This past Wednesday we launched the S&A Forum with the UVic community. It was an energizing afternoon with remarks from UVic Dean of Humanities, Dr. Chris Goto-Jones, and a roundtable discussion with Drs. John Lutz (Department Chair, History), Georgia Sitara (Instructor, History and Gender Studies), Karen Kobayashi (Associate Professor, Sociology), and Janni Aragon (Director – Technology Integrated Learning, Political Science). We had a full audience and stimulating discussion. Watch the event here:
Following the opening remarks, Chris laid out a vision of the university that held the two complex topics of scholarship and activism together, rather than pushed apart as we may often imagine. To view the topics as separate, he explained, was a symptom of the commodification of higher education wherein “activism” is considered a form of market risk. Describing this separation—the push and pull, rejection and retreat of scholars from public engagement and activism—Chis ended with remarks on a particular sense of the relation between the topics, one that was not only about education and intervention, but about the role of scholarship in the self-transformation of the scholar. (Listen at 8:22)
The roundtable discussion captured the spirit of the S&A Forum at this exciting juncture. (Listen at 26:46) The panel held a range of expertise, methodologies and approaches but also personal perspectives. Yet the topic of activism held a personal place for the panelists, who each situated their engagement with activism within their life stories. Scholarship was a way to engage with the broader forces that shaped their lives: for Georgia to understand her family’s migration from Greece to hard labour in Montreal and for John, involved in radical organizing in his youth, to see the world in more complex ways. Karen recalled the influence of her grandmother who had raised eight children as a single mother under the internment of the 1940s in her upbringing and suggested that her engagement with questions of social justice was inevitable. “I was born to be an activist in some way,” she reflected.
Not that the academy is somehow separate from broader society. Janni recalled her experience as a working-class Chicana at San Diego State, wherein simply her presence on the—predominantly white—university campus was an act of resistance. Even now, such bias in the academy motivates her: “sometimes we say ‘yes’ to things because we say this voice or area of expertise needs to be represented on this board, within the area of reviewers, within this research,” she reflected.
Karen also discussed the academy as a location of activism, highlighting the biases of funding agencies and their influence on research. In particular, she described the challenge of working within a field that privileges a certain research methodology over another. In her field, agencies privilege a bio-medical model over a socio-cultural understanding of aging and health. Her intervention was in the form of feedback to research institutes that the granting structures must make room for faculty and researchers from humanities and social sciences.
The discussion also touched on storytelling. Georgia described her role in giving students tools to deconstruct the narratives of society and themselves, to think critically about the world around them, and John extended the discussion of storytelling to the scholars’ status to influence the stories we tell ourselves about a just society. Universities, he explained, are one of the rare places where we can step outside of the dominant capitalist world where societal critiques can arise. (But, he ended, if universities are knowledge creators, they aren’t so much wisdom creators and we can improve at applying our knowledge wisely.) Karen saw the link of storytelling to her methodology, explaining that her vision of a just society was one wherein we all have equal opportunity to tell stories in meaningful ways. She explained how she uses the privilege of the academy to give voice to elderly immigrant women, the community of her study, to enact change at a policy level.
The topic of mentorship and teaching permeated the discussion. In their position as scholars, our panelists saw an opportunity to train students in new ways of seeing the world, to encourage those who might not see a reflection of themselves within the academy, and to disrupt historically problematic methodologies of research. This captured an important goal of the S&A Forum: to foster connections and perhaps a spark for future research and projects.