Februrary 2022 Newsletter | www.orwac.org
Complete Story


Ask the Oracle

 Professor Catherine Palczewski answers a question from Jyleesa Hampton, the Graduate Student Representative for ORWAC. Dr. Palczewski is a Professor in the Department of Communication Studies and affiliate faculty in the Women’s & Gender Studies Program at the University of Northern Iowa.


Managing being an activist-scholar-teacher is an issue that has gained increasing importance in scholastic circles as we rethink what our roles are as intellectuals in academic and non-academic spaces The election of President Donald Trump has seemingly only accelerated the urgency of the conversation, principally asking bluntly how do we resist and what kind of challenges might an increasingly polarized public sphere where libidinal, linguistic and material violence exists and increases in intensity, present. 

My question is can you discuss the ways in which you have (re)oriented your approach to teaching, research and service given such. What advice might you give for graduate students trying to negotiate their positions as scholar-activist-teachers? 


So the first thing I would probably do is think about the language choices we’re using, activist-scholar-teacher. The thing that has me thinking about this is an article circulating that says we shouldn’t conflate resistance (or activism) with civic engagement. Here is what Alyssa Rosenberg, writing for the Washington Post, had to say:

"There’s no question that civic engagement is a way to stand firm against the degradation of a representative system of government. At the same time, recasting the fundamental building blocks of civic engagement not as essential tools of public engagement available to all citizens in all times, but as acts of resistance we deploy only against extraordinary threats to our system, is a quick way to get those acts tagged as radical rather than normal.

We should be wary of adopting a renamed version of civic engagement that seems mostly intended to make ourselves feel good and brave about doing things we should have been doing in the first place. Meeting our basic obligations as citizens is not the same thing as rePalczewskivolutionary action.

And we ought to be doubly wary about that re-branding if it opens the door for the basic functions of our political system to be recast as partisan and radical, rather than as fundamental and routine. If picking up phone calls from constituents makes our senators and representatives complicit in “resistance” against Trump, I would place a rather large bet that some lawmakers will use this as an excuse to stop taking calls."

A lot of what’s happening right now is civic engagement. It is being a full citizen, it’s not just voting as an act of citizenship but the engagement, the talking to legislators, it is the marching in the street. All of those are performances of a civic orientation, a commitment to others. Here I am using civic in part because I want to be careful not to just say citizenship, given Amy Brandzel’s brilliant critique of citizenship (see Against Citizenship from U of Illinois Press) as a way to frame what we do as WGSS scholars and what I would argue we do as rhetoric scholars. We shouldn’t reduce rhetoric to citizenship, but I do think there is a powerful role for civic orientation. I think sometimes activist or resistance or protest get used to describe something that really is just someone doing civic engagement or doing their job as a teacher. Given the ability of groups to take over those terms and attach negative connotations to them, I want us to think about whether we are setting ourselves up to lose something if we say “Yes, what I’m doing in the class is activist” or “Yes, when I march I am engaging in resistance,” and what we might gain from saying “What I’m doing in the classroom is teaching a community orientation or a civic orientation and what I’m doing in the streets is civic participation and engagement.”

Especially when universities around the election were sending out notes saying “be clear that you are prohibited from engaging in electioneering or talking for or against a particular candidate in your classroom” and state institutions in particular were making clear state policy prohibits the use of university resources for advocacy of a candidate, it is a form of self-preservation to not hand the label of activism or resistance to someone who’s trying to challenge what you’re doing in the classroom when what you might be doing is teaching critical thinking, civic engagement and an orientation to a community where you think about others’ needs and concerns and not only your own.

Think about playing the language game when describing what you do to administrative others because they may take the language that we see as having positive connotations like resistance and activism and attach negative interpretations to it. I am all about strategic ambiguity. Usually with strategic ambiguity I talk about it in terms of whether or not someone is overt about their sexual orientation in the classroom. Given the research about how folks who are LGBT automatically get ranked lower on student assessments, ambiguity is important and it’s also useful for straight folks to make a political statement when students ask “what are you?” The response back is “why do you need to know?”, not necessarily because you’re trying to hide or pass but to problematize the very need to know the answer to what are you. Strategic ambiguity offers teaching moments both for those who oversee us and for those whom we teach to push back about why do you need to know what I label or do in the classroom.

Having said all that, the activist-scholar-teacher role is one that I absolutely embrace and value. I don’t know that I’m the very best example of it, though. Colleagues at other universities do far more activism and I really look up to them: Dana Cloud and her work on the death penalty and US foreign policy, Ben Attias’s work on the drug war, Lisa Corrigan does amazing work in Arkansas, Karma Chavez on immigration, Rob Asen with local politics regarding school policy and poverty, Sara McKinnon on trans rights and many other folks deserve that appellation far more than I do. I think I do some good stuff but there are others who do far more and far better, and they are good people to ask advice from. They will not all give the same advice on how to navigate this, which is awesome.

The activist-scholar-teacher role for me is a pretty easy one to navigate because the courses I teach are about social protest, civic engagement and performances of civic obligations that are beyond self-interest. If I’m teaching a course on social protest, part of what I’m teaching is strategies we can learn from the past to think about contemporary protests that we’re doing. But, I also really try to train students how to hear. I’m training them not just how to do, but to how to hear, so that when they see people protesting they do the work to hear through the anger, to understand what the claim and the demand is. Do they do the work to hear through the tears? In a way, one of my commitments is to train an audience to be open to seeing, watching, hearing and valuing activism. 

The other way activism comes in for me is the choice of what do I study and what examples do I teach. This goes back to Ono and Sloop’s work on outlaw rhetoric, that if all we ever teach about is people in positions of power, we’re losing a chance to tell important stories. In my classes, we may read a Reagan speech, but we’re also going to read Frederick Douglass; we made read an Air Force memo, but we will also chat about Gloria Anzaldúa’s work. The way I try and enter into my civic orientation, my activist orientation, is in terms of the examples I use and readings I assign to make clear there is a need to listen to and value a wide variety of voices. It’s not just the subjects you teach but the strategies you use to teach them. You can open minds to political stances they might not be open to before. Having said that, I am also having to rethink my teaching of undergraduate classes given millennials’ cultural memory of events like the Cold War. Getting people to think critically about nuclear rearmament or Trump’s declaration that he’s going to agree to a No First Use policy, for example, is difficult. I’m discovering I have to do a heck of a lot more history for people to understand why what’s happening now matters. To teach Black Lives Matter, I need to go back to Birmingham or to the Greensboro lunch counter sit ins. To teach Dr. Martin Luther King, I need to remind people he was not well liked in his life time and looked down on as an agitator, an activist, and protester and was not always seen as a person who helped redefine our understanding of ourselves.

Printer-Friendly Version