Academe/Action: Social Transformation Within and Beyond the Academy

By Rosemary Hancock

In September of this year the Sociological Review held its inaugural event in Australia, a half-day ECR workshop on social transformation within and beyond the academy, and a public lecture on the same theme.

As a student of social movements and grassroots politics the apparent disconnect between the on-the-ground, muddy-hands, embodied nature of grassroots activism and organizing and the intellectual labour of an academic frequently turns over in my mind. The hours spent picking apart the work of activists and organizers to painstakingly piece together an argument about the nature of activism and social change that will be heard, not by the general public or even a sufficiently great number of community activists or policy makers, but by other academics at conferences and symposia or in academic journals and publications. When ‘public engagement’ is measured by writing a newspaper article or producing a podcast – to be consumed by much the same audience, if not a little widened to a (probably) highly-educated elite, what opportunities are there for academics to do research and teaching in a way that is genuinely connected to and embedded in the wider society around us and all its problems?

The Sociological Review workshop at the University of Sydney gathered a small group of early career researchers and doctoral students from across the east-coast of Australia (with one flying all the way from Japan for the event) to sit around a workshop table and ponder this problem, and the various ways it manifests in our individual experiences. Unsurprisingly, for eighteen people either recently graduated or still immersed in doctoral research, our immediate experience of the University as a problematic space in need of transformation bubbled up through our conversation again and again. For some, the University as an institution has proved hostile: deliberately dampening down efforts to build networks of solidarity, unable to provide secure employment or sustainable workloads, and rigidly structured in ways that too-frequently thwart creative teaching and research practices.

Talking amongst ourselves, we discussed ‘survival’ strategies for life as an ECR alongside ways to balance the ‘box checking’ performance outcomes required to progress within the University with the desire to work collaboratively and democratically with communities outside the University for whom those ‘outcomes’ have little-no value. Linda Briskman, Professor of Human Rights at the University of Western Sydney, shared some of the ways in which she has been able to work ‘beyond’ the academy in disseminating her research and collaborating with civil society groups. Her creative approach to being a ‘public intellectual’, arranging a series of ‘lectures’ (really, more public conversations) on rush-hour trams in Melbourne, brings academic research out of the academy and elite media, and into spaces shared by a wide variety of citizens.

The public panel in the evening turned the discussion to ways that the University can be harnessed in the service of social change. If there is one thing you take note of in this blog post, it needs to be the work of Romand Coles at Northern Arizona University. Romand, now a Professor in Social Justice at the Australian Catholic University and a panellist at the event, established a series of Research Action Teams building long-term relationships with community organizations, schools, and religious institutions in the local area. Undergraduates taught community organizing techniques to primary school children and were themselves transformed by what they witnessed the children achieve. Academics collaborated with community groups to both work towards social change in the states of Arizona, and to produce research. The collaborative reciprocity between academics, students, and community members resulted in actual, concrete change within Arizona and to the culture of the University. Even the physical space changed – with community gardens built on campus and tended by both students and community members.

The day closed on this high note – having traversed from the lows of institutional constraint and injustice to the peak of academic work transforming both the local community and the institution itself.

Rosemary Hancock is Lecturer in Social Justice in the School of Arts & Sciences at The University of Notre Dame Australia, Sydney. 

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