Academic warriors for social justice

Many academics love to champion underdog causes, especially those in different time zones. In their own workplaces, academics are extremely conservative, preserving of the status quo, and preferring glacial rates of change. I would like to caution fellow junior academics who are under the impression that all academic fighters for social justice walk the talk in their everyday lives.

Academic fighters for social justice are frequently just that – academic fighters. As long as it is pure talk and no skin off one’s nose, it has little relationship with the everyday reality of the workplace. It is a rare academic who will stand with the underdog against injustice in, say, tenure and reappointment cases, or the everyday negotiation of small perks, course allotment and course schedules.

As a young woman, I found myself completely inept in the cut-throat world of women’s social politics. I simply couldn’t simper, smile, serve food, dish out sarcasm and get my way at the same time. I thought that once I had my Ph.D., I could commence speaking my mind. I have learned, however, that the same skills I observed in Pakistani women’s social lives are at play in academic workplaces. No one need truly speak their minds. What concerns me deeply is the disconnect between what people are and what they project. I suppose I am still an idealistic academic at heart, when I yearn for people of the mind to be opposed to that disconnect. I still want academics to walk the talk, and to have one face.

As an academic in a set of fields which, by and large, have a rather explicit commitment to social justice, I’ve been fortunate to know individuals who have been unafraid to be the same persons in their everyday lives as they are in their rhetoric and publication. But for new academics, I want to caution them not to expect too much from their academic idols and from authors of fiery journal articles who “represent” downtrodden women and wronged ethnic groups. The liberal, the conservative and the radical are often quite congenial bedfellows, and will amiably band together against the underdog, unfazed by the fact that the drama of injustice is playing out under their very noses. As long as there isn’t a grant or a publication in it, it can go hang.

My issues with the Olympics

I confess I am not athletically inclined. I come from a family of tennis players, but I never played. This lack of interest is one reason I am perhaps the only person I know who isn’t following the London Olympics. For that, I apologize in advance. But the second reason is that I do not have cable at home: it’s my one act of self-denial and spiritual discipline.

Another reason I do not watch the Olympics is the provincialism that it seems to bring out in people. The Americans I hear from appear to be barely aware of the existence of talented non-American athletes. Those other folks seem to serve the purpose of bringing Americans to the top, or giving us a few hours of cheering for ourselves. Aren’t the Olympics at least philosophically supposed to open us up to the whole world, and make us more aware of their existence? If the event just makes us more provincial and self-absorbed, what’s the point? As freshmen going for beer-soaked study abroad trips, what purpose does international exposure-and-connection serve if it does not broaden us, stretch us, and open us up?

I am also uncomfortable with competitive sporting events just as I am uncomfortable with the notion of competition in education. The field is not level. Some competitors have state-of-the-art facilities, endless opportunities, coaches and time to train (and salaries as athletes). On an individual level, competition has become extreme. There is far too much money and commercialism involved in sports. The consequences of winning/losing are far too serious for participation in sports to be benign. The pressure on competitive sportswomen and -men is excessive.

That said, I don’t enjoy following sports, so what do I know? Back to your regularly scheduled programming, where you gnash your teeth at the Russian gymnasts’ attitude and cheer Gabby or Aly.