Better late than never, I suppose … it’s funny how some weeks there just seems to be no time at all for blogging.
We’ve been having conversations in my circle of friends lately about the difference between experiential knowledge and knowledge based on scholarship and research, and how these two types of knowing relate to one another. Historically, as a culture, the modern West has privileged the latter (scholarly) over the former (experiential). In recent decades — thanks, in great part, to various human rights movements (feminism, anti-imperialism, anti-racism, gay rights, disability awareness, etc., etc., etc.)! — we’ve started to acknowledge the importance of experiential knowledge in some arenas, though it still often plays second fiddle to “the experts” and/or the voices of people in power. We still position these two types of knowledge in opposition to one another, with scholarly knowledge still associated with power-over (particularly in the experience of marginalized populations) and experiential knowledge as “emotive,” “feminine,” “subjective” and biased.* As a response, we often push back against that type of analysis by asserting that only the voices of those with experiential knowledge “count,” or should count the most — i.e. that only women have the ability to speak with authority on feminist subjects.
Yet this antagonism is hardly a workable long-term solution, since (among other reasons) many people with experiential learning also have scholarly, analytic knowledge about their subject: I experienced counter-culture education as a youngster and then studied the theory and history of alternative education as a college and graduate student. The experience itself was invaluable, but the scholarship about the experience was what helped me make sense of what I had lived through. The two complemented, rather than opposed, one another.**
I was thinking about this tangle while reading Megan Lee’s ” ‘Maybe I’m Not Class-Mobile; Maybe I’m Class-Queer’: Poor kids in college and survival under hierarchy” for this week’s live-blog installment. Lee’s contribution to Feminism For Real is a meditation on “the ways that university works as a mechanism to perpetuate the class hierarchy” (85) and on the resistance by those who benefit from that hierarchy to fully examine and deconstruct those mechanisms.
MAYBE I’M NOT CLASS-MOBILE; MAYBE I’M CLASS-QUEER by Megan Lee (pp. 85-92)
p. 85 – “I knew that [by questioning the academic-industrial complex] I would be attacking everyone in the classroom, including myself.” Lee jumps right in, in her opening paragraph, constructing an either/or type of scenario in which one either benefits from academic spaces OR questions them. As someone who likewise went through higher education struggling to question the hierarchy of education on a radical level, I completely agree that this is often an intense resistance to internal critique. I don’t believe that to attack the abuses of an institution is to automatically attack every person who is working within that space.
pp. 86 – “My women’s studies classes were supposed to be a respite and a support … instead I was met with slight-of-hand, apologist pandering, and dismissal.” I’m always sad when I hear stories like this from folks who had negative, exclusionary experiences in women’s studies programs. Not that my undergrad WS classes were idyllic, but I sought-out those cross-listed classes precisely because they were the spaces at my otherwise fairly conservative institution where issues of justice were discussed on a regular basis. Perhaps my bar was set too fucking low at the time?
p. 86 – “My education tested and transformed my relationship with my family.” Lee talks a lot about the way in which going to college pulled her away from the culture of her family. I don’t have a lot more to say about this other than that I think it bears consideration: how learning new ways of being sometimes separates you from old ways of being, and how that separation can be painful.
p. 87 – “Many privileged young professionals” … “rely on the authority of their education to silence and ignore the actual experience of oppressed people.” I’ve actually been thinking about this dynamic in the realm of sexuality studies, education, and therapy recently because (without getting into details) I’ve been witness to some frustrating exchanges between folks accessing professional mental health care from caregivers who don’t seem to be very good person-centered listeners. That is, they have a framework in their head about how psychological and/or sexual health works and they just can’t see when someone’s personal experience contravenes that … without being unhealthy. I’m not sure how to address this, except that I think there’s an appropriate place for humility alongside professional expertise.
p. 87 – “The concept of family as something that unites diverse members with complicated relationships to one another … resonated with me … since my relationship with my family has been the main force guiding my feminism.” I just highlighted this because I, too, am very taken with the idea that “family” is an idea that “unites diverse members.”
p. 88 – “Poverty is not simply having no money – it is isolation, vulnerability, humiliation and distrust. It is not being able to differentiate between employers and exploiters and abusers.” Since moving to Boston for grad school, ironically, I’ve been close to a lot more people who experienced poverty and income insecurity in childhood and young adulthood. And man, have I seen first hand the sort of long-term scars it produces, even for folks who are now in professional careers. Lee captures it really well in these two sentences.
p. 89 – “Universities do not merely mediate the boundary between professional and labourer, they teach the body of knowledge, the worldview, the values that mark a person as professional, as ‘belonging’ to the middle- or upper-class.” My father-in-law left school in England at age 16 and never looked back. He knows more about English literature and cinema than I could ever hope to learn in my entire life, but he still sometimes feels and acts intimidated by Hanna and I when we visit because we have advanced degrees. I hate how that training becomes a barrier, even when I don’t want it to be and don’t use it as such.
p. 90 – “Universities teach us not to care so much because it will undermine our professional role.” I actually question this, although I get the point she’s making about more distanced analysis versus visceral experience. A lot of my undergraduate and graduate education was imbued with passion for both methodology and subject, and I had more than one faculty member tell me that advanced schooling simply wasn’t worth it unless you knew in your heart it was what you had to do.
p.91 – “Even when the oppressed person is sitting right there, the university setting permits everyone to talk about us in the third person.” Again, I see where this is coming from. I have definitely been frustrated by invisibility in certain professional contexts. But I have also been relieved (and known others to be relieved) by the quasi-anonymity that “the third person” conversation permits. I have known folks to actually seek out academic settings precisely because they knew that this third person rule would apply, and they wouldn’t have to talk about their own personal experience in such a raw and immediately vulnerable way.
p. 91 – “We can participate in the institution on our own terms rather than on theirs, and we can redefine what an educated professional looks and sounds like.” Amen. Though I have to say there are days (even for someone relatively privileged, with an ability to “pass,” like me) when this is like chewing glue. It can be truly soul-sapping.
p. 92 – “And most of all, we can identify the role of the university itself, and the way it sustains class divisions, the way it functionally excludes people …” Yes, yes, and again yes. I feel like this brings me back to the very first note from p. 85 in which Lee remembers feeling that if she questioned the function of the university she would be attacking everyone in the classroom, including herself. I truly believe it is possible to speak in radical critique of schooling, even while recognizing that the framework of schools and universities is the current status quo, and the place where a lot of valuable learning and mentoring can take place.
Join me next week (hopefully Tuesday!) for notes on Jessica Yee’s conversation with anna Saini, “Sex Work and Feminism” (pp. 93-103).
*It should go without saying that I know that scholarly knowledge is not “objective” and unbiased, but we often position it that way.
**At least as approaches to thinking and learning went. Obviously, the institution of higher education, and the power structures it replicates and supports, is another question.