September 13, 2010

[Reflection] Between Reproduction and Contestation

I started a PhD in Geography today. While the next four years are certain to offer numerous opportunities to expand my knowledge and scholarly abilities, I will undoubtedly also be faced with tremendous challenges. One worry that I have about taking on a doctorate is the possibility of getting sucked into the permanent meta-coma of academia. In this nightmare I become just another ‘head-in-the-clouds’ academic; I live in a theoretical world of utopias and dystopias; I play into the structures of power and dominance that exist in society rather than actively work to contest them; I lose sight of the responsibility that comes with a degree from an institution of higher learning.

As a Master’s student I experienced similar anxieties. It’s easy to live the sheltered life of a student, to get sucked into the daily humdrum and processes of academia. But it can be a vicious circle: In order to spend all your time as a promising scholar, you need the funding do to so. In order to get funding, you need high grades, publications, and conference presentations, and so you spend all your time trying to fulfill the role of promising scholar (both intellectually and esthetically). Yet the circle is just that – a circle. There appears no end to the road. You keep going and going unless you realize the only thing tying you down is gravity. The other roads only exist once you decide to take a step off the beaten path.

My worry is that in pursuing a doctorate I will forget about the other roads. This would have severe implications for the (acknowledgedly romanticized) images I have of being an activist academic. In the very first reading for our doctoral seminar (an article titled “Learning to Become a Geographer: Reproduction and Transformation in Academia,” by Harald Bauder), I was struck by a sentence in the opening paragraph: “By the time academic geographers assume faculty positions, romanticized ideas of being a knowledge-seeking scholar or Gramscian-style intellectual who changes the world may have been dashed by the realities of academic practice” (671). Is it ironic that I maintain a blog dedicated to the idea of the Gramscian-style intellectual? Or is this a sign that I am conscious enough about the possibility of becoming what P.E. Willis calls an “unconscious foot soldier” (2004: 390) that I will be able to stay conscious after all?

Our political economic trajectory isn’t helping. The academy is changing along with our society. More and more we are being trained as machines, taught to complete tasks that will work to facilitate economic growth. In her latest book, Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities, Martha Nussbaum refers to this problem as “a crisis of massive proportions and grave global significance”. The neoliberalization of the university may be working to squeeze out the activist in us academics, slowly converting the ivory tower into a prison watch tower, where thinking outside the box is akin to a jailbreak.

All this to say… so much as I am looking forward to taking on the next step in the academic ladder, I’ll have to remember that I’m climbing along the boundary between the reproduction and contestation of contemporary academic structures. If I can hold onto this thread, I may be able to make it out of here with the ability to think and act critically still in tact!

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