Activism and solidarity: Re-enacting the academic community

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We see a rising wave of academic activism in, for example student protest movements against discrimination of gender, race, and ethnicity and strikes in universities in various global settings against precarity and loss of social security. This is also evident in heated discussions about what we are allowed to say, think, and research at universities – and even what topics, authors, and methods to include into the higher education curriculum.

On the one hand, we are encouraged to, finally, hear academics speak up and put the foot down – after 30 years of increasing neoliberal management of universities, it would seem that enough is enough. Academic activism is a phenomenon that is spreading across the globe joining in with social movements that concern social justice, mobility, equity and climate change. While some of these forms of activism may be seen as communal and collaborative and could be understood to be positive this is not always the case.

At times, much of the activism we see is emotionally charged, even angry, and, sometimes, violent. Furthermore, in higher education there is not always a communal activism, as students and teachers turn on each other, sometimes concerning the very policy measures they react against. When activism of this sort occurs it, in some ways, seems to further the fragmentation of academic communities by eroding the mutual trust, loyalty, and solidarity the university was originally based on. Also, it seems to break the social contract with surrounding society that universities and their members should be critical, reasonable, and ethical in their actions and agency. It appears that there are many aspects of activism at work.

From research into agency, we draw on Priestley, Biesta and Robinson (2015) whose work on teacher agency, which is academic work, conceptualizes the agentic individual in an ecological landscape. The structure versus agency debate (see for example Archer, Giddens, Bhaskar) is applied to a construction of agency that is developed through the work of Emirbayer and Mische (1998) to place the individual in not only the structural, cultural and relational, but also the temporal. The individual will always act to achieve potential (future) desires based on values and beliefs that they carry with them implicitly. This ‘past’ is played out in the present tense to achieve future goals. In the present, the organizational and cultural structures provide frameworks that enhance or hinder the individual and which must be carefully negotiated. However, it is through the relational aspects of for example, collaboration and reflection that a dialogical framing is provided for the negotiation and through which the individual is able to achieve the aims they are working towards or not. Individual agency is negotiated and achieved in social collaborative and dialogical conditions that may or may not be in tension with the individual’s goals. While Priestley, Biesta, and Robinson’s (2015) work on agency looks at individual agency it is the ecological aspects that frame this kind of activism in the communal and social.

From the research into ethics, we draw from the understanding of ethical duty and solidarity in the work of the Danish philosopher K. E. Løgstrup (1993; 1997), and the work of Emmanuel Levinas (2003) on responsibility, fraternity, and love. In Løgstrup’s (1993) concept of solidarity we find the distinction between the forms of community that work against life (exploiting and parasitic communities) and communities that work in the service of life (life-enhancing and oriented towards the common good). Løgstrup’s distinction mirrors Levinas’ (2003) separation between communities forming a totalitarity (facelessly closing around themselves and excluding others) and communities forming a fraternity (brotherhood/sisterhood) (a responsiveness towards the Other). With Løgstrup and Levinas, we argue that academic activism today is political but rarely ethical. Ethical activism would mean to fight for the other’s cause, and not my own, and to champion the groups who struggle to gain a voice rather than privileged academic institutions, units, and groups.

From the research into creativity, we draw from Tanggaard (2014) underlining how many educators understand creativity as something positive. Beghetto and Kaufmann (2014) argue that research often focuses on teachers’ role in supporting and nurturing classroom or student creativity, but they do not specifically address the agency of Faculty and their relation to their own creativity. A question is therefore how Faculty may play a significant role in the experienced freedom to improvise, to use professional reflection and judgement to make room for creativity in the attempt to take on responsibility and engage in academic activism. The underlying thesis is that agency, meaning the active response to problematic situations and the possibility for making decisions, plays an important role in contributing to ensuring and developing an active and creative teaching and study environment. In this paper, the guiding assumption is that Faculty in a more general sense have a major effect on higher educational institutions and their possibilities to act creatively; e.g. to do something new and to make the most of what is there already. This would mean pursuing an agenda that is agentic while peaceful, communal while ethical, and critical while creative. We draw from different literatures in order to inform and qualify this conceptualisation of academic activism.
Antal sider2
StatusAccepteret/In press - 2021
BegivenhedPhilosophy and Theory of Higher Education Conference 2020: Universities under siege? - Uppsala University, Uppsala, Sverige
Varighed: 19 okt. 202020 okt. 2020
Konferencens nummer: 4


KonferencePhilosophy and Theory of Higher Education Conference 2020
LokationUppsala University


  • Higher education, University, Activism, Solidarity, Agency, Creativity, Ethics, Philosophy

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