How to be an activist academic? 

Spoiler alert: I don’t have an answer for the question contained in this post’s title. It’s something that came up last night when I met with three friends from my PhD program in New York. We’ve been working on our first paper – due tomorrow, and yes, you might ask why I’m writing this instead of said paper – and primary to our conversation was the relationship between research and education, theory and practice, and the ephemeral world of academia and the real-life day-to-day of the classroom teacher.

One of my friends – I’ll call her L. – is working hard on a thesis for her paper that elaborates on this problematic divide in the world of education. L. wonders about how educational research is implemented in teacher’s work, how teachers can access this in a meaningful way given the difficulty of accessing this research; between difficult jargon, a need for background information and experience with certain concepts, and even access to the materials itself (unless you are a member of an institution of higher learning or pay a hefty membership fee to subscribe, you cannot read much of what has been published in academic research journals over the last fifty years, especially the newest publications). Even being literate in the discourse of academia and research is not a given, and I can end up feeling like I know less than when I started looking through journals to find something relevant to my interests.

L.’s proposition makes sense: that educational research reflect a more easily incorporated component, as in participatory activist research like the work of Michelle Fine, one of the esteemed professors in our university whose partnership with youth, prison inmates, and activists invigorates theory through on-the-ground implementation and reflection. If theory and research is done with the goal of relevance, of usefulness, maybe this is an answer. Of course, a great counterpoint brought up by another of my colleagues – we’ll call her C. – says that some research cannot be easily incorporated into teaching, yet still has profound impact on policies, textbook writing, even educational culture as a whole.

So I leave this as an open question in my first post of my own 365 Challenge (see https://www.facebook.com/The365365Challenge for my inspiration): What is the relationship between theorists and activists? Can teachers be both? How are these connections made, and how is dialogue established and reinforced? What power dynamics exist within such a relationship, and should we be thinking more critically about this issue? And finally: Is there a fundamental contradiction between a theory and activist acts and movements, being that the former, if successful, is successful when it is applied on a broad scope, and the latter is intrinsically connected to sociopolitical place, time, and circumstance?

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