April 03, 2013

Academic privilege, or, a brief exercise in dispossession

Yesterday was the day my postgraduate student status expired - I'm now officially no longer a student! Which thus far, I must say, has been something of an exercise in dispossession. Suddenly my card expired and I now can't get into any buildings at Warwick, including the Library to access information or check out books. I went to go and sort it out with HR (since I'm still an employee of the university, after all), and I couldn't even get into the building in which HR is housed. Also, once I did get in, the HR receptionist was rather rude and condescending, her tone of voice implying that I'm somehow less than a full member of this little micro-society of the university, or that my struggle to get a working card was somhow less-than-legit.

So I know that this is a kind of uber-privileged example of dispossession and that many, many people have far worse problems (not least because of the Government's new welfare policies that started on Monday). But still, it has got me thinking about the notion of access, and how it feels not to have it. There's nothing like suddenly losing a privilege to make that privilege visible.

Maybe as part of a module on Power (which is my theme in the Gendered Knowledges project), we should consider doing some kind of experiment that makes each student's individual privileges visible by temporarily taking some of them away.

Clearly there are many privileges surrounding gender (and race, and sexuality, and various other markers of difference). Here's a great blog post that unpacks some of the privileges that many men take for granted. (This is itself a response to Peggy Macintosh's well-known list of white privileges.)

Perhaps we need to generate a similar list of privileges we have as academics. This is not trivial: we have access to all kinds of information and knowledge that others lack, and moreover academia is systematically rigged to keep 'others' out. I'll start:

1. We get to be called experts/authorities in our field. Quoting our written or verbal statements is considered by many (including students, news outlets and other academics) to be sufficient proof of a given fact or idea.

2. We have free access to authoritative information on an infinite variety of topics and issues.

3. Writings about power, access and privilege are often written/spoken in a language that only we are trained to understand.

4. We decide who is worthy of further access to privileges through the education we provide.

5. And indeed we set the standards by which our students (as well as those who have failed to become our students) often judge their own worth as individuals.

6. We (or at least those who are senior to myself) decide who is worthy of access to the privileges of academia itself - through hiring, peer reviewing, thesis examinations, etc.

7. We decide which texts (not just academic texts but also popular texts, films, images etc) are important and consequently which are canonised.

I'm sure there are many others - please list in the comments if you have some to add!

Moreover, each academic discipline is a microcosm of these privileges. Even within academic communities, certain individuals are endowed with the privilege to define and delineate fields of study, and to exclude others from the field based on the criteria they set. The thesis examination is an excellent example of this: in order to call myself a Film Studies scholar, I had to show that I had spent 3+ years reading and understanding the canonical texts of Film Studies - and that I had bought into them (more or less).

My point is that we as a research group need to be thinking about this if we want to be interdisciplinary. Does being interdisciplinary involve letting go of this 'buying into' a particular system of enquiry?

I can see that this is very, very hard to do in any serious way. To take an obvious example, Cath and Sam (the leaders of the project) are both in Sociology. Although they are working very hard and very sincerely to make this an interdisciplinary project, they have also already set the terms of our debates and goals. Indeed they hired the rest of us according to the standards by which they judge quality, which are, naturally, informed by their training as sociologists (not to mention as academics).

Judgments of value are clearly functionally unavoidable here. How would anyone hire anyone without them? And indeed, to take another issue that is clearly at stake here, how could we motivate student work without such a hierarchical value system? We are clearly all implicated in these hierarchies, yet I still want to ask: might it be possible to avoid or subvert them without throwing up one's hands and leaving the university completely? Is self-awareness a useful tool here or is it ultimately a pointless exercise? How might we teach our students about these issues while still remaining a 'legitimate' university course?

Also, is there any way of countering the canonisation issue? We have been talking about how white/middle-class women's issues often seem to set the agenda of feminism. How do we make feminism and gender studies more open to all viewpoints and perspectives?

There are clearly no simple answers here, but I at the very least think these are goals we need to be addressing as we design our course(s).


- 4 comments by 2 or more people Not publicly viewable

  1. Sarah

    “There are clearly no simple answers here.” No, obviously not, we’re on Warwickblogs>

    04 Apr 2013, 15:20

  2. Sam

    Anna i think you raise some valuble questions here and are hope that we take them forward to the heart of this project.

    08 Apr 2013, 13:38

  3. Emma Beckett

    Anna you pinpoint some very interesting and valuable issues for debate here – and at a time when more widely, discussions around “checking your privilege” are vast. It is such a huge topic of discussion amongst feminists, and non-feminists currently that it makes it even more important to apply it to our own project.
    Definitely food for thought….

    21 Apr 2013, 14:07

  4. Cath Lambert

    Thanks for these thoughts Anna. My touchstone for thinking about academic privilege is the poet and academic Adrienne Rich. In her poem ‘North American Time’ she talks of our accountability and lack of control over the words we write.

    ‘We move but our words stand
    become responsible
    for more than we intended

    and this is verbal privilege’.

    And you are right, this privilege and responsibility extends to curricula too.

    25 Apr 2013, 14:49


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