Activism in/as Scholarship

 Remarks as part of Event2024 NAVSA/BAVS/AVSA Conference

“Doing diversity work can mean passing “diversity” around, both as a word and in documents” (Ahmed, 2012, 29)

Praxis: “reflection and action upon the world in order to transform it’ (Freire, 1970, 51)

I acknowledge that 10 minutes will probably not be enough to say all the things and feelings that I have felt over the last few weeks about my participation in this panel and the important things I feel we should be talking about here, but hopefully we can take some of these ideas up in the question time or you are welcome to contact me. These remarks can be found on my blog. I am doing this because I am not a fan of gatekeeping information behind log-ins and I think if we are going to be talking about activism it is important to model the kind of inclusion we would want to see in the space we are sharing. And yes I acknowledge that for some early-career faculty it is important to keep their ideas behind log-ins and paywalls, and as someone who has definitely had her ideas taken and not cited or acknowledged by other academics in different ways over my career, I also would like us to reflect on the systems we have created to make that the reality we live in and how difficult we make it for folk to live their values.

I am going to start with an access check to see if there are any accessibility supports that I can provide for those here. I also want to give a land acknowledgement because discussions of positionality are very important to the topic we are discussing today. I am joining you from the traditional land of the Haudenosauneee and Anishinaabe peoples, but I grew up on the traditional land of the Abitibiwini Aki and lived for 30 years on the traditional land of the Mississaugas of the Credit. I mention this because I will be talking about geographies of activism and exclusion in a bit, and it is important to remember geographies help inform who we are and our responses and responsibilities to activism, scholarship, who we acknowledge in our citations, and the work that I do in accessibility awareness and inclusive practices.

In the promotion for this panel we were identified as scholar-activists which gave me pause because that positionality really flags you as a kind of person in academe. It flags you as either belonging to a space or not, or if you are the kind of person academe wants around. Now it is not a coincidence really that 2 of the 4 people on this panel really are not in any sort of teaching roles anymore and are doing more alt-ac work. It is also not a coincidence that those 2 are not American, because we do an excellent job as Victorianists of geographically excluding folk, I mean modelling runs deep when we study colonialist and imperialist historical literature, media, and art. Herb Childress (2019) in The Adjunct Underclass, ends his book with “The Academic Career Calibration Protocol” which is basically a quiz to determine and predict your academic career outcome, and it includes things like gender, age you completed your PhD, where you went to school, how well known your supervisor is.  You should take it; it is a good reflective tool to identify levels of privilege.  It reminds us that what we are building in academe are cliques not spaces where community activism can happen.

So this takes me to where my activism and advocacy started from and it is Ruskin, yes problematic fav Ruskin. As a sensory scholar focused on tactility in my dissertation I started to reflect on how the experiential and hands-on work impacts teaching and learning. When you look at Ruskin’s scholarship and work it demonstrates a commitment to sharing knowledge to those who would not have access to traditional routes of education. Ruskin at Walkley is still one of my favourite websites. I think one of the things I love the most about Ruskin is that he really had no chill, and yes he came from privilege that allowed him to have no chill, but I can really appreciate how much he was committed to getting folk to stop and reflect on our interconnectedness.

The work that I do is to support accessible pedagogy, basically I exist to support faculty with the pedagogical choices that are possible to support accommodation asks, which is reactive work, but ultimately I strive to be more proactive with faculty to get them to think about how to design courses, assessments, and activities that are more inclusive from the start and thus don’t need a retrofit. This kind of work necessitates advocacy and activism on many levels institutionally, provincially (state-wide), federally, because there is an ever present neo-liberal push for larger class sizes, less courses and spaces that actually support inclusion and accessibility. These are decisions run on scarcity models of education, and these scarcity models are reflected in pedagogical decisions. There is no room to have conversations about why accessibility is important in our content, because we are too busy thinking about ROIs for graduates, and how GenAI is coming for all our jobs they say.

What GenAI can’t do and will never do because remember it is a model, and it can’t model what doesn’t exist, is build community. Academic spaces are very much about what they can take from community, as seen in extractive research models, instead of what it can give back or create as community. I see this when I hear of folk doing disability simulations in classrooms so that learners can know what it is like to be disabled, and realize privilege and hope for empathy because they can take the blindfold off at the end of class instead of asking and paying folk with lived disability experience to engage with the content we teach. And I know there are some incredible scholars that work in Victorian disability space, folk who do great activism and advocacy too, but I am here to maybe give us a moment to think about how those folk are positioned in the spaces we are in. Are they scholar-activists? Are they on your radar: like Travis Chi Wing Lau, Louise Creechan, Jennifer Esmail .

