, conferences, forums
and get deported the next day
let me ask you
exactly which graduate student’s education are you concerned about
not single mothers who need extra time to look after their families
not pregnant women who need a little more maternity leave
not low-income folks who need to take 2nd and 3rd jobs
to pay bills their funding doesn’t cover
not racialized international students who don’t have access to most
not the people with disabilities
who don’t have access to comply with the way things are
made to feel something is wrong with them
instead of with the rules themselves
not those who survive sexual violence
and need extra time to grieve rage or deal
and Stanza 24:
what is it about your knowledge and education
that prevents you from imagining
all the different reasons someone may be in graduate school
or feel the need to study gender, race, sexuality, and class?
So where to begin.
This poem prompted me to reflect on some of my own interactions with feminism within the academy, and to think about why I “feel the need to study gender, race, sexuality, and class” specifically as a part of my work as a student within formal institutions of education. Those reflections, in turn, caused me to consider how profoundly context matters when it comes to how we experience feminism within academia.
I have friends who experience feminism as an unwanted intrusion into their scholarly endeavors — even if they are otherwise supportive of the basic tenets of feminist activism: they don’t want the personal to intrude on the intellectual. I have friends who experience academia as an unwanted intrusion into their feminist endeavors: theory and scholarly research feels exclusionary, inaccessible, condescending. How do we find some sort of middle ground where both of these folks can communicate about feminist ideas … is that possible or even desirable?
Last year, I wrote a blog post at the feminist librarian about subjectivity and scholarship in which I reflected on what it means to be a whole person in an academic program or discipline that rarely recognizes the other aspects of your life. For some people, this single-minded focus can be a relief: intellectual work can be an oaisis of calm in an otherwise chaotic life. For others (I sense for Tangore) the refusal of the academy to acknowledge and adapt to the lived lives of individual students can be a continual source of strain, inspiring resentment, anger, even rage. In my own life, I’ve experienced it both ways. While I ultimately I refuse to do scholarship that is not deeply embedded in my lived experience, I also resist the pressure to share personal details before folks are ready (what can happen when women’s studies classrooms emphasize personal testimony). Personal testimony should not become a litmus test for participation in feminist conversation.
I feel like it all becomes more complicated instead of less. I’m told that’s a sure sign I’ve reached adulthood!
Tagore, I gather from the piece, was (or is) in a graduate program having to do with gender and women’s studies. I majored in Women’s Studies in undergrad at a college where the support for feminist-minded scholarship was very uneven. We had a fairly robust Women’s Studies concentration that had been around since the mid-1980s and students could self-design a major (the route I took). The only dedicated course was Intro to Women’s Studies, along with options for an independent study and internship. Everything else was cross-listed. I never took a class in feminist theory per se.
All of this means that even though I explored feminism in the academy, I didn’t experience feminism as institutional. It was something we small cohort of concentrators dared to pursue despite an administration and student body resistent to exploring gender, sex, and sexuality in feminist ways. This isn’t to say I never had disagreements with my professors, or power struggles concerning the completion of assignments or how collaborative our collaborative research really was. Since moving East and talking to folks who went to schools with more institutionalized gender studies programs, I’ve heard a lot more bitterness about the role of feminism in academia. It’s left me with a lot of questions about the wisdom of feminist activism seeking a place at the table in terms of traditional educational programs. At what point, while trying to change the system from within, do you become a representative of the system?
I don’t mean that as a rhetorical question: it’s one I asked myself every single day in college and graduate school … and one I continue to keep asking myself every day throughout my life. How do we live both within and against the powers that be?
Courtney Martin @ Feministing wrote recently about the relationship between academia and activism. While Martin — a professional feminist writer and speaker — is unquestionably in a different socioeconomic demographic than the women Tagore writes about, she still raises some interesting points of reconsideration of the relationship between “academic” and “activist” feminism. I thought of her post when I was reading Tagore’s piece and thinking about the relationship between those within the institutions of power and those without.
I’m going to close with a few last stanzas that spoke to my own personal reasons for continuing to choose scholarship, even when the academy poisons my soul. I once had a professor friend of mine describe meeting with a student in her office to discuss a paper. In the course of the conversation, encouraging the student to pursue a topic that she/he felt passionate about, she gestured to the books lining the walls of her office. “I don’t have all these books because they make me look smart,” she said to the struggling undergraduate, “I have these books because they saved my life.” I thought of that story when I read these stanzas (26-29):
some of us do not wish to compete to be the
newest biggest baddest radical faculty-hire
some of us need to engage with feminist theory
so we can ground it in our community activist work
our creative works
our personal relationships
for our families, communities and histories
for our own fucking deserved peace of minds
maybe we need to know how to make sense of oppression
because we’re so heartbroken
we don’t want to end up being locked away in psychiatric institutions
or in a hospital overdosed on pills, getting our stomachs pumped
because we don’t know WHY all this shit is constantly driving us CRAZY
Join me next week for Latoya Peterson’s “The Feminist Existential Crisis (Dark Child Remix)”