It’s my belief that the academy is the vanguard of social change and that professors must work continually to support that change. Today that means understanding social media— a central forum for new ideas, activism, and social movement.
I’ve been writing and teaching about rhetoric and racism for almost twenty years, and through these experiences I’ve come to realize that if universities are going to produce and circulate knowledge, then they must also know when to let others lead. And nowhere is this more important than in movements such as #blacklivesmatter.
Outside of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), white men and women (mostly men) dominate the highest academic ranks at universities in the U.S., and in the not-so-distant past, most colleges and universities denied racial minorities admission. When I was recruiting participants for focus groups at the University of Georgia for a project about genetics and racism, our team hosted the discussion at a hotel, knowing that we would attract fewer African American participants if we had the event on campus. The academy is still a place where too many people do not feel welcome. When it comes to social media activism like #blacklivesmatter, then, universities need to support activists, while being mindful that when you represent a majority group, often times the best strategy is to listen and to follow.
For me, the hard questions about how to support activism boil down to questions about style— the attitudes, understanding, and outward rhetorical choices we make when we engage a broad public.
In her book about the rhetorical styles of public intellectuals, communication scholar Anna M. Young argues that we need to shed the idea that engaging communities beyond the university is an “obligation.” Young takes us back to Aristotle’s term, Eudemonia, and reframes participation in common public life as a strategy or activity of “flourishing.” Young argues that “public intellectuals flourish and help enable society to flourish by moving away from ethics-as-obligation to ethics-as-invigoration.” We need to be “conversational partners” in the world. A public intellectual does not only write and think about the world, but is already placed in a shared world. The scholar’s job is to flourish and invigorate so that others may flourish and invigorate.
One of the things I like about Young’s discussion of Eudemonia is that the term shifts our thinking to words such as energy, effort, and passion in place of neoliberal terms that treat the university as a factory and students as its products. Eudemonia positions the scholar as a thriving peer in a reflective exchange with students and community partners.
I live and work in the former capital of the Confederacy. Monuments to Confederate “heroes” line a major street in my city. My students —a quarter of whom come from underrepresented groups—have watched a black president insulted and disrespected by his opponents in a way that is as unprecedented as his election and re-election. They have seen videos of young black men and women gun downed by police officers who paid little price, or no price at all. They have watched one major party, a party some of them love, throw its support behind a white man who has not bothered to hide his racism and xenophobia.
To say we are “obligated” to #blacklivesmatter risks defining scholars as something outside of social movement, when in fact, universities need to hear these message and make changes just as much as everyone else. “Obligation” risks making us think about ourselves more than our students and the wider world of which we are all a part.
The wider world is screaming for attention, and the academy is not free to step away from the challenge. We need to flourish so that others may flourish.
Young, Anna M. Prophets, Gurus, and Pundits: Rhetorical Styles and Public Engagement, Southern Illinois University Press, 2014: 16-17
I really like your observation about the academy letting others take the lead if we are to ethically create and circulate knowledge. In doing so, I believe we acknowledge the university's role in the production and protection of the problematic ideologies social movements challenge, and ultimately, seek to undo. As you also suggest, this fraught history has led underrepresented groups to distrust the academy, especially when it comes to scholars' involvement in social movements. However, I think re-purposing a rhetorical term like eudemenia as a means to create a relationship of collaboration as opposed to co-option between the academy and social activists is a good way to start healing the wounds of oppression and injustice the institution is guilty of inflicting. I am also curious to see how eudemenia could help scholars who do not represent the majority be more included into the academy; I think if we take some of our cues from social movements, the academy would become more welcoming of the broad public AND scholars who are not white, male, and heterosexual.
I think the university's role
I think the university's role within movements such as #blacklivesmatter and other social justice movements is really important. The backing or support of a movement as well as the silence to one speaks volumes and there are, of course, going to be different reaction to it. However things need to be done carefully as well, especially when there are so many different outcomes to them and repercussions there can be on scholars.
The use of the term Eudemonia is a very improtant one, especially with the passion that is seen within these movements on social media and other platforms. However it can be attributed to 'real life' practices within social justice as well.
thanks for your comments, Jess and Sherie. Our discussion of eudemonia, social justice, and blacklivesmatter circles around big questions: how do we live the good life? How can we serve others, ethically? These questions matter all through our lives, especially when we are choosing careers. We'll spend the majority of our adults lives working, so we should think carefully about how our work aligns with our values.
I teach classes about rhetoric, power, and citizenship, and I have been thinking in the past few years about the language of movements for a "living wage." I appreciate the living wage movement, and I also wonder, what if we raised the bar, and said what we really want for everyone who works hard is a thriving wage? Politically, it's probably more practical to stick with "living wage," because it draws attention to the fact that our lowest wage earners in the U.S. do not make enough to live, and "living wage" already has a history as a term. But a thriving wage, that's the better a goal. We should want each other to thrive.
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