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Jess Goldberg (Jesse A.)

@KempoJesse

Sep 22

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A grad student asked me this week, "How do you do the kind of work you want to do without reproducing the unjust power hierarchies of academia?" I can't, and none of us can, and we should stop pretending like we can be pure radicals inside the academy. 🧵

Yes, I understand "in but not of." I think about it a lot. I try to make it praxis and not just theory.

Yes, I know histories of black studies and ethnic studies and women's studies and how people who built these programs were as deeply committed to community beyond the university as to the institution itself.

And still, I am troubled by the desire to see ourselves in our work *as professional academics* (i.e. teaching, publishing, institutional service) as doing something radical or -- and I've heard TT Ivy League Profs use this word -- "revolutionary."

The revolution ain't gonna come from work done within the parameters of the academy. I'm a TT faculty member in an American University. Everything I do in my job that supports my professional trajectory reproduces the unjust power hierarchies of academia. I cause harm.

I don't think it's possible to have a career nestled in a colonial institution and to not cause harm or reproduce injustice, unless you work in such a way that the institution by necessity has to get rid of you like the replaceable worker that you are.

So I wanted to redirect the student's question from the absolutist premise that we either do reproduce injustice or we don't while doing our academic work, because the "we don't" is a self-congratulatory fantasy. Instead, how do we act ethically knowing we cause harm?

Which is really the perpetual question while living under settler racial capitalism in the heart of a global military-economic empire. How do we live ethically knowing that we cause harm? Answering that question is messy & difficult. June Jordan's poetry helps me think about it.

Within the context of the graduate student's question about the academy, I simply but seriously urged the reminder that we are not reducible to our jobs. That academic work, in and of itself, isn't going to "change the world." But we can clock out at 5 and go do other things.

One of the ways, I think, to do good work as an academic is to refuse the academy's attempt to monopolize our time. Refuse to even ask the question, "how will X fit into my tenure file?" Refuse to have our political speech preemptively (self-?)censored.

We can carve time to work in community beyond the academy. We can clock out and then go do other things that aren't captured by the institution. To me, this parallels why I don't stress a lot about the "accessibility" of my writing style.

Because my academic writing is such a small piece of "the work" to which I'm committed, I'm perfectly comfortable with the fact that I write mostly (though not exclusively -- people of every class and education level read "theory" & academic prose!) to other specialists.

Yeah, only a few handfuls of people will read my articles and eventual book(s). That's ok. There are plenty of other ways to do work towards abolitionist, socialist, decolonial goals. Let's find ways to clock out and do some of that.

And I have to say it took me a long time to get here. I went straight to a PhD program out of undergrad and I did so with a ton of anxiety about whether I was doing the right thing or if I was going against my own "social justice" values by pursuing an academic career.

One program that waitlisted me explicitly told me they did so b/c they didn't think an English PhD program was where I seemed to want to be. That I "belonged in journalism or law" where I might "be more happy directly affecting the things you care most about."

And as one of my eventual PhD advisors said to me one day, "those people in that program weren't 100% wrong, were they?" They weren't. My heart isn't in academia, even though my whole heart loves the idea and practice of study.

But once I found community with labor and anti-prison organizers and activists, and once I participated in mutual aid organizations and reading groups outside school, I realized, "oh, the writing is fun and important, and I love teaching, but there's so much else I can do!"

And that's really all I wanted to convey to this grad student. That we can do so much more than what the institution desires and requires, and sometimes that means doing less for the institution.

And along the way don't let ourselves be fooled into thinking work that the institution approves can be "revolutionary." If the academy approves of it, it by definition isn't revolutionary, to paraphrase Joy James, whose thinking on these kinds of questions I find so invigorating

I think that's all I've got for this thread for now. I'm thankful for the question and the way it made me articulate these kinds of things more pointedly than I had before. I'm working on how to live with it more thoughtfully and carefully.

Jess Goldberg (Jesse A.)

@KempoJesse

Abolitionist | No Borders or Empires | PhD in American Literature | Black Studies, Carceral Studies, Queer Studies | my views, not employer's | they/he/she

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