The bigger question is can we do the kind of work that activism asks of us in the systems we find ourselves in?  The etymology of the word activism comes from around 1915-1920 and means a “doctrine of direct action” and sadly we do not work in systems where that direct action is condoned or supported, though there is always plenty of doctrine to go around. As Sara Ahmed (2012) notes in On Being Included, those who do diversity, equity and inclusion work become the embodiment of the work the institutions want done. We become a title, “stuck in institutions by being stuck to a category” (Ahmed, 2012, 4). Marie Vander Kloet just published an excellent article on those in equity roles that do academic development or faculty development work. I strongly suggest you read it. She notes that in order for that equity work to happen those in those roles we need support from the spaces where their roles are housed: “for staff hired into equity-focused roles, there is a risk that there are few people, structural supports, histories, or collective expertise available to support them in their work. If these positions are taken up by staff from marginalised groups, there are further structural inequities that shape their experiences in the academy” (Vander Kloet, 2024, 10). As Ahmed argues, “[w]e need a space that is not designated as institutional space to be able to talk about the problems with and in the intuitions” (Ahmed, 10), but is this one of those spaces? Probably not, because we need trust for that to happen and trust is something that is built over time, not in a 90-minute online session.

One of the reasons, I believe, Chris asked me to be on this panel more than a year and a half ago, is because I have been very good at being vocal, particularly on Twitter, about the lack of accessibility seen in HigherEd, from faculty to educational developers to conference organization.  But that activism moves quickly, and activist spaces also shifted greatly and quickly. Where we are now is very far from where we were almost two years ago. Lived contextual experience has to be foundational to any organizational and activism work, as Saul Alinksy (1971) notes.

 I also teach professional communications as an adjunct to business students, and my content reflects how accessibility needs to be part of what is taught in marketing, in human resources curriculum but isn’t. I remind students that disabled folk exist every week and my content models the kind of frameworks I would love for them to take away from my classes. I also do acts of resistance as necessary in the systems I’m in. For example, my university had a wellness day a few weeks ago that I refused to participate in because the platform they used to register folk for wellness day was inaccessible. Did they miss me that day, definitely not. Did my absence have impact? Well I mentioned the reason why I did not participate to anyone who asked so maybe next year it will be a consideration in their platform decisions and some said they would put it in their feedback form. As Alinsky (1971) notes in Rules for Radicals, “throughout history silences has been regarded as assent – in this case assent to the system” (x).

 I had a sticky note in my old office space that said “My values will keep me warm,” but I also know that is a privileged stance and that capitalism means my values will keep me neither sheltered nor fed, but does keep my conscience cleaner at night.  The thing is that you can’t activist and status-quo at the same time, and that is why it is very difficult to say that there is room for activism in academe. You only have to look at any one of the HigherEd dailies and the news coming out of campuses to see how that is true.  Direct action is feared in eduspace, not something that is valued and cultivated, mainly because “action is for mass salvation and not for the individual’s personal salvation” (Alinsky, 25), and everything about our tenure and promotion system is personal. So what we need to do in the spaces we have access to is create more connections, do more community building and community-based projects, find your people like I have with Duc, and publish with them about things that are meaningful and spark reflection and action. And more importantly we can’t put on the cloak of activism if we keep erasing lived-experience. Instead, we need to promote ethical citational practices. If you are interested in this further, look up bureaucratic plagiarism (Martin, 2016), and thanks to Sarah Eaton for highlighting this in her STLHE keynote (see that’s how you do ethical citational acknowledgment).

Everything that I have published since my “Withered Arm” article in (2010) in The Hardy Review has been able motivating others to move towards the direct proactive work needed to support inclusion and accessibility. I mean 15 plus years of adjuncting will do that to you I guess. How can we take activism or even advocacy seriously when we work in systems of tenure and promotion where grey literature, where the majority of information that is important to activism is rarely if at all considered in promotion and tenure situations? How can we do advocacy and activism in a space that has questionable citation practices, that sees more value in h-index than community building, and is that the kind of legacy and pedagogy we want to share with a new generation of learners and peers?  How can we do this work when in activism work “demands are always changing; the situation is fluid and ever-shifting” (Alinksy, 66) and we know we are really bad at being proactive when that happens (see GenAI).  So yes maybe my advocacy started with a problematic fav like Ruskin, and maybe we need to go back folk like him and Morris that we know well, because when I can’t sleep at night it is not because of the academic or scholarly choices I’ve made, but because of how much work is still to do and so few are committed to doing it.


“activism.(n).” (2024). Etymology Online Dictionary.

Alinsky, S.D. (1971). Rules for Radicals: A Pragmatic Primer for Realistic Radicals. Vintage Books.

Ahmed, S. (2012). On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life. Duke University Press.

Childress, H. (2019). The Adjunct Underclass: How America’s Colleges Betrayed Their Faculty, Their Students, and Their Mission. Chicago University Press.

Dau, D., & Gagné, A. (2020). Touching the Untouchable: Connecting, Ethical Caring, and Teaching during COVID-19. MAI: Feminism & Visual Culture, (6).

Freire, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Continuum.

Martin, B. (2016). Plagiarism, misrepresentation, and exploitation by the established professionals: power and tactics. In T. Bretag Ed. Handbook of Academic Integrity. 913-927. Springer.

Ruskin at Walkley: Reconstructing the St. George’s Museum . (n.d).

Vander Kloet, M.A. (2024): Off the side of the desk: equity work in Canadian teaching and learning centres. International Journal for Academic Development, DOI: 10.1080/1360144X.2024.2364709


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